When the team behind Penguin Digital was called on stage at last year's SXSW Web Awards in Austin, Texas, there was a general sense of bewilderment. Had a 74-year-old British book publisher just won the hottest prize in digital - best in show at SXSW?
The answer was yes. But Anna Rafferty, managing director of Penguin Digital, wasn't there to accept the plaudits. In selfless fashion she had sent a team over to the show for wetellstories.co.uk, an online experiment commissioned by Rafferty that involved telling six stories in unconventional ways.
One was The 21 Steps - a homage to John Buchan's thriller The 39 Steps told through Google Maps. Another, Your Place and Mine, was written live online by two authors on five consecutive evenings at 6.30pm.
The fact that the project was judged more experimental than dozens created by more 'cutting edge' companies is remarkable. The fact that it won best in show is testament to how much Rafferty has learned in her seven years in charge.
Shortly after she joined Penguin in 2003, Rafferty set out the goal of making penguin.co.uk the leading online destination for literature lovers. It may have been less than a decade ago, but this was the time of 56k modems. Crucially, there was none of the social media elements that seem to underpin almost everything done commercially online today.
"At the risk of sounding a bit pervy, we touch our readers in different places," she says. "So people receive our content where they choose to. We have 50,000 people following us on Twitter, for example, and that's their interaction with us. They might not come to the website."
This realisation has been instrumental in Penguin's digital strategy. With hundreds of books available online from authors including Zadie Smith and Stephen Fry, as well as legacy publications from favourite writers such as George Orwell and Roald Dahl, Penguin has around 60 websites live at any one time.
Wetellstories.co.uk and spinebreakers.co.uk have been particularly successful. It is the latter that Rafferty enthuses about most - a publisher-agnostic website run by an editorial board of children who decide what to feature on the site. Rafferty even provides them with small amounts of cash to fund local book events and encourages authors to attend.
"It's all about co-creation and the empowerment of teen readers, so the site can be about what they want it to be rather than what we want it to be," says Rafferty.
Again, the project represents impressive work from Rafferty, but it is just one part of her strategy for making Penguin the pre-eminent name in teen publishing.
Rafferty's approach centres on the fact that she has never bought an online ad on behalf of Penguin. Instead she channels her budget into creating "interesting" stuff online. Any commercial deals she does tend to be in the form of brand partnerships where both parties can benefit to the same extent.
"We used to launch websites selling books but we don't do it any more," she says. "I just don't see the value of them. Where's the engagement in that? It's all about making people care about what you're doing and not about slapping ads on the internet."
For Rafferty, an English graduate of King's College London, books are what she grew up loving. However, her enthusiasm is no longer focused solely on the printed word. The key is stories - where they are told is subject to change.
More and more stories are being read via ebooks, the big talking point in publishing right now. With Penguin being one of only a few companies to partner Apple ahead of the launch of the iPad in April, one might think that Rafferty would enthuse about the product's prospects.
But she is more savvy than that. Products will develop with technology, the means of telling stories will continue to multiply and Penguin will take it all in its stride. This seems to be Rafferty's overriding attitude.
"What we know about ebooks is that every time there's a new piece of hardware it significantly changes the market," she says. "That's what drives the appetite for it. So the iPad will change everything in that it will be a single-purpose touch-screen device that can handle colour and pictures and stuff like that.
It will open up the opportunity for books that haven't been a natural fit for black and white text-based devices."
In its 75th year, it's not surprising that Penguin is sanguine about technology. The cheaper paperback format, which opened up the pastime of reading to the masses, was pioneered by Penguin, and that is how the company grew.
Now, as part of media group Pearson, its growth is partly due to that other great democratising force - the internet. Indeed, thanks to the Financial Times and now Penguin, Pearson can claim, perhaps surprisingly for a company with such established brands, to be a pioneer in the digital space.
With Stephen Fry's memoir out later this year, a partnership with AIDS fund Red on the cards, and iPad apps in production, Penguin's 75th year should prove as interesting as its first.
And don't be surprised if you see Rafferty, or more likely a member of her team, taking to the stage at SXSW next year to collect an award for Penguin's use of the iPad.
2003-present Managing director, Penguin Digital
2003 Web projects manager, V&A
2001-2002 Business development manager, Dowcarter
1999-2001 Copywriter, Lastminute.com
Favourite book Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe
Like watching Bones
Like listening to White Collar Weapons (her brother's band)
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