Even in times like these, when the dollar is relatively strong, true bargains are difficult to find in Europe.
Fortunately, an independent book company called Wordsworth Editions Ltd. has been issuing trade paperback versions of some of the greatest works in literature--more than 300 of them to date--for 1 pound sterling--about $1.60--apiece.
Wordsworth Classics include not only the complete plays of William Shakespeare--each one in its own slim volume and complete with introductory material and notes--but gigantic epics such as Henry Fielding's "A History of Tom Jones" (700 pages); the novels of Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope, many of which run to a similar length; and even a complete edition of Leo Tolstoy's 1,000-page "War and Peace."
Once the price has been adjusted for inflation, these are probably the least expensive versions of these books to be published in many years. Moreover, Wordsworth has been so successful that its books are now available in other European countries, where books tend to command even steeper prices than they do in England. In France, Finland, Belgium, Sweden and the Netherlands, there are plentiful copies of Wordsworth titles, all priced at just about the local equivalent of $2. As a result you can walk into many European bookstores and come out with a terrific read for very little money. (Thus far, there is no practical way for people in the United States to buy Wordsworth Classics at these prices.)
The founder and managing director of the company is Michael Trayler, 50. He was blunt when asked why he started Wordsworth.
"Why'd we do it?" he asks rhetorically. "Two reasons. Because we could and because there are classics--bloody good books--and we thought everybody should have access to them."
Trayler had worked in London publishing for most of his career before founding Wordsworth eight years ago. Disturbed by many of the overly commercial trends he saw in multinational firms, he and his wife, Helen Trayler, moved to a town called Ware--"some 20 miles north of Charing Cross Station and an old coach stop," he noted--put their house up for sale, moved into a smaller home, took out a large mortgage and started to bring out the books that he believed in.
"We've been able to succeed because we're a small company--only 13 people--and because we aren't greedy." The fact that most of the books in the Wordsworth series are out of copyright and in the public domain helped, too--there were no authors or descendants to receive royalties.
"We don't make anywhere near as much on each copy of our books as other companies do," Trayler said. "On the other hand, because our prices are so low we've sold a lot of copies that might not have been purchased otherwise." The 1-pound "War and Peace" has sold more than 600,000 copies, while novels by Dickens and Jane Austen hover around half a million. The best seller of all has been Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights"--three quarters of a million copies and counting.
One especially welcome volume has been the acute, hilarious but kindly satire of Victorian city life "The Diary of a Nobody" by George Weedon Grossmith, which remains all but unknown in the United States.
Indeed, to date, Trayler has had difficulty cracking the market in America. "A lot of the big chains want to make more money on fewer books," he said. "We could sell our books to American dealers for 80 cents apiece and they could then be priced for about $1.99 and make some profit. But most classics in America--even the most popular ones--sell for at least $5 and maybe more, and a lot of dealers are reluctant to give space to less expensive items."
Other companies have not been oblivious to the success of Wordsworth Classics. According to the trade publication the Bookseller--a sort of English equivalent of America's Publishers Weekly: "Wordsworth's launch in 1992 of a range of one-pound classics was responsible for what Penguin's then-managing director Trevor Glover described as an 'erosion of our market share' and forced the creation of a rival range of Penguin Popular Classics.
"There is no doubt that Penguin has been dismayed to be compelled to undercut its full price, flagship list," the Bookseller continued.
Now Penguin Popular Classics (which are also unavailable in the United States but ubiquitous throughout Europe) have taken a share of Wordsworth's market. Trayler seems somewhat resigned to this, but no less proud of his accomplishment.
"If Wordsworth weren't here," he said firmly, "there wouldn't be any more 1-pound classics."