Why did Penguins have numbers?
If you p-pick up a Penguin book published recently, you won’t find a series number prominently displayed on the spine or on the half-title. When Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin, picked up the original books that he was about to republish as paperbacks, he wouldn’t have found series numbers on them. As a publisher, and Director of The Bodley Head, he had already published many books and I doubt there was a number on any of them.
Yet of all the many decisions he had to take as he set about launching Penguins, the question of whether or not to use series numbers was probably one of the easiest. They were paperbacks – of course they would be numbered. However much of an innovator or revolutionary Lane was, not to number his new paperbacks would have been a step too far.
The continental Albatross Books from which Lane took many of the ideas for Penguin, had series numbers. The Tauchnitz Editions that were effectively the predecessor of Albatross, had been numbering their books since the first volume in 1842, and had reached over 5000 by 1935. In Britain too, paperbacks were almost always numbered. The Hutchinson paperback series of ‘Famous sixpenny novels’ had already gone past 400 and Victorian paperbacks such as W.T. Stead’s ‘Books for the Bairns’ and ‘Penny Poets’ had all been numbered. There were certainly a few hardback series that were numbered as well, but the general rule was to issue paperbacks as a numbered series and hardbacks as individual books.
Albatross paperbacks and an early Tauchnitz paperback
But why? Was it that paperbacks were seen as more like magazines than books? Magazines had traditionally been numbered, although often split into in volumes, rather than just numbered sequentially. Newspapers, even today, are often numbered – The Times is currently over 70,000, The Independent at a more modest 8,500ish.
Did it go back to the days when novels, such as several of those by Dickens, were sold as a series of parts, in numbered paperbacks? Or was it just that paperbacks needed the branding of a series, whereas hardbacks sold more on the reputation of the author, or the cover illustration. The logic doesn’t seem to apply any more, as few paperbacks are now numbered, or have any conspicuous series branding or publisher branding.
Whatever the reason, Penguin came to love their numbers. Special numbers soon became reasons for celebration. George Bernard Shaw was the prime celebratory author in the early days, being given numbers 200, 300 and 500. Volume 1000 was saved for a book by Edward Young, a former Penguin employee who had drawn the original logo, before going on to become a submarine commander. It was followed by volume 1001 – ‘The thousand and one nights’. Earlier, number 666 had been used for ‘Defy the foul fiend’.
From the point of view of modern day collectors, series numbers are a great help, making it much easier to see what exists and which books are missing. They almost provide a rationale for collecting – to find the first 100 or the first 1000 Penguins – although they also provide some intriguing mysteries, where numbers are missing or duplicated or inconsistent.
Penguin eventually stopped showing series numbers on their paperbacks some time around the 1970s, although they couldn’t entirely kick the habit. Almost alone amongst major publishers, they continued to print the ISBN at the bottom of the spine, from which a series number could be inferred, for almost another twenty years before eventually deciding it was entirely redundant.