What is a classic? That is a question Elda Rotor spends a lot of time pondering. After coming up through the ranks at Oxford University Press, the 39-year-old moved to Penguin in 2006 to work on the house's vaunted 60-plus—year-old Classics line. Now, as editorial director of Penguin Classics—she was promoted last year—Rotor isn't trying to reinvent the wheel. Rather she's trying, in her words, to adapt the line to new marketplace realities.
Rotor studied English lit at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and always knew she wanted to work in publishing. After a brief postcollege stint working for the National Writers Union, she landed a job at OUP. The editorial assistant slot at Oxford led to a 13-year career at the university press. Working under editors like Liz Maguire, whom Rotor calls “the first of many wonderful mentors,” she found her niche in dealing with academics on various formats. Moving from literary studies to trade paperbacks and finally to trade hardcovers, Rotor got a feel for both the academic and trade markets.
Attracted to the idea of working for a trade house, and long a fan of Penguin Classics, Rotor was eager to take the opportunity to move to Penguin. While Penguin had already begun steps to reinvigorate the Classics line before Rotor's arrival, she's picked up the mantle and made some innovations of her own. Pre-Rotor, Penguin was shaking up the look of the line's books—there are more than 1,500 in the list—with things like the Graphic Classics, a line of titles featuring cover imagery by well-known comics artists like Frank Miller (who took on Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow) and Art Spiegelman (who did a cover for Paul Auster's New York Trilogy).
Rotor devised creative and trendy packaging options while at Oxford. One of the projects she is most proud of, she says, is the Seven Deadly Sins series, a collection of slim volumes—each a meditation on one of the sins—by intellectual elites ranging from Francine Prose (who covered gluttony) to Wendy Wasserstein (sloth). The series featured quirky jackets from New York Times illustrator Serge Bloch. Rotor, who says she loves drawing design enthusiasts into the fold of Penguin Classics fans, has continued in this vein with things like the Couture Classics: three Deluxe Classics editions—Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, and The Scarlet Letter—with covers by fashion illustrator Ruben Toledo. The series bowed in September, timed to this year's New York fashion week.
The idea of pairing the old with the new—a cornerstone of Penguin's push to keep the Classics line vital—is something Rotor is quite comfortable doing. That being said, she doesn't spend her days thinking merely about cover pairings that team hip illustrators with dead English writers. She's been active in pushing the classics digitally, from overseeing the Penguin Classics group on Facebook (which has 1,300 fans) and contributing regularly to the Penguin Classics on Air online radio show.
Beyond digital, though, she believes her main goal at Penguin is to make the classics line as diverse as possible. “Coming in, I told them that the challenge was to really redefine what a classic is in different disciplines. I knew [Penguin was] a leading publisher in American and British literature and philosophy, but I see more opportunities to extend the translation program and feature more world literature. I want to grow [the line] in areas like religion and cultural history.” To that end Penguin has recently added various titles to the canon, including the first Yiddish book in the line, Sholem Aleichem's Tevye the Dairyman and Motl the Cantor's Son (trans. by Aliza Shevrin, Feb. 2009); the sole surviving epic from medieval Spain, The Song of Cid (trans. by Burton Raffel, Mar. 2009); the Persian romance by Fakhraddin Gorgani, Vis and Ramin (trans. by Dick Davis, Apr. 2009); and Swedish novelist and Nobel Prize—winner Selma Lagerlof's The Saga of Gosta Berling (trans. by Paul Norlen, Oct. 2009).
For Rotor, it's all about keeping the old feeling new. “I think the reputation stands for itself and the brand is so strong that the challenge is to remain relevant.”