Rachel Cugnoni: Refreshing that Vintage appeal

Walking into Rachel Cugnoni's office feels like walking into a sitting room. It is artfully dotted with memorabilia gathered over--and even before--her 17 years at Random House. "Those are the shelves that I made in my woodwork class when I was a teenager, and that's my daughter’s first pair of shoes . . . ever," she points out. "I was taking them to the charity shop after a ruthless clear-out and thought: 'Nooooo!'"

There are nods to sports: a set of mahogany poker chips, a photo of "beautiful Mark Spitz" wearing seven Olympic medals, and a red bowling shirt given to her by Cape editorial director Robin Robertson. "I'm very good at 10-pin bowling," Cugnoni declares. It is the first of a series of sporting boasts: "I'm even better at golf. I'm just saying all these things about how brilliant I am, but I have got quite good hand-eye co-ordination. There's no other way of saying it; it just is true."

That's the thing about Cugnoni: she seems almost incapable of telling an untruth—whether it means pouring praise on her own sporting prowess or revealing all sorts of things she never meant to—and our interview is punctuated by gasps of horror at her own admissions.

"I had my first golf lesson last weekend," she says, before a tirade of regret: "But I've got the poker to offset that image. I don't want to come over as all tailored shorts. I'm not that kind of person! For goodness sake—I've got Caroline Michel's image to live up to [her predecessor at Vintage]. I can't appear as a golfing-fashion icon. Although I'm looking forward to meeting my future husband on the golf course. There's lots of rich men that play golf."

Pulling a jersey

Cugnoni castigates herself "almost on a nightly basis" for failing to toe the line. "I have a stern word with myself and say: 'You've really got to rein yourself in and be more discreet, and think before you speak.' And then the next day I wake up and I'm shouting and responding instinctively to things. I'm now 43, and I've realised that is just the way I am."

This instinctive approach shapes the business and publishing decisions that have helped her leap from job to job at Random House. She joined in 1990 as Chatto's promotions officer, and spent eight years working in marketing and publicity before setting up literary sports list Yellow Jersey Press.

Cugnoni recalls putting the proposal together while still on maternity leave, "breast-feeding a baby while watching the Olympics, cricket and Wimbledon". Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch had been dominating the charts, and RH was short of a sports imprint. Although Cugnoni knew there was space for the list, she was bowled over to be given the green light.

"I handed it to Gail [Rebuck, c.e.o.], thinking: 'They're not going to let me do this', and I would then be able to just grumpily carry on my way, thinking: 'No, you haven't given me an opportunity', and get pissed off. When she said yes I thought: 'Oh fuck. Now I've got to do this.' Then followed the two most terrifying years of my life. I'd never commissioned a book before, let alone edited one, but somehow or other it was successful, and hallelujah."

Contemporary classics

Fast forward to the second big launch of Cugnoni's career, Vintage Classics, and those feelings have returned. The August unveiling will see RH go head-to-head with Penguin in the lucrative classics market, aiming to turn its stylish new series into a household brand.

"It's a really interesting proposal for a paperback publisher because it's all about the book's perception—the thought process that goes into the moment of buying a book. My view of the classics is that they're not necessarily literary books, or difficult books. These are great books that have stood the test of time, and I think they should be packaged as such."

The biggest challenge is less to do with book buyers and more to do with booksellers: how to encourage the price-driven trade to take a fresh look at familiar stock. "If the trade doesn't look again at the classics, they're just going to be at the back of the shop and we're doomed," Cugnoni says. So far, the RH sales team has triumphed, she adds, selling "big orders" into supermarkets, the high street and online specialists (although rumbles elsewhere suggest Waterstone's is not yet fully onboard).

What RH won't go head-to-head on is price. "Whatever the supermarkets say, and however much Waterstone's chase supermarket sales with their own pricing policy, I don't believe that people's decisions are purely based on price when they go into a bookshop," Cugnoni says. Instead, most Vintage Classics will have the same r.r.p. as their OUP and Penguin competitors, making it a war of pure jacket-appeal.

The target is an "elegant, classy middleground" between its "straightforward, straight-laced" classics forbears and the newcomers who have gone down the super-commercial route. "People who don't generally read books are not going to be persuaded to buy Jane Austen because you put a pink chick lit cover on it. I think that's unrealistic, and it's short term. This is a long-term venture for us."