Books and publishing

Penguin 'Little Black Classics': an appreciation

This is a nerdy post about a publishing marketing campaign that impressed me.

For the eightieth anniversary of their inception, Penguin Books released eighty Little Black Classics.


They’re a teeny-tiny format, smaller than A; they’re sold for the ludicrously cheap price of 80p (tying in with the anniversary); most aren’t classics in the traditional sense, but out-of-copyright short texts by big authors. There are some exceptions — The Communist Manifesto, The Yellow Wallpaper, The Tell-Tale Heart.

What I want to talk about is how they’re advertised on rail and Tube. (They had a massive campaign in the middle of last year, and now that they’ve added another 46 titles to the original 80, they’re doing it again).

It was surprisingly hard to find these online.

There is no mention of either author or title. It’s just a bite-size quote you can read and ruminate upon as you wait for your train. What’s the point of that? you might ask. How can you advertise something without mentioning it? They do it so cleverly.

The two unique things about this collection that Penguin need to emphasise to prospective readers are firstly that it is a collection, and secondly that it contains classic texts.

When you have a collection, you want people to become ‘completionist’ about it. As well as showing the quality of each book, you need to show its context and how it fits into the whole. You may really want this one, but it’s a collection. Getting a few more will look better. They’re all good. (Both marketing and design are important here).

When you work with classic texts, you want to show people that they are ‘classic’ for a reason: they offer something that modern books don’t, or can’t offer; they have lasted. On top of this, all of these books are 0ut of copyright. Give me an hour, and I can get the PDFs or the ePubs from Project Gutenberg and send you a zip file. Why should I clutter my shelves with this?

About a year ago I was sitting on the Tube when I saw this one.


All the adverts appeal to different things: some are funny, some are political, some are sad; some, like this, are elegaic. I had no idea who the story was by, what it was about, but I was intrigued, and I made a note of ‘No. 72’.

Let’s go back to the two things that Penguin had to convince me — that the texts are good, and that they’re part of a good collection. In giving me a quote that stuck with me, Penguin convinced me their content is worth investigating. In putting the text front-and-centre, Penguin implicitly said “We’re confident that these quotes will speak for themselves: we don’t need to put anything else on the poster to sell them to you.”

Their target market is readers, and readers are used to putting pieces together themselves. Perhaps the reason I’m so keen on this campaign is that it’s absolutely not patronising.

(I’m conscious that technique would not work for any other kind of book. These books are from a publishing house that has a brand of its own, arguably the only publishing house that really does, and there are 80 of them. The books’ unique selling points, as above, don’t match those of ‘ordinary’ fiction books. Putting a quote from the latest hot debut wouldn’t build the author’s name; wouldn’t get the title on people’s minds for them to tap into Amazon — it’d be a stone skimming along the surface of the sea).

So I was intrigued by the quality of this ‘classic’ text, and I decided I wanted to buy it, so I went into Waterstone’s to hunt out number 72. Here is where the completionist aspect kicks in. In order to find number 72, I had to look at the other books. I had to run my finger down all the other names that I recognised and titles that intrigued me.

Going on this little journey throughout the Classics’ content does three things. Firstly, I got to see how pretty the collection is. I like their smallness. I like the font and its ligatures. I like the Penguin logo and I like the timeless three-band design. Why do I want them on my shelf? Because they’ll look nice.

Secondly, this is where the books’ content recedes and the respectability and ‘classic’ nature of the selection comes to the fore. I know I like Gogol; I’ve always meant to read H G Wells; The Life of a Stupid Man? that sounds interesting; ooh, Japanese classic literature? I’ve always wanted to read some of that…  They convince you of the need to buy their classics by showing you titles you’d otherwise never have known existed.

And thirdly, in finding number 72 (Miss Brill by Katherine Mansfield), I felt like I had worked to get it, and I’d achieved something by tracking it down. I wasn’t just seeing a product’s name and picking it off the shelf. I’d earnt it. Anything that makes the viewer feel good, rather than they’re being sold to, is a step in the right direction.

At only 80p each, and given their unintimidating brevity, it’s impossible only to buy one. I picked up six like they were pick-and-mix sweets. You can buy ten for the price of a normal paperback book and they look lovely lined up on your bookshelf by number.

The campaign works so well because it lets you do all the work. Your curiosity is piqued by the adverts’ text which is so confidently presented. When you search for that number, you discover the collection’s great design. You get to see the instantly recognisable authors’ names and the genres you’ve always meant to read. And you find your book and you feel that by searching for it, you haven’t gone on a ‘customer journey’ or any of that bollocks, but that you’ve achieved something; cracked a code.