London — In what book publishers around the world were calling “a sure thing,” has turned out to be one of the largest marketing and sales disasters the industry has ever seen. As a famed theoretical physicist and cosmologist, Stephen Hawking teamed up in 2016 with Penguin Classics to record audiobook versions of several seminal “historically significant” works of literature. Marketing experts hope that the celebrity cache of the esteemed scientist would open new markets for the book publisher who has been struggling to break into the digital era.
As the subsidiary of New York-based Random House, the publisher of out-of-copyright works failed to see, the revenue returns it was hoping for in its first audiobook release: Stephen Hawking reads Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. According to Penguin Classics spokesperson Bethany Millbright, other projects have been put on hold.
“Of course, we’re disappointed with the sluggish sales of A Tale of Two Cities,” said Ms. Millbright attempting to read from a prepared statement. “But the sales didn’t pan out, so we’ve discontinued the program.”
Listen to Stephen Hawking read A Tale of Two Cities
According to Penguin Classics insiders, who wished to remain off the record, the company had plans for Mr. Hawking to read the entire works of both Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Within hours of the release of Stephen Hawking reads Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, negative comments began to accrue in Amazon.com’s comment system, prompting the world’s largest online bookseller to turn off customer feedback. Here are some examples:
“I could never appreciate classics fully, and I think because of the really, REALLY, long sentences that span more than a page on my kindle deter me from approaching them. Get my drift? And then you add Stephen Hawkins’ voice? Give me a break. I like the guy, but this was a bad idea.”
“An endless, endless, endless story that would’ve been 1/3rd its length had Dickens not been being paid by the word. Who’s bright idea was to let Hawking read this? I am going to re-gift this to my ex-husband.”
“I bought audiobooks to keep me entertained on my way home from work, not to encourage me to drive off into a ravine to make the sound of Dickens in a Hawking dialect leave my head.”
Penguin Classic had no comment on the negative reviews other than to say that their actions on removing the audiobook are more than enough of an explanation. However, even with the failure of the Stephen Hawking venture, the book publisher is pushing forward with other audio talents.
“Oh, we’re in no way giving up on this enterprise,” continued Ms. Millbright. “We’ve got Christopher Walken slated to read the collected works of Herman Melville, and Fran Drescher queued up to read, actually sing, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar starting next year.