Penguin Clothbound Classics: Collector's Guide and FAQ
What is the Penguin Clothbound Classics Series?
The first ‘official’ books in the Penguin Clothbound Classics books were released in 2008 by Penguin UK (more about this below) and were initially only offered through the UK-based bookstore Waterstones. These ten earliest editions can be identified by numbers on the spines. All the books in the series have distinctive covers with each being designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith, and featuring a repeating pattern made from a motif from the story stamped in foil onto a linen-like cloth cover. Coralie has said her intent in designing the series was ‘to hark back to the world of Victorian bindings and a golden age of book binding’. The books also feature coloured endpapers and an integrated ribbon bookmark.
How many books are in the series?
This is an ongoing series, so the book count changes every year. As of 2021, there are over 80 volumes in the series, with 7 or 8 expected by late 2021/early 2022. I can’t give an exact number, because there is some disagreement amongst collectors on whether you count the India Special Editions (which were published by Penguin India, do not have the ribbon bookmark and were not designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith); the leather-bound classics which have similar cover designs and overlapping titles, but are bound in a different material; the boxed sets; the clothbound poetry series; the clothbound children’s classics; the pocket philosophy classics; and the original ‘precursor’ clothbound classics and other out-of-series volumes published in the early years; and/or the reprints with different cover colours. (There is even some debate over the inclusion of The Pearl, as this was a separate commission by V&A, but it was produced in the same design as the rest of the series and I tend to think it counts.)
Are there any rare volumes?
Yes! The rarest volume is the first printing of Crime and Punishment, one of the first 10 titles released in 2008. The red foiled design on fawn covers for this initial print run caused problems at the printing press, and so it ended up having to be hand-foiled. Because of this, there was only a limited print run of this volume and it is the rarest volume in the series. The title was later reprinted in 2018 with a black linen binding (which is not a rare edition). The 2008 edition of Madame Bovary also went out of print and a newer edition was reprinted in 2014. Several of the India Special Editions are currently out of print, as are the Proust series. If you include the out-of-series volumes, the Tibetan Book of the Dead is also very hard to track down. In addition, some books were reprinted with slightly differing cloth covers (e.g. Great Expectations covers can look navy or blue-black), and the earliest printings on the first 10 books are differentiated by having numbers on the spines (as you can see in the image above) which later printings lack. Where possible, the relevant isbns for these rare editions are listed below to help you find them if you’re completing a collection.
These lovely pieces were handcrafted from a solid piece of Prime Grade English Oak in a Surrey Hills workshop, and engraved with the intricate flower design that features on the Sense and Sensibility volume.
How well are the books made? What is the binding like? Can you clean the covers?
The books in the Penguin Clothbound Classics series have lovely cloth covers, which have a nice linen-like texture, but the foiling/printing on the cover is a little fragile and will likely rub off if you have them tightly stacked in the shelf. Unfortunately, the internals are not particularly high quality (e.g. they use Forest Stewardship Council-approved paper, but not acid-free so it may brown over time) with a glued binding. I would estimate with the most careful of handling, they will probably last for about 40 years at the most. It is also worth noting that the covers can be hard to clean because the surface is textured cloth, and the cover design can come off if you are not careful.
Where are the books made? Are the US and UK editions different? What size are the books?
The books are “B format” hardbacks: 204mm x 132mm. The one in my collection were printed by Penguin UK in St Ives, England. The US editions (Penguin Random House) are sometimes printed / released later than the UK editions (I have given UK publication dates below), although having the same ISBN and usually available during the same calendar year. Dye colours on the fabric can be slightly different. And the books are harder to find in the US, so even though they may be out of print there it is worth checking the UK for books that are on the verge of going out of print as they usually do a larger print run.
Is there a cheaper way to buy them? Are they available in boxed sets?
Prices of the books go up and down, but they are generally pretty affordable. There are a few boxed sets available for selected authors, namely Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters and Charles Dickens. I have included these below at the end of the book list.