How Pan Books won the battle for illustrated covers
I’ve written before about how Penguin transformed the UK paperback market, particularly by making illustrated covers look both old-fashioned and down market. It was rather odd really. Before 1935 illustrated covers had dominated the paperback market and with hindsight we know that illustrated covers were to dominate in future as well. But for more than a decade after the launch of Penguin in 1935, no paperback publisher who wanted their books to be taken at all seriously, could use much in the way of cover art.
The inevitable fightback is probably most associated with Pan Books, which became known for its bright cover illustrations and later for its paperback editions of James Bond books. It eventually became a serious rival to Penguin and pushed them further and further to using illustrated covers themselves. But that was quite a long way down the line when the business was set up in 1944 by Alan Bott, a former World War I fighter pilot, who had been one of the founders of the Book Society. It’s not clear that he had any intention either of rivalling Penguin, or of reintroducing cover art to paperbacks when his first books appeared. The first two, in 1945, were a paperback collection of ‘Tales of the Supernatural’ and a small hardback edition of ‘A Christmas Carol’. Two more paperbacks followed in 1946, but other than a small logo, they had no cover art and were unnumbered.
The first two Pan Books
… and the next two
By early 1947 it was still not clear where the business was going. Two more hardback books appeared, one of them an almost identical copy of a book that Alan Bott’s earlier venture, The Book Society had published only months before. There seemed to be no coherence at all to the publishing programme, and certainly no indication of what the business was to become. Part of that may have been because of the continuing effects of paper rationing after the war. It was difficult for any new publisher to obtain access to paper in large quantities, and for Pan Books the problem was solved only when they reached agreement for books to be printed in France.
Book Society edition 1946 (left) and Pan books edition 1947 (right)
That arrangement was in place in early 1947 and it was not long before the first books in the numbered series of paperbacks appeared and the style that was to be associated with them, started to emerge. Number 1 in the series was a selection of stories by Rudyard Kipling, and number 2 ‘Lost Horizon’ by James Hilton. These were fairly safe choices, but the radical element was the use of illustration on the cover. Nothing too colourful of course – fairly simple and stylised drawings, but still a significant break from what had been the orthodoxy of the previous 12 years.
Just as Penguin has its own creation myth involving Allen Lane on a railway station, Pan Books has the story of how books were sailed down the River Seine from Paris each week on an old Royal Navy Motor Launch, and then up the Thames to its warehouse in London. A lot of books must have made that journey, because by the end of 1947 the series had reached about 25 books and seemed well established, with the use of cover illustration a definite part of its style. By mid 1950 the series was well past 100 and illustrations were in full colour, were taking up more of the front cover and were becoming more naturalistic. Around the same time, printing switched back to the UK and the motor launch could be put into retirement.
Pan covers from 1950 and from 1960
Within another 5 or 6 years illustrations would take over the entire cover, and by that time the battle for the future of cover art had been won. Penguin would remain an important player in the market and would eventually adopt illustrated covers, but it would no longer be setting the terms on which all the other companies had to compete.