Before Penguin Classics, Charles Boni Blended Literary History With Stylish Design

Did this imprint help change the face of publishing?

Boni Books
A selection of Boni Books.

A publishing imprint dedicated to literary classics. A distinctive style of cover design. A dedication to affordable and accessible paperback editions. From reading this, your first thought is probably centered around Penguin Classics, who helped shape literary history by adopting all of these qualities. But while Penguin Classics is most famous for this approach, they weren’t necessarily the first to utilize it — and the work of one of their predecessors continues to impress literary historians and book collectors.

The predecessor in question is Boni Books, and a new article by Rebecca Rego Barry at Literary Hub helps explain their importance to publishing history.

Charles and Albert Boni began their careers as booksellers before making a move into publishing, which involved being among the founders of the Modern Library imprint in 1917. After parting ways with their partner in that venture, Horace Liveright, the two brothers launched a new publishing company. It was from there that Charles launched the subscription-based imprint, Boni Paper Books. Unfortunately, he did so in 1929, and the Great Depression had an adverse effect on the venture.

Charles then launched the non-subscription-based Bonibooks imprint, which featured books by the likes of Herman Melville and Gustave Flaubert. Less impressively, its list of titles also contained The Cardinal’s Mistress, a romance novel written by one Benito Mussolini. Barry notes that Boni’s “editorial selection, however, lacked cohesion.” Barry also makes a convincing case that Boni’s short-lived venture established a template that the likes of Penguin Classics turned into a successful business model.

The Literary Hub article was published to coincide with the sale, at rare bookseller Honey & Wax, of a complete set of the 53 books published as part of Charles Boni’s imprints. As of now, though, the link leads to an error page — suggesting that some enterprising book collector leapt at the chance to own a piece of history.

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