If there's any question whether classics sell, then the numbers for John Steinbeck's 1952 novel East of Eden (Penguin) should dispel that notion. It has sold more than 1.6 million copies since Oprah made it the first selection of her classics book club on June 18. But even before Oprah looked to the past for inspiration about what to read next, the market for classic books had already started to heat up. At many stores, new hardcover translations of titles like Anna Karenina and various paperback editions of Great Expectations have been competing with contemporary novels for front-of-store display.
It may be a truth generally acknowledged that the big three of trade paperback classics—Penguin, Modern Library and Oxford—each have their own distinctive niches and fans. But that didn't stop #1-ranked Penguin from trying to win an even larger market share by repackaging most of its titles and spending $500,000 to promote them under the banner "Classic Books. Fresh Looks" in a campaign that began last January.
But before Penguin could fully determine the benefits of its overhaul, Barnes & Noble entered the fray with its own in-house classics line. Since May, the retailer/publisher has published 40 Barnes & Noble Classics, distributed to the trade by Sterling Publishing. And that has left another open question: Has Barnes & Noble—with 850 stores, including Bookstops and B. Daltons—acted as the spoiler for Penguin and the other classics publishers?
Who's on First?
Penguin rejects any notion that its lavish campaign to reenergize Penguin Classics has been anything less than a success. "It's been going terrifically," president and publisher Katherine Court told PW. "We've seen really sizable increases across the board. Sales have increased 400% for Dorothy Parker's Complete Stories, 50% for a new translation of Don Quixote, 43% for Pride and Prejudice, 45% for Jane Eyre. We've sold three times as many copies of Picture of Dorian Gray and 50% more of Machiavelli's The Prince."
Penguin plans to keep on pushing its entire line of 1,300 classics hard, even though it has almost twice as many titles as Oxford World Classics, its closest competitor with 700. "We're determined to keep these books in front of the public eye," said Court, who appeared on CNN to promote Penguin's relaunch, in addition to doing a 20-city radio tour with executive editor Michael Millman.
Throughout the fall and the coming year, the house will continue the Penguin Classics Presents author events that have been running since the beginning of this year. John Seelye, general editor for Penguin Classics and editor of On to the Alamo: Colonel Crockett's Exploits and Adventures in Texas (Nov.), will do signings in Texas and Florida around December 25, when the film Alamo, starring Billy Bob Thornton and Dennis Quaid, is released. In the spring, S.T. Joshi, editor of In the Land of Time and Other Fantasy Novels (Mar. 2004) by Lord Dunsany, will speak at science fiction/fantasy stores on the West Coast. And Penguin is already looking forward to next fall, when it will celebrate Graham Greene's centennial.
As additional retail inducements, Penguin continues to offer its distinctive black tote bags featuring the big orange penguin logo to stores that want to use them in promotions. The company redesigned its spinner rack and put together a Design Your Own Penguin Classics Display plan, which allows stores to choose their own titles. Penguin is also collaborating with Viking on cross-promoting Caroline Alexander's The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty (Viking, Sept.) and the William Bligh and Edward Christian classic The Bounty.
While Penguin's basic black stands in sharp contrast to Modern Library's copper spines and Oxford's red stripe, the other two lines, which recently went through a similar refurbishing process, are also doing well. "This is a robust part of the business," commented David Ebershoff, publishing director of the Modern Library and Random House trade paperbacks, though he hastened to note, "we're all affected when traffic in a store is lighter."
At Modern Library, new translations like Alexandre Dumont's novel about Marie Antoinette, The Knight of Maison-Rouge (Aug.), which hasn't been translated in 100 years, or Arthur Rimbaud's letters, I Promise to Be Good (Nov.), are a way of distinguishing the line of 300 paperbacks and 250 hardcovers. "New translations are part of our efforts to offer unique editions of the classics," said Ebershoff.
In the battle for bookstore presence, Modern Library has turned to literary big guns like David Gates and Joyce Carol Oates for introductions, while Oxford World's Classics and Penguin Classics prefer a more academic approach. But even the trade-oriented introductions are just one more way of positioning them for classes. "Course adoptions are a big part of the market and growing exponentially," said Ebershoff. "A student has such a large pile of reading. Why not have a fine edition of the book in the classroom? You're drawn to the book that's published well."
Oxford, which releases 20 to 25 new editions each year, and has a new translation of The Koran slated for 2004, also relies heavily on school sales. "The college course market is what we see as our core. We have very extensive apparatus, very long introductions by scholars and chronologies," said Ellen Chodosh, v-p and publisher of Oxford's trade division. "Our fiscal year starts in April and we're way ahead of where it was last year."
The 900-Pound Gorilla
So far, the classics continue to be a publishing bright spot, with higher margins and no authors to placate or pay royalties to. But it may be too soon to tell how long a shadow Barnes & Noble's classic publishing program will cast on the landscape. Since the imprint's first books shipped at the end of the last school year, many professors haven't had a chance to examine them with an eye to adoption. Meanwhile, Barnes & Noble is just beginning to roll out its new Barnes & Noble Classics signs and stores fixtures. "Barnes & Noble is still one of our most important classics customers," said John Fagan, marketing director of Penguin and Penguin Classics, voicing what has become the official party line for most houses.
