To: Publishing Folk

From: Publishing Know-It-All

Re: "Essential Editions"

As you all surely know by now, last week, Penguin Group (USA) announced plans for a new paperback imprint called Essential Editions. Beginning next month, the group will re-release, in "thoughtfully crafted and handsomely packaged" editions, five titles from its backlist. In October, the house will release five more essential books.

Of course, skeptics have scoffed, both at the strange marriage of titles—J.M Coetzee's Disgrace alongside Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees?—and at the earnestness of the announcement, when it's obvious, at least to the competitive among us, that this is but a ploy to mine the ever-valuable backlist and make some noise, along with new money. The new, souped-up paperback editions will cost $16—a good $2 more than, say, what the other paperback version of The Secret Life of Bees fetches at full retail.

But I disagree, and think everybody should think about taking a page, so to speak, from Penguin's playbook. Just think, for example, what Random House could do if it pooled all of its imprints and released new versions of its myriad titles. We could have "thoughtfully crafted and handsomely packaged with French flaps, rough fronts, high quality paper and a distinctive cover look with embossed texturing" versions of everything from, say, the ideas of Clay Aiken to the work of Bret Easton Ellis. Surely, French flaps on AmericanPsycho would lift that controversial novel's sales from its already astonishing 22,000 a year in backlist to, oh, I don't know, 22,001. But production costs in that case would surely cut into profits: label-hound Ellis would no doubt insist the French flaps be made by Chanel.

And just think of the editorial meetings at which executives would have to decide the criteria for turning a book into an "essential." Do we go strictly on sales? someone would ask. Yes! would cry the Tuesdays with Morrie and Devil Wears Prada cults; they know where their bread is buttered. In that case, The South Beach Diet is sure to come next. And what about the blockbuster He's Just Not That into You? Classics maven Oprah gave its authors more air time than Faulkner—and they're not even dead. Me, I vote for Madonna's SEX. But I wonder: Can you do "embossed texturing" on a plain brown wrapper?

I guess this classic stuff is a lot more complicated than it appears. "We realized... that we have an abundance of requisite, must-read books," Liz Perl, v-p and associate publisher for Riverhead Trade Paperbacks, said in the Penguin announcement. But so does everybody, so why don't we all do it?

So many books, so little time.

Hmm. Wasn't there a book by that name? And didn't it come from the Putnam imprint of the selfsame Penguin Group? It wasn't a blockbuster, but it had a little bit of a cult following—or so I was told. Hey, you guys down at 375 Hudson, whaddayasay? Don't you know a true essential when you see one?