Cheap, small, and perfectly formed cheap A short, sharp shock for writers

Authors may be angry, but the success of Penguin 60s books should be an inspiration to everyone

Share
Related Topics
As soon as Marcus Aurelius made his way on to the bestseller list, three hot weeks ago, an American publishing friend of mine saw the problem looming. "Surely authors are going to get angry if stuff like that is included in the list?" And I'm sure it is true. Yesterday the Sunday Times showed that the entire General Paperback bestseller list, and all but three of the Fiction Paperbacks, were Penguin 60s, the tiny series which Penguin is selling at 60p a copy, 60 titles, to mark its sixtieth anniversary.

These slim volumes of roughly 60 pages each have obliterated the rest of the visible market. The only authors who can hold their own against them are Patricia D Cornwell with The Body Farm, Maeve Binchy with The Glass Lake and Stephen King with Insomnia.

I think it would be fair to say that nothing like this has ever happened in publishing. The other day, Miles Kington was discussing on this page the ephemera that people collect which later becomes incredibly valuable, and it occurs to me that one really ought to buy a complete set of Penguin 60s, because they will prove ephemeral (I mean, they will fall to bits or be thrown away), although the idea they represent will not (it will be imitated). But if you are going to buy a complete set, you have to do so quickly, since it obviously has to be a complete set of first editions.

Well, I've bought about 30 of the titles so far, and read quite a lot of them, too, and look forward to re-reading Camus - one of the most popular - and many others. But am I really going to go out and buy James Herriot? Am I - innocent so far - going to fall under the spell of Kahlil Gibran? And, now I look closer at it, I see that my copy of Martin Amis's God's Dice is in fact a second edition. So it is already probably too late to get a full set. One would be reduced to begging for swaps.

The innovation these books represent is not one of format - Penguin has another series, called Syrens, selling at pounds 2.99, quite similar in dimensions - but price. The books are "samplers", the publishing equivalent of those CDs which give you, say, a compilation of tracks from the Hyperion label at a knock-down price. One can buy, for instance, the Camille Paglia volume, simply in order to see whether its author is as crazy as she comes across in interviews. It's not such an expensive way of satisfying one's curiosity.

Assuming, though, that the other publishing houses respond to Penguin's success, and suddenly there are loads of, for instance, tempting little Picadors on the counter and all over the shop, and assuming that there is nothing magic about the number 60, and that Penguin could go on adding to its list for a long time yet - then a new tier will have been added to British publishing. The bestseller lists will either have to accept that there is this new category of book, or they will settle down to being lists of samplers.

Well, I don't care about these lists. What I do very much like is this kind of publishing, this format of book which can be slipped into the shirt pocket and read over a solitary lunch, or in a queue, or dangling on the end of a rope waiting to be rescued from the Old Man of Hoy. It's a Continental tradition that I have always found enviable. Studying in Italy, I used to love buying the little grey classics in the BUR series, and Germany has a marvellous range of its literature available at low cost in reliable editions in the yellow Reclam editions. Both of these series were aimed at the requirements of students.

But there was another kind of small paperback series - on which Penguin based its Syrens - which was aimed at a certain kind of bibliophile, at lovers of the curious and unusual. I remember in Milan there was a series called La Memoria, which was simply a collection of short prose texts linked by the theme of memory, the choice of which obviously reflected nothing more (or less) than the taste of one genial intellectual - one reader's delights and discoveries, made into a beautiful little library.

The Syrens series has begun extremely well with, for instance, a volume called Essays on Dolls - three essays by Rilke, Baudelaire and (the best of them) Kleist. This last is called On the Marionette Theatre, and I think it the most wonderful short essay I know. A must for collectors is Flaubert's Dictionary of Received Ideas, to which Julian Barnes provided the introduction in dictionary form. There are two poetry volumes so far, both of which are real items for the knapsack. The first was George Meredith's Modern Love, with a preface by Gillian Beer, and (very useful, this) a short summary of the narrative. Modern Love is a a beautiful sequence of 50 16-line 'sonnets', telling the story of the break-up of a marriage. I have read it many times but I have always been too shy to ask what exactly happens. Now I know.

The second poetry volume is Hardy's Poems of 1912-13, the elegaic sequence written after the death of his first wife, which contains many of Hardy's best poems and is definitely where you begin if you want to know whether you are going to like Hardy as a poet.

As soon as the Syrens series was published, I begged to be allowed to contribute a volume (I have to declare this interest), which I have just been writing. The first living author to have a Syren to himself is Karl Miller, whose essay Boswell and Hyde is a meditation on Boswell's divided character. This kind of essay is not academic, nor does it belong in any conventional journalistic genre. It is a genre that invents itself as it goes along - just as the Kleist essay I mentioned is quite unlike anything else I've ever read.

And the thing about this kind of production is that, of its nature, it has tended to baffle both publishers and booksellers in the past. Only once have we had a comparable series - the Cape paperbacks in the Sixties. Now suddenly we have two series - the massively popular Penguin 60s and the more elusive, but intensely desirable Syrens. Literature is full of small desirable objects which look well on their own. The Lord Chandos Letter, by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, is only 18 pages long in its Syrens edition (plus preface by Michael Hofmann). But it contains a book's worth of thought. There is so much that can be done with the very short book. I hope the craze for Penguin 60s proves an inspiration to Penguin's rivals.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

EYFS, KS1, KS2 Teachers

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Would you like to be part ...

class teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: a small rural school, is ...

Year 1 Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: They want their school to ...

Year 5/6 Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Would you like to work in ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Children of a bygone era  

Kids these days aren't what they used to be — they're a lot better. So why the fuss?

Archie Bland
A suited man eyes up the moral calibre of a burlesque troupe  

Be they burlesque dancers or arms dealers, a bank has no business judging the morality of its clients

John Walsh
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star