Penguin USA is launching a new imprint, called Current, specializing in science titles. Its publisher, Adrian Zackheim, already heads two other imprints, Sentinel and Portfolio, devoted to conservative books and business books respectively. As Adrian observed in the press release, Penguin has had good success with niche publishing in those two areas: expanding into another niche seems like common sense.
To me there are two interesting features of this news. First, that Penguin is expanding its array of special-interest imprints (it has several other small lists in addition to the ones mentioned above). The estimable Mike Shatzkin has long argued that mastering niche audiences is the only viable future for publishing companies, and I think he may well be right. Penguin, with its vast and broad lists in paperback especially, is a long way from being a niche publisher--but are they beginning to steer the ocean liner in that direction?
And I'm pleasantly surprised to see that the area they have chosen to expand into is science. For some years now, popular science has been a category underserved by big publishers. Ten to fifteen years ago, in a great publishing tradition, every house in town piled into science books, chasing blockbuster successes like Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time and James Gleick's Chaos.
The inevitable result, after a couple of years in which there were some further, moderate successes while advances for science books went into the exosphere, was: the market was glutted and collapsed. Then, equally inevitably, the word went around the business,
"Science books don't sell." It became difficult for even a first-rate science book to find competitive bidders.
Of course, the audience for good, accessible science titles never went away--it was first surfeited, then starved, by publishers. Other categories have gone through similar cycles. After the rage for science, we had a rage for history books--then that bubble burst and we heard, "oh, you can't sell history any more." Anyway, Adrian Zackheim is a smart publisher, and if he thinks science is a category on the upswing he probably has some solid evidence. I enjoy reading, and editing, science titles so I'll keep an eye on Current with interest. Meanwhile, I and my colleagues at Walker & Co. have been quietly publishing popular science all along (as have several other fine editors elsewhere). We'll all be here to provide Penguin with some competition.