Still, a loss in revenue from Barnes & Noble remains a distinct possibility for classics publishers, especially as the company continues to add to its list of mass market and trade paperback titles, which range in price from $3.95 to $8.95. "It's an ongoing train; it's not going to stop," said Alan Kahn, president of the publishing group. Already, he points out, Barnes & Noble Classics are outselling all other classics at barnesandnoble.com, which has a separate promotion area for classics on the site. "We're intentionally trying to provide greater value for our customers. All our books have new introductions by contemporary writers and scholars. All the ancillary items are the best and the newest," he said.
As far as concerns about equal opportunities for other lines in the physical stores go, "we'll carry any competing classics—there are a lot of them—that have specific editors or editions that professors ask for," Kahn said.
Although Barnes & Noble has begun an aggressive print campaign, with ads in the Chronicle of Higher Education and the New Yorker, so far most sales have been at Barnes & Noble stores and at the 464 privately held Barnes & Noble college stores that are managed by the chain. "We've shipped 75,000 copies altogether," said Charles Nurnberg, president and CEO of Sterling Publishing. "I feel pretty strongly that we've exceeded our expectations. Obviously, they're very strong in the institutional market, and they're very strong in Canada." Given that the average print run for each title is 30,000 copies, however, that figure represents only 6% of the roughly 1.2 million Barnes & Noble Classics in print. But that doesn't seem to faze Nurnberg, who expressed confidence that the sales numbers would increase after ads run in the New York Times and other major newspapers this fall and mailings go out to educators and librarians.
Kahn, meanwhile, bristles at the notion that Barnes & Noble is turning to the classics because it's easy money. "People imply it's like oil in Iraq," Kahn said. "To do the books well, to get the right material, to reset the type is not an inexpensive proposition. We spent an extraordinary amount of money."
Other Booksellers Weigh In
For most booksellers, the classics are selling well, though whether it's because they satisfy a post—9/11 yen for simpler times, they appeal to aging baby boomers and to reading groups or because of the Oprah effect, no one knows for sure. The classics even seem to be getting new review attention. When Jonathan Yardley wrote about Suetonius in the Washington Post Book World this summer, his piece helped to temporarily push The Twelve Caesars (Penguin, May) up to #125 on Amazon.com and to make it a local bestseller at Olsson's Books and Music for two weeks.
At Borders Book Group Inc., the Penguin relaunch offered an opportunity to refocus on the classics. "We've always sold classics very well year-round and experienced a summer reading surge. It's been a little stronger this year," said Robert Teicher, one of the chain's two fiction buyers. "Starting in January, our partnership with Penguin gave us a monthly promotional opportunity. It was a good, good year for Penguin." Even without the Barnes & Noble line, which Borders does not carry, "the whole classics market is extremely competitive," Teicher said. Like his customers, he considers not only price, but introductions and other supportive material in deciding what to buy.
For a college-oriented store like University Bookstore in Seattle, the interior of the book also counts for a lot. "We have a very savvy clientele," said fiction backlist buyer Mary Shadoff, who also buys frontlist Penguin. "A new translation is much more important to them than a new cover. We can't keep Penguin's Anna Karenina [translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky] on the shelf. Anything Pevear translates flies off our shelves." But even Shadoff has noticed a new interest in classics since Oprah's book club. "East of Eden is selling to people who don't have classics in the front of their mind," she said.
Other stores that have repositioned their classics sections since the Penguin relaunch have been equally surprised and pleased. At Left Bank Books in St. Louis, Mo., co-owner Chris Kleindienst has been "selling things we never used to sell" since putting in [Penguin's] classics rack and adding a link on the store's Web site (www.left-bank.com). She even left the rack up after the buy-two-get-one-free promotion was over because people were still browsing it. At the Book Stall at Chestnut Court, Ill., the classics are now closer to the fiction section and the hardcover fiction table. "I'd wanted to move the classics for a while," explained store manager Jay Schwandt. "There are so many book clubs and there's always a book on their lists that's classic. I'm in a book club that reads only classics."
At Rainy Day Books in Fairway, Kans., co-owner Vivien Jennings shelves classics near book club books, literature and poetry in the back of the store. "In the last year, our section has doubled," she said. She finds that customers are reading classic authors who influenced contemporary writers and noted that book clubs are mixing classic selections with contemporary picks. "I think people are aware that a lot of things they read for school, they didn't read to enjoy," said Jennings, who cross-promotes books like Tim Gautreaux's The Clearing (Knopf, June) with works by Faulkner.
Although none of these booksellers carry Barnes & Noble Classics, they don't feel like they're missing out. Between Penguin, Oxford, and Modern Library and occasional new entrants like Ecco Press's new translation of Don Quixote (Nov.) by Edith Grossman, there are plenty of classics to go around. The question is what will happen to other publishers' print runs and prices if, and when, Barnes & Noble cuts back on the other classics lines it orders. For now, though, everyone, including Barnes & Noble, is hoping that Oprah's second pick, Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton (Scribner, $14), does as well as her first.