From Margaret Atwood to Philip Pullman, and Bernardine Evaristo to Greta Thunberg, we had a brilliant year publishing some of the biggest and most exciting books of 2019. But whilst books and stories lie at the heart of what we do, our year was so much bigger.
Whether that was working with primary and secondary schools to champion reading for pleasure, creating a pop-up shop which inspired new readers to pick up the classics, or launching a writers' prize with Stormzy to find the next generation of voices, here are our top moments as a company for 2019.
Penguin Presents: our annual colleague celebration
Once a year, everyone at Penguin Random House UK gathers to celebrate some of our most exciting authors, their forthcoming books and the transformative power of reading, at a special event called Penguin Presents. This year’s event was held on 6th June at the London Palladium, for 1,250 colleagues, alongside select guests from the creative and media industries.
From Stormzy to Malorie Blackman, and Dolly Alderton to Bill Bryson, the show brought together an incredible, diverse – and unexpected – line-up of authors and actors to explore what sparks the imagination and the way that reading and books can change people’s lives.
Showcasing the Classics with the Happy Reading pop-up
In March, Penguin Classics launched Happy Reading: The Penguin Classics Shop, its first ever pop-up shop in London to celebrate reading for pleasure and the special books that impact our lives. The shop was open for a week and displayed every single Penguin Classic face out (over 1,200 books!)
Both a shop and a cultural space, Happy Reading celebrated that Penguin Classics are books to love, not just to study; bringing together diverse voices to explore, discuss and challenge the literary canon. It was a brilliant week, which also saw the space host a range of events, including a workshop on literacy and employability to 50 local school children.
Acting and thinking green
We might be orange at heart, but green flows in our veins. Over the past few years we’ve been focused on making sure that the way we operate as a company is as sustainable as possible, and this year was no exception. We’ve continued to innovate and invest in our systems and ways of working – from colleague-led initiatives focused on reducing our use of paper and plastic in the office, to making changes in our supply chain. Our warehouse, for example, cut single-use plastic by 47% in 2019 by reducing a significant amount of the plastic used to transport our books from suppliers and to customers.
And that’s not where it ends. This year we also worked with individuals and organisations, from Greta Thunberg to Extinction Rebellion, to help connect more readers around the world with a diverse range of opinions and information on our planet and the climate crisis. And all published on Forest Stewardship Council™ paper, which is considered the hallmark of excellence in sustainable paper sourcing, and makes up 99.6% of the paper which all our books are printed on.
Here is a selection of some of our recent and upcoming titles on our planet and the environment:
Bringing the magic to school libraries around the country with Puffin World of Stories
School libraries and reading spaces play a vital role in helping pupils develop an enjoyment of reading, but in the UK school libraries aren’t statutory and there are no accurate records of how many there are, or if they are staffed or funded.
In 2018, Puffin and the National Literacy Trust launched Puffin World of Stories: a programme to help 50 primary schools reinvigorate their school libraries and champion reading for pleasure, through 300 brand new Puffin books, colourful resourcing and training - all for completely free. Based on the fantastic feedback we received from schools taking part, this year we were excited to extend the programme to invite 80 more primary schools to join.
Puffin World of Stories participating school: “This week we have received our books and all we can say is WOW! What a tremendous donation. We are thrilled and excited. Thank you so very, very much on behalf of the staff and pupils. We are busy stamping and distributing them and can't wait to get reading!”
Searching for a new generation of voices with #Merky Books
It's been an incredibly exciting 18 months for #Merky Books - our imprint in partnership with Stormzy - since its launch in July 2018. This year we've worked with Stormzy and his team to be even more ambitious in our search to find a new generation of voices.
In March we launched the #Merky Books New Writers' Prize: an open submission competition for unpublished writers aged 16-30 to promote the stories that aren’t being heard, and to find the best writer of a new generation. After thousands of submissions, we held a Writers' Camp in May for the 20 shortlisted writers to give them constructive feedback on their writing from our editors and space to celebrate their achievement.
In June we announced the winner of the New Writers' Prize. The standard of entries was so high that the judging panel (made up of Stormzy, Yrsa Daley-Ward, award-winning poet Kayo Chingonyi) were unable to choose just one winner, and instead jointly awarded the prize to Hafsa Zayyan for her novel We Are All Birds of Uganda, and Monika Radojevic for her poetry collection 23 and Me, which will be published in 2020 and 2021 respectively.
