It’s the Roaring ’20s all over again. On January 1, thousands of novels originally published in 1925 lost their copyright status and hit the public domain, and this class included several that publishers had long been anticipating. Vintage Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, is one of many publishers to jump at the opportunity, releasing four new, but old, titles in paperback as part of its Vintage Classics line on January 5: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time, John Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer, and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. (Everyman’s Library, another PRH imprint, released its own hardcover edition of The Great Gatsby simultaneously.)
The first prints for each book vary, but James Meader, Vintage/Anchor’s executive director of publicity and social media, said that for the five titles together they total more than 30,000 copies. “And,” he added, “as with all great backlist, we intend to reprint many, many times over the years to come.”
Newly packaging the classic works of deceased authors requires a somewhat different approach to the typical publishing process—one that Vintage Books is accustomed to. “It’s been a relatively dry period up until this year,” said LuAnn Walther, senior v-p and editorial director of Vintage Books, Anchor Books, and Everyman’s Library, of the state of public domain publishing. “And then suddenly it’s 1925 in America, and all these really big, important books are being published. So we’ve had our eye on this year for a long time.”
As these books are all already available in numerous editions, Walther said that Vintage’s focus is on gearing them toward particular audiences. “In the case of The Great Gatsby and Mrs. Dalloway, it’s been 95 years since they were published in the United States—so we’re thinking about how we can present them as fresh and relevant,” she added. Designed to broaden the audience for these classics, the Vintage paperback editions are packaged with introductions from such notable contemporary writers as John Grisham, who introduces The Great Gatsby, and Michael Cunningham, who introduces Mrs. Dalloway.
The design process for reimagining classic covers also requires a special sort of attention, according to Megan Wilson, art director at both Vintage and Anchor Books. The titles, she said, speak for themselves, and promoting them doesn’t require the customary cover additions like a quote or an explanation of who the author is. “You don’t need to tell the story,” she noted. “You just need a cover that’s going to jump out from all the other covers.”
For The Great Gatsby cover, Wilson went with the grill of an antique car that seems to drive right up to the reader. “I always feel it’s important to create covers for classic authors that they would appreciate,” she said. “I think it’s really important to be respectful of the text.”
In designing the covers, Wilson derived inspiration from the authors themselves. The cover for In Our Time is pared down to match Hemmingway’s spare and muscular prose, while the cover of Manhattan Transfer has a jazz feel to reflect Dos Passos’s writing style. The hand-drawn design and typeface used on the cover of Mrs. Dalloway is an homage to Virginia Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell, who designed many of Woolf’s original book covers.
As for The Great Gatsby’s cover, Wilson said she couldn’t get away with the signature Vintage understated aesthetic. Instead, she looked to Fitzgerald’s surroundings, as he wrote the book in the South of France when poster designer A.M. Cassandre’s work was popular. “The car on the cover is from Myrtle Wilson’s perspective, so it’s hurtling toward her without the character being shown,” Wilson said. “I wanted the headlights to look like the eyes on the ash heap from T.J. Eckleburg, but with the deco circles and the sunray-like lines that would reflect the poster style of A.M. Cassandre.”
For specialized publicity, Meader said, “we partnered with Entertainment Weekly on a cover reveal for our Vintage Classics edition of The Great Gatsby, accompanied by an excerpt from John Grisham’s introduction. The New York Times Book Review ran first serial of Michael Cunningham’s introduction to Mrs. Dalloway, and Michael has agreed to appear for a virtual discussion of Dalloway in Knopf Doubleday’s virtual book club, ‘How Have I Not Read This?’ ”
Readers—students and nonstudents alike—can expect more from Vintage as titles hit the public domain and as the definition of the term classic expands with every passing year. “Time is the great decider,” Walther said. “You do expect that a certain amount of time has passed and that the book still endures, that the book is still speaking to people.”
When asked how the notion of classics, which for many readers conjures books largely by white and straight authors, fits with publishers’ efforts to diversify their lists in recent years, Walther emphatically insisted that the category has space to embrace other stories. “I think of some of the authors we’re publishing at Vintage now—like Tommy Orange, Chimamanda Adichie, and Sandra Cisneros—have written books that I am confident will be read 20, 50, 100 years from now.”
For Walther, it’s quite simple: “There’s no set canon ever. It’s always evolving and growing and changing. And as new writers come into the literary world, they write books that then become regarded as classics, and we’ll see much more of that as we go forward.”