London Commuters Get Easy Reading from a Machine

Travelers on the London Tube, they say, don't talk or even catch each other's eyes. They simply bury their heads in the Times or the Sun. It's one of those English things.

But these days, commuters on the Tube — as the London Underground is affectionately called — have a choice of elegantly produced short story mini-books conveniently folded to make for easy reading on the train that helps see them through their chit chat-less commute home.

All they have to do is slip a handy pound coin ($1.50) into a snazzy book vending machine and presto, there's a short story for the ride.

London's South Kensington Underground Station has three vending machines offering passengers a selection of short stories by literary big daddies such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Martin Amis and P.G. Wodehouse as easy to buy as a candy bar.

Officially launched last month, these sleek 5-foot-tall story dispensers have gone down rather well with commuters and London Underground officials alike.

"We are always delighted to find an innovative idea for vending on the Underground," said Stephen Wilson of London Underground Marketing and Planning. "Our customers are enthusiastic users of confectionery machines and we have no reason to believe they will not be equally keen on feeding their minds with a good read that is just the right length for an average daily commute."

Designed to be read within 45 minutes with a 10,000-word limit, the elegantly produced books are published by Travelman Publishing, a London based short-story publishing house.

Brains Behind the Beauty

But the brains behind the pound-for-a-story venture was the Earl of Iveagh, who also happens to be an heir to the Irish Guinness brewing empire. He told he would much rather be called Ned Guinness.

Guinness floated the idea to his friend Alexander Waugh, founder of Travelman Publishing, who is also a writer and a grandson of the late novelist Evelyn Waugh.

"It's nice to be able to put a smile on people's faces," said Guinness. "Traveling can be so boring, especially if you do it every time."

Guinness' aim was to offer commuters "tried and tested" authors that were gripping as well as compelling.

The challenge now is to hitch up the lowly image of the vending machine. "We want to push the vending machine into the mainstream, make it a more quality product," said Guinness. "You may have a hunger, for instance, but it's a matter how you satiate it."

The menu for slaking one's literary thirst on Travelman mini-books include Goodbye to Cats by P.G. Wodehouse, A Telephone Call by Dorothy Parker and this week, a selection of love poems by literary giants to commemorate Valentine's Day.

The machines change their selections once a week but Guinness says he's still testing the shelf life of a title and could change the selection every three days. The company is looking to publish new authors in the future.

All Around the World

The real appeal of the machines seem to be its sleek good looks, with a logo of a butler delivering a stack of books, designed by engineering students of Coventry University and winner of the British government's Millennium Design Award of the year.

It's still too early to say just how well — or badly — the machines are doing, but Guinness is also looking to launch new vending machines at other stations and has received enthusiastic responses to set up such machines at airports, parks and public monument sites.

On his part, Waugh has stressed that the publishing house was not looking to make money off the mini-book series, "as long as we don't lose too much money on the venture."

The company is also casting its eye across the Atlantic. "I realize we will have to design our material to suit different tastes," said Guinness, "but there's tremendous potential in the U.S."

Passengers rushing through New York City's Grand Central station may just find a sleek green machine with a little man bearing a stack of books tantalizing them on their way home soon.