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

Data Insight Manager

£40000 - £43000 Per Annum plus company bonus: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - IT

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: Computer Futures has been est...

Trainee Recruitment Consultants

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

Hydrographic Survey Manager

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A doctor injects a patient with Botox at a cosmetic treatment center  

Why do women opt for cosmetic surgery when there is such beauty in age?

Howard Jacobson
James Foley was captured in November 2012 by Isis militants  

Voices in Danger: Syria is the most dangerous country in the world for journalists

Anne Mortensen
Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape