Earlier this year I wrote a piece for SHARP news on the new Penguin Books Vending Machine at Exeter Railway Station, including other Penguin initiatives around selling books. Bookending what has been a bumper year for this topic, earlier last month a spectacular Christmas tree was unveiled at St Pancras Station, a collaboration between Penguin and Hatchards. This “magical reading experience”, an “ode to the wealth of literature that transports us to exciting and novel worlds”, situated in one of London’s busiest stations, is 12 metres high, and has 270 shelves with over 3800 hand-painted books.
Digital literature, in which a fictional tale unfolds while a player witnesses but minimally intervenes in its progress, is an obvious example. Two games which invoke early modern England, Elsinore (Golden Flitch, 2019) and Astrologaster (Nyamyam, 2019), and which are both anchored upon the central motif of a book, are especially self-conscious examples of such bookish play – and ones which may challenge SHARP members and their students to see reading and its concurrent activities anew.
No matter the time or place, the ownership of books has functioned not only as a point of access to texts, but also as a status symbol. There are many ways books can convey that status, including their material characteristics as determined by their makers. A revealing case study of this principle is the rise of FairyLoot, a subscription-based publisher of “exclusive editions,” and how it relates to earlier subscription based “made-collectible” models, like that of the Franklin Library. In short, companies like FairyLoot are this generation’s version of the Franklin Library. The same marketplace principles apply—but because the audience is different, the end result of the manufactured object also differs. What brings these seemingly disparate companies together is their shared strategy of creating books with physical attributes that read to their target audience as “collectible.”
BookTok, a corner of TikTok largely dominated by young women that is dedicated to reviewing, recommending, and reacting to a wide range of texts, is a driving force for book publishing and marketing. BookTok has become one of the “commanding forces in adult fiction,” helping “authors sell 20 million printed books in 2021” and increasing sales an additional 50 percent in 2022.” BookTokers define not only what books should be read, but how they might be properly experienced and valued, and invite questions both literary and sociological: what forms and language do BookToks rely on? What do BookTok creators value in novel reading? How do BookTokers perform the experience of reading?
I’ve had a long-held interest in Penguin’s infamous Penguincubator, and bookshops more generally, and saw an opportunity to combine both for a couple of conference papers this year. And then – on the 24th March, my inbox and social media feeds started to light up. A new Penguin books vending machine had been installed at Exeter railway station, and people were extremely excited. And I mean, extremely excited. Suddenly, I was trying to process all the pictures being posted, comments logged, and articles written: I wanted to use the research to highlight some of the challenges of pursuing bookselling histories, but I hadn’t anticipated this would become such a timely tie-in with what Penguin were doing.