Losing your soul – Penguin in America

Of all the innovations brought in by Penguin Books when it launched in July 1935, the one that had most effect on the UK market was non-illustrated covers.   Before Penguin, paperbacks had illustrated covers, after Penguin they largely didn’t.  For the next 10 years through to the end of the war, almost all the new paperback series launched in the UK had standard designed covers, with no illustrations.   Penguin succeeded in redefining the market so that illustrated covers on a paperback signalled down market.   In doing so, the lack of cover illustration became a defining feature of Penguins, almost the essence of the company.

After their success in the UK, it was natural for Penguin to think of tackling the US market.  Would the same formula work there?  Their first office in New York was set up in 1939, at first importing books from the UK, so the question of cover design didn’t arise.   By 1942 though, German submarines were making this a hazardous exercise and paper rationing in the UK was a problem anyway, so local printing seemed to be the way forward.   At first they simply reprinted Penguins and Penguin Specials from the UK, using the same format and the same series numbers.   But gradually differences started to emerge.   First they moved to thicker card covers, more in line with those typically used in the US.   Then they started to publish books locally that were more suited to the American market, rather than just choosing books from the UK list.

US Penguin 502 1st 1942 US Penguin 503 US Penguin 508

Rapid change – US Penguins numbers 502, 503 and 508

A new series of Penguins, published only in America, and numbered from 501 onwards, started in the Spring of 1942 with Mignon Eberhart’s ‘Murder by an aristocrat’ and ‘Pygmalion’ by George Bernard Shaw.  The first printing of each of these books had covers that followed the standard UK design of three horizontal stripes, colour coded to indicate genre, green for crime for the Eberhart and red for plays in the case of ‘Pygmalion’.  But Penguin’s local management in the US, headed by Ian Ballantine, must already have been concerned about whether this format was right for the American market.  By June 1942, with the issue of the next batch of books from volume 503 on, the design had been altered to one more specific to the US market.   Cover illustration was still absent, probably because of opposition from the UK, but there was space instead for a short blurb advertising the book.

The first tentative step towards cover illustration started with volume 508 – ‘Walden’ by Thoreau.  This was probably acceptable to the UK parent as the illustration was from a woodcut – there had been precedents for that.  But Ballantine clearly wanted to go further, and it was not long before he got his way.  Volume 514 – ‘Tombstone’ by Walter Noble Burns again featured a small illustration, and from there, there was no going back.   The illustrations continued to increase in size and in prominence.  From November 1943, with volume 525, the books reduced in size to a more standard US size, and then from volume 566 onwards they started to use additional colours on the covers.   By now Penguins had lost most of their distinctiveness and were looking increasingly like any other American paperback.  It should be said that the cover illustrations were probably relatively up-market, often designed by Robert Jonas, and a long way from some of the gaudier covers on the market.  But they were equally far away from UK Penguins, and the gap was only going to increase.

US Penguin 519 US Penguin 567 US Penguin 572

US Penguins – numbers 519, 567 and 572

From 1945 the books increased in size again, perhaps regaining some distinctiveness, but moved to full colour covers, still relatively restrained.  Tensions remained with the UK parent, with cover design still a running sore, and by 1948 separation seemed to be inevitable.   The business was bought out and Penguin Books became Signet Books as part of the New American Library.   The whole process from launch of the series in 1942 to separation in 1948 had taken just 6 years, and along the way almost everything that marked out Penguins as distinctive in the UK had been jettisoned.

US Penguin 662 - Penguin Signet    US Penguin 668 - Penguin Signet

Why did Penguins, and particularly the idea of paperbacks with non-illustrated covers, fail in the US?  Was it even given a chance, considering how quickly the non-illustrated covers were discarded?  It’s easy to say that the US market was different and Penguins had to compete with the wide choice of brightly covered paperbacks available there.  That’s true enough, but there were lots of brightly illustrated paperbacks available in the UK too when Penguin launched, and it wasn’t obvious that Penguins would stand out.   Somehow, for a brief period, something clicked in the UK, and Penguins caught the Zeitgeist.  By the time Penguin withdrew from the US in 1948, its home market was changing as well, and other paperback series such as Pan, with illustrated covers, were on the horizon.  It would still be more than another decade before Penguin made significant moves in that direction, but the winds of change were already blowing.

How Penguin lost its distinctiveness

How to lose your distinctiveness in seven easy steps

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Posted on October 13, 2014, in Vintage Paperbacks and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

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