At the heart of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel, The Leopard, is a strategy for self-preservation in the midst of political and social upheaval: “Things must change in order to stay the same.” This paradox, slightly rephrased, might apply to the publishing world’s efforts to keep classic books on readers’ nightstands: things must change in order to retain their enduring appeal.
In Britain, over 100,000 new titles appear in print every year. Only a small proportion will get the full marketing treatment that is likely to bring them to the attention of literary editors, reviewers and the book-buying public. What chance, then, for the not-so-new titles that constitute our literary heritage?
Jane Austen, that perennial favourite, is illustrative. This summer, readers can expect to come across at least three competing new editions of her work (excluding tie-ins to the latest Pride and Prejudice film). Most newsworthy has been Headline’s repackaging of her six novels to appeal to readers of contemporary women’s fiction: Jane Austen as godmother of chick-lit is the implication, though the pastel covers and discreet period details are more subdued than most romantic potboiler jackets.
Austen’s novels, which have never been out of print since they were first published in the early 19th century, have a long bestselling career. Adam Freudenheim, publisher of Penguin Classics, estimates that Penguin may have sold over 10 million copies of her work (two million of Pride and Prejudice) in the various Penguin editions since the company was founded in 1935. (The latest Pride and Prejudice film, he reckons, has helped to shift some 150,000 extra copies of the book so far, including 60,000 of the film tie-in.)
But not all authors sell as steadily as Austen. Modern publishers wishing to rebrand other great works from the past must be increasingly imaginative. An eye-catching example of such creativity is the recent launch of Penguin’s Epics series. Penguin has chosen fragments from 20 of the world’s most famous sagas - including The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Ramayana, western Africa’s Sunjata - and has repackaged them in a set of slim volumes. The series design by Tony Lyons evokes antiquity in modern graphic language. The result is stylish and striking.
This is hardly Penguin’s first foray into making the old new. It was started by Allen Lane as a paperback back-list repackaging exercise. Its Classics series now has 1,400 titles. “At the very root of Penguin was the idea of re-presenting great writing, which may have been in the public domain for a long time, in a new and attractive form,” says John Makinson, chairman and chief executive of the Penguin Group. “We find time and again that, if we take writing that may appear inaccessible and present it in a different and new way, people will buy it.”
The Epics series follows Penguin’s successful 2004 Great Ideas collection, which sampled groundbreaking essays and political tracts, from Plato to Hannah Arendt, in pocket-sized volumes characterised by their muted yet sharp and playful design.
The following year, to celebrate the company’s 70th birthday, Penguin published a set of 70 small tomes - Penguin 70s - with selections from the work of modern and consecrated authors. (The brief was simple: 70 designers were given ₤70 to come up with a book design in 70 days.) So far, Penguin has sold two-and-a-half million individual titles from the series.
“What we are continually trying to do,” says Makinson, “is find the means to make this great writing accessible in different ways, and at different prices, to new audiences. Take Sigmund Freud. Penguin has a 17-volume series of Freud’s collected writing. We sell 2,000 copies a year. But when we put Freud into Great Ideas or into Penguin 70s we sell, between them, 100,000 copies. So we create an audience by the way in which we package and present. We’re not trying to trivialise great writing, in a way that I would argue a chick-lit treatment to Jane Austen is.”
Does retailing fragments of the original work in attractive jackets signal a loss of faith in the selling capacity of some of the publisher’s more demanding back-catalogue? “Definitely not,” says Robert Williams, Penguin’s creative director. “We are talking about giving people a way into certain titles. And showing them that some of these books are not as scary as they think.”
When not relying on jazzy pocket books to draw attention to their catalogue, Penguin editors are constantly refreshing the Classics and Modern Classics lists. In the wake of Penguin’s own recent facelift of the Austen novels (only slightly less pastel-hued than the Headline versions), this autumn sees the publication of new Penguin editions of Shakespeare, D.H. Lawrence, Robert Graves, Georges Simenon and Kobo Abe.
Don’t judge a book by its cover, we are told. Publishers, it seems, are hoping we will do just that. But how often do they feel compelled to change a book’s look? “It’s a bit like painting the Forth Bridge,” says Williams. “The same is true for jacket design as it is for blurbs. You can’t stop looking at how you’re addressing potential readers, and the cover is still the most powerful way of engaging or alienating them.” Though it’s not just the cover that publishers are concerned with, Makinson reminds me. “The other thing I’m quite keen on is books in new translations. When we published a new translation of War and Peace a few months ago we treated it as if it were a completely new title.”
Selling historic authors to modern audiences has been a fundamental concern for David Campbell, publisher at Everyman. Now marking its centenary, Everyman was founded by Victorian bookbinder and autodidact Joseph Dent, whose aim was to offer world classics in quality pocket versions for one shilling. Campbell’s relaunch of Everyman in 1991 was inspired by French publisher Gallimard’s Pleiade series. “I wondered why the English language did not have a permanent library of reference like Pleiade. Surely there was space in the US and UK for a hardback, better printed, larger typeface edition - what you might call a library edition. But Pleiade books used to cost around ₤40, and I knew we had to be within spitting distance of paperback prices.”
