It should’ve been me!
Whether you believe or not the story about the inspiration for Penguin Books (see Hit or Myth), there is no denying that the launch of Penguins in July 1935 was a key moment in the history of paperbacks. They were by no means the first paperbacks of course – there were lots already on sale when Penguins started – but paperbacks were a down-market product, seen as relatively trashy and disposable.
Two Pre-Penguin paperbacks
Penguin’s vision was much more up-market – making available in paperback form, books that had previously only been available, at several times the price, in hardback. Price was a major part of their attractiveness, but the innovations they copied from Albatross – the size of the books, the colour-coded covers, and the dustwrappers, were also key, and effectively defined this sector of the market over the following few years.
The lack of any cover illustrations was also crucial in distinguishing them from what went before and in establishing their up-market image. For years afterwards, Allen Lane had an aversion to illustrated covers, famously describing them as ‘bosoms and bottoms’. In the long run, he was on the wrong side of history, but in the short term, it was a critical issue. Penguins were defined as much by what they were not, as by what they were.
It was fairly quickly clear that they were a success, with some of the books reprinted within a month, and at that point you can almost imagine the commotion in the marketing department of every major publisher in London. How should they respond to this potentially disruptive change in the market?
As a reprint publisher, backed by a relatively small publisher of original hardbacks, Penguin presumably needed the co-operation of other publishers to survive, or at least to flourish. Several of the first set of books had come from Jonathan Cape. Some rivals no doubt decided not to co-operate in selling the paperback rights to any of their books, and hoped to strangle the infant at its birth. Others saw the way the wind was blowing and decided that they needed to compete in this new market.
The publisher most firmly in this camp seems to have been Hutchinson, already an established producer of paperbacks. Within 3 months of the launch of Penguins they responded with the launch of Hutchinson’s Pocket Library, the first volumes appearing in October 1935. The format of these was very similar to Penguins – the same size, covers in similarly bright colours, and dustwrappers in the same design as the books.
An even more obvious competitor would have been Collins. They were closely associated with Albatross in Continental Europe, with two of the Collins family on the Albatross Board, and many of the Collins Crime Club books, published as hardbacks in the UK, appearing as Albatross paperbacks. The idea of using some of the Albatross ideas to launch a similar series in Britain must surely have occurred to them long before Allen Lane’s moment of inspiration on a railway platform. Were they really taken by surprise by the launch of Penguins? Certainly it took them significantly longer to respond. The Collins Crime Club paperbacks (in Penguin format) didn’t start to appear until April 1936, followed over the next year or two by other genre series in different coloured covers. As they watched Penguin’s success over the next twenty-five years though, they must surely have been thinking ‘It should’ve been me!’