They don’t command the best-seller lists, nor do they show up on reviewers’ desks, but the classics—those books of enduring quality that year after year grace high school and college syllabi and circulate in community book clubs—are the cash cows of the publishing industry: reliable, predictable, and above all, steady sources of revenue. Penguin Classics, Oxford World’s Classics, Bantam Classics, Dover Publications, and the Modern Library are among the leading publishers of their kind in the United States. This spring, Barnes & Noble joined them with its own imprint: Barnes & Noble Classics.
Two years ago, Barnes & Noble partnered with Fine Creative Media, a 13-year-old publishing company that to date has published almost 600 hardcover reprints, to develop its classics imprint. The first 15 titles, released in May, included Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, introduced by Robert O’Meally, a professor of literature at Columbia University; Bram Stoker’s Dracula, introduced by Brooke Allen, a book critic whose work has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly and the New York Times Book Review; and W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk, introduced by Farah Jasmine Griffin, a professor of English and African-American studies at Columbia University.
By June 2004, 100 titles will be available in hardcover, trade paperback, mass-market paperback, and e-book formats, with prices expected to range from $3.95 to $9.95.
“Barnes & Noble has wanted to do a classics series for years,” says Alan Kahn, president of Barnes & Noble publishing. “But it’s more difficult than one may imagine. We wanted to reprint classic titles with introductions by scholars, footnotes, endnotes, discussion questions, biographical and historical notes, and glossaries. We wanted the right paper, the right binding, the right design. We wanted excellence in every detail.”
Kahn and his collaborator, Michael Fine, president of Fine Creative Media, believe that their new imprint will not only hold its own among its competitors, but may even outdo them. “Our books provide the sensibilities of modern-day academics,” says Kahn. “Other classics publishers may be updating their look, but their introductory essays are often dated.”
Other publishers that have recently redesigned their classics series include the Modern Library, which launched a paperback counterpart to its hardcover classics series in 2000, and Penguin Classics, which is currently repackaging its 1,200-plus classics titles with new cover artwork and a fresh design. The first 21 Penguin titles were released in January 2003; others will follow over the next two years.
It remains to be seen how book buyers will respond to the new imprint, but the series may have one advantage: Barnes & Noble owns 591 stores, plus 305 B. Dalton stores, in 49 states. Despite this apparent leverage, Kahn stresses that Barnes & Noble has no plans to stop selling other editions of classics. “We always carry other publishers—large and small,” he says. “It would be ridiculous for us to stop selling other publishers, since we’re in the business of selling books.” And just as other classics editions will remain welcome at Barnes & Noble stores, says Kahn, Barnes & Noble expects to distribute its new imprint at other bookstores.
The proposition sounds good in theory, but it may be less than welcome in practice. “The classics market is already crowded,” says Michael Russo, manager of St. Mark’s Bookshop in New York City. “We already do tremendous business with Dover, and I very much like the repackaging of Penguin Classics. There are lots of options I would consider before going for a completely new imprint. I like to stick with the tried and true.”
Paul Ingram, book buyer at Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City, Iowa, agrees. “There are enough publishers doing classics—with scholarly introductions, no less—that I doubt we’d have to resort to putting money in the coffers of our competition.” And Roxanne Coady, owner of R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Connecticut, says she would not carry the Barnes & Noble imprint. “This type of vertical integration is always troublesome, because it gives one person too much control,” Coady says.
Still other independent booksellers appreciate the variety that the new Barnes & Noble imprint represents. “The world has room for small and large publishers, and I would definitely carry their books,” says Patricia Colrick, owner of Landmark Books in Spring Lake, New Jersey.
Kahn feels that apprehension regarding Barnes & Noble’s double function as bookseller and publisher is unfounded. “We give preference to titles that we feel the public will benefit from most,” he says. “But the public is the one that decides. The public leads booksellers, not the other way around.”
Dalia Sofer is a freelance writer who lives in New York City.