There are now 300 titles in the Everyman’s Library collection - a definitive pantheon of indispensable texts from antiquity to modern times - all of which have received the Everyman treatment: sewn cloth bindings, reset typography, acid-free paper, silk ribbon-markers, distinctive spines. Novelty is immaterial. These are classic texts in an elegant format that is likely to withstand the passing of time. “British books were second to none in the early 20th century,” says Campbell. “They were magnificent. Nowadays, a British modern hardback is a pretty awful book. Glued, bound in cardboard, nobody’s taken much interest in the jacket design. If we’re going to buy a book, let it be a handsome object.
“Over the past couple of years this has been one of our strongest selling titles,” he says, leafing through Dante’s The Divine Comedy. It bears the author’s portrait on the front cover and is filled with illustrations by Botticelli. “Partly, I suspect, because it’s a very beautiful edition. We were the only publisher who took the trouble to find out that Botticelli had done these extraordinary silver point drawings, and we put them in. Nobody else had them. When there was the Botticelli show at the Royal Academy, though there were other, cheaper, paperback editions of The Divine Comedy, this was the one that everybody wanted.”
Another Everyman project is the publication of the complete works of P.G. Wodehouse, undertaken in 2000 to mark the 25th anniversary of his death. A slight departure from the sober Everyman format, with delicious period-like jacket illustrations by Polish artist Andrzej Klimowski, they nevertheless continue the tradition of marrying design, durability and affordability. Forty-six out of a total of 80 volumes have been published so far.
What, I am curious to know, is the greatest difficulty in being a classics-oriented publisher? “Persuading bookshops to stock a decent range,” Campbell replies without hesitation. “Most booksellers are interested only in front-list titles, the latest books, three-for-two promotions. We struggle to make them stock not just the 20 or 30 most obvious titles, but a deep range.”
Almost identical sentiments are expressed by Jamie Byng, publisher at Canongate. “The book trade demands it, even more so now than ever before. They like those perennials to be changing their covers, too.” Canongate’s impact has been achieved by building a list of award-winning contemporary authors such as Yann Martel and launching innovative collections such as its Myths series. But in 1998 it set a high standard for modern reinterpretations of canonical texts with a stunning re-issuing of the Bible’s individual books in pocket format, using arresting black-and-white photographs on the covers. The series was a commercial success - 950,000 individual volumes sold in the UK and 750,000 sold abroad, in nine different editions.
A key element was the juxtaposition of ancient scripture and modern commentators - biologist Steven Rose introducing Genesis, or singer Nick Cave presenting Mark. “That sort of commissioning, which was absolutely crucial in the Bible series, strikes me as one of the most obvious but potentially significant ways in which you can reinvent back-list titles and old books. The caring for and tending of the back-list is the most important part of any publisher’s ongoing strategy. But to me it’s editorially driven first. The introduction is part of that editorial thinking about why I’m publishing it, why it might appeal to new audiences. Then comes the repackaging.”
Emma Matthewson, deputy editorial director at Bloomsbury, also hopes that using specially-commissioned introductions will help to attract teenage readers. In August Bloomsbury will be launching a batch of classic titles - Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Frankenstein, David Copperfield and, yes, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice - in editions aimed at 14- to 16-year-olds. “When you had to read a classic for school, often the only available edition had a smudgy painting on the cover. It got me thinking that it would be so fantastic to have a version of a classic that looked amazing and pickupable and had lots of extras in it. Our new classics have introductions by authors that teenagers will be familiar with - it’s almost like having an author you really respect, whether it’s Philip Reeve or Meg Cabot, picking up the phone and saying: ‘Hey, you’ve got to read this book!’” The books will have gossipy, newspaper-like end sections to provide further information and historical context.
“Covers, introductions and notes can make a big difference, especially if they’re a little less dry,” says Rupert Shortt, who teaches A-level English at City and Islington College in London. “As long as the text is unabridged, and the end matter is relevant, interesting and well set out, I would definitely be interested in using these new editions with our students.”
Literary critic John Carey, author of What Good Are the Arts?, welcomes any means by which the so-called canon is made more approachable. “I’m very much in favour of widening the readership of classic titles in every possible way. They are classics because a lot of people in the past have found them rewarding and important to their lives, and that means there is a high chance a lot of people today would find them rewarding and important too. But a whole lot of cultural factors get in the way of access - people feel that old books are out-of-date or highbrow or in other respects not for them, and reading anything, let alone classics, seems unattractive when the competition of other media is so fierce. So I’m wholly behind such efforts.” Change is good - necessary, in fact, if timeless books are to speak to new generations of readers.