A wrong turning
Why was it Allen Lane and the Lane brothers, rather than William Collins and the Collins brothers, who launched Penguin Books and the paperback revolution in the UK? In a previous post I suggested that Collins, through their key role in Albatross, were in a much better position to see the way the wind was blowing. Before launching Penguin, Allen Lane had been in discussions with Albatross about a possible joint venture. As Directors of Albatross, William and Ian Collins would surely have been aware of those discussions,, and so knew the way Lane was thinking. They could hardly have been totally surprised when he went ahead with a paperback launch in the UK.
Part of the answer seems to be that they did indeed see the market opportunity and had a strategy to exploit it, which would have seemed entirely reasonable at the time. It’s just that with hindsight their strategy turned out to be the wrong one. They had launched a new series of cheap hardbacks in 1934 called the Collins sevenpence novels. Sevenpence looks to be a very impressive price for a hardback, given that many new novels in hardback sold for more like seven shillings and sixpence at the time. The list of titles in the series looks like a reasonable mix of popular fiction – novels from Somerset Maugham, Rose Macaulay and Michael Arlen, crime titles from Agatha Christie, John Rhode and G.D.H. & M. Cole, mysteries from Edgar Wallace and a selection of westerns. Many of these same authors had already appeared in Albatross and would later appear in Penguin. Yet this series was completely blown away by the launch of Penguins a year later and Collins had to scramble to replace it with a new paperback series.
So what went wrong? Why were paperbacks at sixpence such a success when hardbacks at sevenpence weren’t? Why did customers rush to buy Agatha Christie’s ‘The mysterious affair at Styles’ from Penguin, rather than Agatha Christie’s ‘The murder of Roger Ackroyd’ from Collins?
Certainly it’s possible that Penguin got the price right and Collins just missed it. Sixpence was just one penny less, but it would have had a different feel to it, just as £1 now feels different from £1.20. Penguin may also have got the distribution right, famously selling through Woolworths as well as through bookshops. But the big difference seems to be the marketing, the brand and particularly the cover design, all elements that Penguin copied from Albatross. The Collins sevenpence novels had illustrated dustwrappers, designed to appeal to the mass market they were aiming for, rather than the typographical covers of Albatross, designed to appeal to the much more select group of people who would buy English books in continental Europe.
The genius of Allen Lane seems to have been to realise that a mass market product didn’t have to look mass market. The same design principles could be applied to it as to a much more up-market product. Customers might only be buying an Agatha Christie or a Michael Arlen novel, and might only be paying sixpence or sevenpence, but they wanted it to look like serious literature, not look trashy. That might seem obvious in retrospect, but at the time it would have been much less so. The strategy of Collins to sell hardbacks at sevenpence in bright dustwrappers would have seemed entirely reasonable and perhaps much more likely to succeed than Lane’s sober paperbacks at sixpence. It’s also worth remembering that Lane’s strategy was to some extent an anomaly in both historical and geographical terms. The US market never embraced soberly designed paperbacks, and the UK market has moved a long way away from them now, but in Britain, in 1935, that was the right strategy. Collins were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.