Penguin and Albatross – with 80 years of hindsight

Many of the main features of Penguin Books were more or less directly copied from the Albatross Continental Library (see Hit or Myth), but how do their lists of titles compare?

The aim of Albatross was clearly to publish the best of contemporary English literature in continental European editions, launching in competition to Tauchnitz, which had been doing that for almost 100 years.   But the market for European editions had been changing.  The days when Tauchnitz regularly published new novels more or less simultaneously with, and sometimes before, UK publication, had largely gone.   Publishers and literary agents increasingly wanted to see a delay before allowing publication of European paperback editions that risked undercutting UK sales.   Albatross books were typically published one or two years after their UK first editions.   Indeed many of their early titles were older than that as they picked up books they felt had been overlooked by Tauchnitz.

Albatross 58     Penguin 019

Several Penguin books had been published earlier by Albatross

By the time Penguin Books launched in 1935 though, Albatross had effectively taken over Tauchnitz and the two series were being jointly managed.   Between them they were continuing to publish the best of English literature, and even with the benefit of hindsight, it is hard to fault their choice.   Of course they published many books of little lasting literary merit.   But it is hard to think of many significant authors or novels of the 1920s and 1930s who are not represented in one or other series.   The first 50 Albatross books alone included ‘Brave new world’, ‘Ulysses’ and ‘Dubliners’, ‘To the lighthouse’, ‘The garden party’ and ‘The Maltese falcon’.

Albatross 251   Albatross 366   Albatross 398

Issued as Albatross books within a year or so of first publication

Can we say the same for Penguin?  They were operating under rather different constraints.  If publishers were becoming cautious about European paperback editions, they would be even more wary of allowing paperback publication in the UK.   So the first ten titles in the Penguin list in 1935 were all books that had already been available in hardback for several years, in most cases 10 years or more.  Presumably hardback sales had fallen to a level at which there was little to be lost by allowing paperback publication.   The oldest book in the first ten had been first published in 1912, the most recent in 1929.   Number 12 in the series, W.H. Hudson’s ‘The purple land’ dated from 1885, and Samuel Butler’s ‘Erewhon’, at number 20, from 1872.  To be fair though, Dashiell Hammett’s ‘The thin man’, number 15 and first published in just 1934, was quite a coup for Penguin.

Penguin was not quite a publisher of classic reprints, but in some ways it was closer to that in its early days than it was to being a publisher of the best contemporary literature.   Its list included ‘A Farewell to Arms’ (no.2) and ‘A passage to India’ (no. 48), but both were already almost classics by the time Penguin published them, first publication dating back to 1929 and 1924 respectively.   In modern terms it is as if Penguin were launching today with a list whose highlights included ‘The kite runner’ and ‘Captain Corelli’s mandolin’, mixed in with a few classics from the sixties.

There is an advantage though in publishing books ten years after they were first issued, in that there has been some time to gauge both the public reaction and the critical reaction.   Judged on this basis, that Penguin for the most part had had 10 years to identify the best literature of its period, how does its selection stand up?

Part of the answer is obvious, since Penguin was an undoubted commercial success.   They were clearly able to choose books that the public wanted to buy, and they were also able to surround themselves with a sort of intellectual aura, that their books were serious, rather than just popular.    On the other hand, with 80 years of hindsight, it has to be said that the list of the first 100 titles, published over the first two years, is for the most part uninspiring.   In my view it doesn’t stand comparison with the Albatross list, which was chosen with much less hindsight than Penguin had.

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Posted on June 19, 2014, in Vintage Paperbacks and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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