Commissioning Editor Laura Stickney discusses the decision to bring back the renowned non-fiction imprint Pelican, after nearly 30 years of hibernation.
Readers today might be forgiven for asking the question, does the world really need another imprint? Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the headline, my answer is a resounding yes, but any new publishing endeavour must begin with a particular mission, a sense of its identity, and the belief that there is a gap in the bookshops (and online) that it can fill.
With Pelican, we are lucky to be able to draw on the original imprint’s considerable cultural heritage. Founded in 1937, Pelican was the first British publisher of intelligent non-fiction at a low price, a somewhat radical move at the time, and, as a result, generations of readers grew up with Pelicans as their first exposure to the intellectual currents of the day. Of course, the imprint’s history gives us a lot to live up to, but it provides a legacy that guides our ambition. And many readers hopefully share our great affection for the vintage, blue-spine paperbacks that are still ubiquitous in used bookshop shelves today.
But history only gets us so far obviously. What is the gap that Pelican can fill today? It strikes us that there is a widening divide in the culture between academic specialists and the general public. A lot of books in the ‘serious non-fiction’ category – including many that we publish proudly in Allen Lane – require a substantial time commitment, and a certain level of knowledge before readers can crack their spines. These books are of course hugely valuable uses of our time, but the new Pelicans can be thought of as stepping stones. They are for the gaps in your knowledge – for the subject you are interested in, but ignorant about, whether it’s architecture or economics or evolution. We like to say they are books for the musician who wants to know more about philosophy, or the psychologist who wants to read about physics.
The five launch titles we are publishing today are all ideal Pelicans on two levels – they are terrific introductions, since they are accessible and clear, but they also force us to think in new ways about their subjects. Ha-Joon Chang makes the case for rethinking economics, and shows us why we can’t rely on the experts alone. Orlando Figes redefines the traditional scope of the Russian Revolution, and Melissa Lane illuminates the Greek and Roman political ideas that have provided the essential foundation for all political debates since. Robin Dunbar shows us that the real story of human evolution is not about stones and bones but culture and cognition, and Bruce Hood explains what makes us social animals.
It will take a few years before we build a critical mass of Pelicans that can once again line the shelves in the way that the original imprint’s thousands of titles did. But our ambition is that, one day soon, readers looking to learn about a new subject will think, ‘What’s the Pelican for that?’
You can purchase the new Pelican books at Penguin.co.uk, or read the first chapter of each new title at the Pelican website. You can also take part in our Great Big Giveaway to be in with a chance of winning one of 10 complete sets of the new books.