Say you’re a professional or businessperson who relocated to the United States. Or you’re a student who came to the this country to study. Or you live outside the United States but deal with Americans. You’re reasonably fluent in English, but you want to improve your skills. A new tool, PenguinStacks, is for you. Launched in beta this spring in the United States and Brazil, it takes aim at nonnative readers of English. The 120 titles on the site were assessed by New York University (NYU) PhD linguistics’ candidates and grouped into three levels, for those “new” to reading English, “comfortable” with reading English, or “seasoned.”
“More and more people are trying to learn languages for a variety of reasons,” said Jacqueline Fischetti, director of content development, international, for Penguin Group. “It’s a new market but growing steadily around the world.” Brazil seemed an obvious choice for a test site, since it is hosting World Cup soccer this year and the Olympics in 2016, according to Fischetti. The beta will be extended to China, Japan, and Korea, “countries that are spending a lot on professional [development],” she said.
The books are organized into seven categories: business, classics, YA, hot new releases, New York Times best sellers, books in film, and bilingual. “As we were thinking about what categories of books to include…the young adult category was the first one we decided on,” said Fischetti. “They’re a particularly great set of [titles] for someone new to reading full-length books in English to start with because they’re often not that long…and the vocabulary is often not as difficult as one might find in some of the adult books. All of our books are also ‘leveled,’ so someone new to reading English could start by choosing Level 1 books from the site.”
In-house curators “own” the categories and have expertise in them. Curators include Don Weisberg, president, Penguin Young Readers; Adrian Zackheim, president, Portfolio, a business imprint; Elda Rotor, editorial director, Penguin classics; and Erica Glass, senior manager, corporate communications, best sellers.
A new rating scale
Although there are numerous systems used to determine reading or grade levels for books, none was quite the right fit, said Fischetti. “Most of our titles would probably fit into the top level,” she said. That’s why she reached out to NYU’s prestigious linguistics department to connect with three PhD candidates. “They looked at the first 120 books and rated difficulty on a scale of one to three, three being the most difficult, based on nine factors in three broad categories: vocabulary, sentence structure/grammar, and narrative style,” said Fischetti.
In vocabulary, for instance, the team evaluated the frequency not only of “big words” but of small ones, she explained, “like hone or apt [that] can be tough because they do not occur often in speech/text.” They rated sentence length and the appearance of poetic or archaic structure for sentence structure/grammar, and they took into account differences between spoken English and literary English in assigning a rating for narrative style.
As of early June, the U.S. and Brazil sites had 4,000 members and 18,500 Facebook fans, with more members in Brazil, according to Fischetti, since the target population there is anyone who identified as speaking English. In the United States, she said, marketing has been more challenging. She pointed out, however, that both the Penguin and Random House library marketing departments had been getting requests for books like those in PenguinStacks. “Business professionals were using their libraries, and librarians were asking for books” for nonnative speakers, she said.
“Part of our plan has always been to reach out to and possibly form partnerships…with English-language schools, companies that create language-learning programs, and libraries—particularly those with a significant number of patrons who are nonnative readers—and we’re working…with our academic and library marketing and sales departments [on that],” said Fischetti. “It might prove to be a more effective way of reaching our target audience in [this country].”
Rowman & Littlefield Buys Globe Pequot, Expands Regional Reach
With the purchase of New England–based Globe Pequot Press from Morris Communications in late May, Rowman & Littlefield (R&L) added a handful of regional imprints to its stable. “We are now probably the largest publisher of regional titles in the country,” R&L president and CEO Jed Lyons told LJ. Included in the deal are imprints Globe Pequot, Lyons Press, Falcon Guides, Insiders’ Guide, Knack, and Two Dot, which would bring the number of R&L regional titles to several hundred annually, an increase of about 20 percent, Lyons said.
R&L already owns Down East Books (ME), Taylor (TX), and Northland (Southwest). “In the right part of the country, where there is a lot of pride of place, books on [regional] history, food, culture, biography, outdoors, gardening…do very well,” said Lyons. Lyons said the purchase would increase R&L sales by 30 percent. Effective August 1, National Book Network, R&L’s distribution arm, will distribute all Globe Pequot (and its 18 distribution clients) and Morris-owned imprints.
Lyons said that for now the imprints would retain their own names, though no decision had been made for the long term.