Wednesday 22 August 2012

Penguin Specials

In the past, one facet of Penguin UK's publishing were the Penguin Specials: books written and published quickly to address some newsworthy aspect of the world. They were sort of a bridge between the physical qualities of books and the turnaround time of magazine pieces. Especially popular during WWII and the beginning of the Cold War, and well before the internet, they let talented journalists and experts explain developments to a big, interested audience.

This title is actually still available as a print book

Many of the changes to the publishing landscape engendered by the ebook boom are mixed blessings. One thing I do like, though, is that there seems to be something of a renewal in interest in publishing quality long-form journalism as cheap ebooks. Byliner, for example, has made a particular virtue of this. And now Penguin in the UK and Australia have resurrected the Specials range as an ebook series.

The design of the books uses a slightly modernised version of the original Penguin cover designs: text, no illustrations, and colour coding to indicate genre. This is both a nice callback to the company's beginnings, but it also has the virtue of allowing the covers to look clean and legible even as small thumbnails: since these are books you will never see in physical bookshops, this is only way most people will see them.

The available titles are an odd mix: Penguin UK seems to be mainly releasing short economics/business books and a scattering of works in other genres: military history, health, short fiction and collected newspaper columns. (And sometimes labelled as 'Shorts' rather than 'Specials'.)

The Australian offerings are a little different. They are either excellent essays and works of reportage...

Sonya Hartnett is hugely prolific and yet manages to maintain an exceptional quality of prose; her children's and adult novels are rightly acclaimed. This, her memoir of ten Melbourne homes, is a quiet, reflective and really quite lovely piece of writing: an autobiography of sorts, viewed through the changing prism of Victoria over the last few decades. Many writers would have padded this out to a 300-page book, but that's not needed here.

Adelaide, my home city, is the subject of numerous uneasy jokes from interstate because of its unfortunate record of vanished children, serial killers, murderous paedophiles, and other mass murderers. Bradley was brought up here, and this essay looks at the 'City of Churches'' neglected dark side. It's beautifully written, despite the horrible details, and is rather more reflective and thoughtful than crime writing tends to be.

Did your country, like mine, help start and then get mired in a hopeless Middle Eastern civil war it doesn't know how to escape and hasn't any interest in understanding? Is it now pretending everything's OK so that it can pull out its troops and stop the electoral cost of more and more dead soldiers? This entertaining and depressing guide to the birth of modern Afghan democracy will do nothing to dispel your cynicism!

..or else (with a few exceptions, including an excellent tale by James Bradley) single tales cut out of already published collections, none of them especially new.

Now, these are pretty much all excellent short stories, and well worth your time. But I do wonder at the strange notion of paying $2.99 for a single, DRM-bound digital version of a story when, in many cases, you can buy the full collection, printed and bound, with perhaps 11 other stories, for $9.95. In a saner world, it seems more that these individual stories might be free giveaways to entice people into buying the full collections.


Levi Stahl said...

This is an interesting mix, like Penguin is (probably sensibly) throwing a bunch of ideas and approaches out there to see what works.

Man, I have long wanted to publish a series of short books on great battles: those are bits of history that are tailor-made for brief, well-written narrative histories.

JRSM said...

It's a very good idea: not everyone is enough of a military buff to want to wrestle with a 900-page monster military history, but may well want to learn about, say, what the hell happened at Dunkirk...

Alan said...

I'm not entirely clear on exactly how it worked, but I think in the UK the series might originally have been launched as 'Shorts'* and then moved to 'Specials' more recently.

*Possibly because when they first started publishing the ebooks there were also some experiments going on in publishing new paperback Penguin Specials like The Case of the Pope and Ai Weiwei Speaks. (Maybe others? I'm not sure. They look great those paperbacks – they're really attractive, appealing objects, and those specific two titles are great ideas for books, in that urgent, newsworthy tradition of what a Penguin Special was originally meant to be.)

JRSM said...

That explains it, Alan: I remember those physical book specials now--it would be nice to see more of them.