A tale of two Pocket Libraries
I’ve talked before about how Penguin transformed the market for paperback books in the UK in 1935, particularly by using non-illustrated covers, and how other companies reacted to this. Recent posts have looked at how Collins in particular reacted with the launch of their White Circle series.
But the fastest company to react seems to have been Hutchinson. The first Penguins appeared in July 1935 and by October of the same year, they had competition in the form of Hutchinson’s Pocket Library, clearly copying some of the principal design features of Penguins – the same size, covers in similarly bright colours, dustwrappers in the same design as the books, and of course the same sixpenny price. Perhaps most important though, is the lack of any illustration on the cover. Hutchinson were an established paperback publisher, but their pre-Penguin paperbacks had illustrated covers. Within three months of Penguin’s launch, here they are launching a new series without illustrations.
It seems to have been reasonably successful, running to around 75 titles before the outbreak of war and ran alongside various other series in different genres – the Hutchinson Crime Book Society published a similar number of books, competing with the Collins White Circle Crime Club as well as the Penguin crime novels, and a Hutchinson non-fiction series competed with Pelican. Pelican having launched in 1937 with a two volume book by Bernard Shaw, the Hutchinson non-fiction series launched in 1938 with a two volume book by H.G. Wells. All of these series had covers in a standard non-illustrated design, following the fashion set by Penguin.
But there was also one other series – the Hutchinson’s Popular Pocket Library, a series of romantic novels. The insertion of that one word ‘popular’ distinguished it from the more serious Hutchinson’s Pocket Library, but the real distinguishing factor was that this series had illustrated covers. This comparison, more than anything, showed the effect that Penguin had had on the market. Illustrated covers now implied a lack of seriousness, or pure escapism. Novels with any literary pretensions at all, even crime novels, or in the case of Collins, westerns, had to have non-illustrated covers. But books that were happy to flaunt their lack of any pretensions, could use illustrations. The word ‘popular’ is being used here almost as a taunt – “we know this is escapist rubbish, but we don’t care – look, cover art!”.