Other #Merky Book highlights from the year include our takeover of the Apple store on Regent Street in May for writing workshops and talks on the publishing journey from some of our authors.
We also had a three day pop-up at the brand new Beats by Dr Dre Residency in Shoreditch in November. It was home to a book store run by our friends at Round Table, independent zines, artwork by illustrators of colour, live podcast recordings, workshops, panels, film screenings, a writers’ clinic, a barbershop and three closing parties!
Returning to Gilead with Margaret Atwood
In September we published The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s hotly anticipated sequel to the best-selling The Handmaid’s Tale. Tasked with creating a campaign around one of the biggest books of the year, the VINTAGE marketing and publicity team kicked off the worldwide publication with a midnight launch event at Waterstones in Piccadilly with Margaret Atwood herself. It was a fantastic night of panel discussions (featuring authors such as Neil Gaiman, Elif Shafak and Jeanette Winterson), readings and immersive experiences – and even a red-robed Handmaid or two.
Sharing a story with over 6,000 children on World Book Day
For the second year running, hundreds of colleagues across Penguin Random House UK came together to mark World Book Day and celebrate the magic of reading with over 6,000 children, young people and adults.
In our largest ever single volunteering effort, over 570 colleagues volunteered in their local communities in London, Frating and Grantham, as well as literacy-vulnerable areas across the capital. We hosted interactive sessions in over 160 nurseries, children’s centres and schools, including storytelling with little ones and quizzing with Years 2-4 in primary schools. To inspire and encourage pupils to continue reading beyond World Book Day, we gifted a total of 5,000 books through book prizes and donations to all schools participating.
Recording with stars of Game of Thrones and Fleabag for new Classics audiobook series
This autumn we launched a new series of fifty audiobooks from the world-renowned Penguin Classics collection. With audiobooks enjoying a huge boom in popularity (it's estimated that nearly 10% of the UK population are listening to audiobooks regularly), the collection offers an alternative way to enjoy these world-famous books for an audience for whom listening rather than reading is now the default way to engage with stories.
The new series is narrated by some of the UK's best-known actors - from Fleabag's Sian Clifford (Tess of the D'Urbervilles) and Andrew Scott (Dubliners), to Game of Thrones' Natalie Dormer (A Room of One's Own) and Gemma Whelan (North and South), and star of Homeland, David Harewood (The War of the Worlds).
Introducing a new generation of readers to different ideas and perspectives through Penguin Talks
This year we continued our Penguin Talks programme, which we launched at the end of the year to bring free creative talks to young people across the UK. Having previously featured Michelle Obama and Yuval Noah Harari, the Talks give the audience the opportunity to both hear from and directly question some of our most influential and high-profile authors. The aim is not for the talk to be about the author's book, but instead a topic or issue they discuss in their writing - from activism & protest to feminism or Brexit.
Building on the success of last year's talks, the roster of authors taking part in Penguin Talks this year was equally exciting. Highlights were Scarlett Curtis and Saoirse Ronan speaking to 150 sixteen and seventeen-year-olds in a Dublin school on how feminism and feminists are perceived; and Ash Sarkar interviewing Margaret Atwood at a college in Salford on resistance, activism, and the literary legacy of The Handmaid's Tale and The Testaments.
Find out more about Penguin Talks here.
Two of our authors announced as joint winners of The Booker Prize
In an unexpected move, the judges of this year's Booker Prize awarded the celebrated literary accolade to two books: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood and Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo - and we are thrilled that both books are published by Penguin Random House. Chair of the Booker judges Peter Florence said that despite the pressure to select one winner they just couldn't pick between the two.
The decision meant that Margaret Atwood became the second woman to win the Booker twice, after first being awarded the prize in 2000 with The Blind Assassin, whilst Bernardine Evaristo became the first black woman to win the prize.
Finding our WriteNow mentees’ novels in bookshops around the country
Over the past three years we’ve mentored over 30 writers through our WriteNow programme, which aims to find, mentor and publish new writers from communities under-represented on the nation's bookshelves.
This year we celebrated the six incredible books we've published by some of the exceptionally talented writers discovered through WriteNow so far – from children’s books to fiction and memoir. There are more books by WriteNow authors coming in 2020 and beyond – so watch this space!
Our next WriteNow programme will open for new applications in the spring, and we will make all details available on our WriteNow page once available.