One of Penguin’s great strengths as a brand has long been the sense of trust, loyalty and personal investment it provokes in readers, despite its globe-spanning standing; a combination that places it in the affections of the British public somewhere between Cadbury and the brutal oppression of foreigners. Its myth-making ethos is familiar to readers the world over from the back pages of many of its titles: founder Sir Allen Lane, then MD of Bodley Head Publishers, couldn’t find anything he wanted to read on a train journey from Exeter whilst waiting at the station, and so, as so many of us have done in similar circumstances, he started his own publishing house to make sure that never happened again. I know the feeling – I’d do anything to make sure I never had to go back to Exeter either.
Penguin stood for well-designed, quality books at an affordable price, to great and lasting popular success, and it’s an association that carries through in the collective consciousness to the present day. That’s why it counts as news when it announces a new initiative like Penguin Shorts, which sees the venerable publisher attempt to innovate in the digital market: if any traditional publishing house (i.e. not Amazon) can make a go of it, Penguin should be more than able.
Launching on December 1st, the series will see exclusive shorter works of both fiction and non-fiction released in digital-only formats on a monthly basis, retailing at £1.99 per title. The first wave of nine includes a memoir from Colm Toibin, a novella by Anita Brookner, a cookbook from Felicity Cloake, history from Saul David and John Bierman & Colin Smith, and something to reinvigorate hatred of Toby Young for people who can’t take a full-length book of his without wanting to follow Will Self’s example and throw him on a fire.
Whilst the new series will have to compete with Amazon’s just announced 99p Kindle daily deals – and will likely provoke the ire of print-only retailers, many of whom will be independents – Penguin is confident that the digital market is ready for the initiative. Viking publishing director and Harry Potter supporting character Venetia Butterfield says ‘we have always tried to find innovative ways to give readers intelligent writing at a low price, and Penguin Shorts does exactly that. They are explicitly designed to be read anywhere, on any device, in a small space of time, and fill a genuine gap in the market.’ Whether that level of confidence remains when a suspicious red dot appears on their collective forehead remains to be seen; but for now, certainly, the opportunity is Penguin’s to lose.