Henry Eliot, one of the editors of the Penguin Classics series, handled every first edition of its Black Classics list to write a reader’s companion to a whopping 1,200 books, by 500 authors, spanning 4,000 years of literary history.
Recounting the stories behind each of the books, from Mesopotamia to the end of the First World War, each listing in The Penguin Classics Book—a beautifully designed, red cloth-bound volume—is accompanied by its first Penguin cover. The project, commissioned by Helen Conford, publishing director at Penguin Press, has been two years in the making. The result is a highly giftable tome for book lovers and Penguin enthusiasts, and a powerful marketing tool for the brand—one its marketing and publicity teams are keen to embrace. "It’s quite a feat Henry and our designer [Matthew Young] managed to achieve in putting it together in time for Christmas," says Sam Voulters, brand director for Penguin Classics, who worked with Etty Eastwood, senior publicity manager for Penguin Press, on the campaign. "Penguin Classics is many different things to many different people, and [the brand] can be quite difficult to get your arms around. There are few spaces where you can see the horizon of it and everything in one place. This is really exciting as it gives a flavour of the books we cover and the history of Penguin Classics as well."
A hand-drawn template showing the publisher’s iconic triband cover design at its archives
To accompany last week’s publication (1st November), a travelling museum of Penguin Classics history is being hosted at Hatchards Piccadilly and Waterstones Gower Street. It includes the first edition of the first Penguin Classic, The Odyssey, the original Penguin Classics colour chart organised by language, and even a Penguin Classics tie from the 1980s. Eliot will tour the UK, giving talks in bookshops and at literary festivals, from Edinburgh to Falmouth and, looking to Penguin’s international fanbase, the team has co-ordinated a mailing of every Penguin Classic—from Aeschylus to Zola—to more than a thousand influencers, booksellers, journalists and readers around the world. Adding to the fun is point-of-sale, bookmarks and temporary tattoos (of the original Penguin Classics illustrations), as well as an "immersive experience" online.
"Classics corner has always been our enemy—the idea that these books should be in the back corner of a shop somewhere, spine out," Voulters says. "This celebrates the books in the way we celebrate frontlist—face-out on tables. I think it will provide amazing opportunities for bookshops to do just that."