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Is That a Penguin in Your Pocket?

A recent headline in the New York Times Book Review declared, “Books Make You a Boring Person.” Many would disagree with that statement, but few would go as far as the folks in the marketing department at Penguin UK. The London-based arm of the venerable publishing house has begun to advertise its books as dating aids. According to Penguin, you’re not good looking—or Good Booking—unless you’re holding a book.

“What women really want is a man with a Penguin,” reads the publisher’s promotional Web site at www.goodbooking.com. “You may not even need to read it, just bend the covers, let it stick out of your pocket and the book will do the talking!”

Penguin says it has the scientific proof to back up the assertion that books make good props. In a study commissioned by the publisher, one in three women claimed she would find a bookless gent less attractive than a man reading a book. Eight of every ten people polled said they believe book readers “are likely to be much better in bed.”

The publisher is hoping that if the data alone won’t convince potential male book buyers, then sex appeal will. Visitors to the Web site—and browsers who happen upon Good Booking displays at participating booksellers across the United Kingdom—are greeted with silhouetted images of shapely females kneeling submissively or tilting a hip toward a Penguin title. The Web site features a photo of a bikini-clad blonde gazing seductively into the camera. (A secondary page titled “Into Guys?” explains that not just heterosexual men need to get good booking; gay men can also use reading to meet potential partners.)

The promotion is an obvious attempt to lure young male readers who, polls show, read less than young women. Female readers in their twenties and thirties have made best-sellers of Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary and other “chick lit” titles, but a male equivalent of the trend—what some refer to as “dick lit”—has yet to catch on.

Penguin UK has chosen only a handful of titles—books written by and for young men—for the promotion. Among them are Nick Hornby’s 31 Songs, a book of idiosyncratic rock criticism; Dave Eggers’s second book, You Shall Know Our Velocity; and Melvin Burgess’s novel Doing It.

Although the publisher was repeatedly unavailable for comment at the time of this writing, at least one British bookseller is not a fan of the Good Booking campaign. “I don’t think it’s a particularly classy way of going about selling books,” says Ian McGarry, manager of a Waterstone’s bookstore in London. McGarry said the promotion has been little more than a curiosity among store employees and customers. “It’s a bit tacky. I think we all thought that when it first came out,” he says.

Some members of the British press are also skeptical. Boyd Tonkin, in an article for the London-based Independent newspaper, wrote, “I will forgive this rather tragic sales pitch if it stirs a few book-averse men to pick up a tome or two. Yet such stunts leave crucial questions unasked. The hardest concerns background and schooling. Boys who come from supportive homes (not merely ‘middle-class,’ although that often makes things easier) will have been encouraged to read from early childhood. Those who don’t, won’t. Can a few lewd ads compensate for years of neglect?”

If the sex appeal of reading doesn’t work, perhaps Penguin’s slightly more direct approach will: In addition to the promotion in bookstores across the United Kingdom, the company is sending representatives to colleges, train stations, and other public places to award prizes of £1,000 (approximately $1,800) to readers who are spotted with a Good Booking title.

Kevin Canfield is a journalist in New York City.

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Is That a Penguin in Your Pocket? (September/October 2004)
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