Monthly Archives: November 2018
Large publishing groups like HarperCollins, Penguin Random House or Hachette today use lots of different imprints for the books they publish. I’m not very sure why, because most readers would have little idea of the publisher’s name even after reading a book, never mind before buying it.
It wasn’t always so. Paperback series used to cultivate brand loyalty and the brand was very clearly signalled on the covers. If you bought a Penguin Book in the 1930s, 1940s or even later, you certainly knew it was a Penguin, both before you bought it and after you had read it. And given Penguin’s success, almost all other paperback publishers adopted clear and prominent brand identities as well. Which left Hutchinson, the HarperCollins of its day, with a problem. The Hutchinson Group contained a long list of publishing companies and it’s not clear to me how much cooperation there was between them. So they ended up with not one paperback series competing with Penguin, but several.
The Hutchinson Pocket Library was perhaps their flagship series in response to Penguin, but from different parts of the group also came Jarrolds Jackdaw books, Toucan books, John Long Four Square Thrillers and the Hutchinson Popular Pocket Library.
For several years in the late 1930s, the Leisure Library Company, another part of Hutchinson, resisted the trend to Penguinisation. They continued to publish paperbacks that were a throwback to pre-Penguin days – larger format, brightly illustrated covers, and selling for just 3d or 4d, substantially undercutting Penguin on price, but unashamedly down-market. Although Penguin mythology lauds the company for selling books at the low price of 6d, in reality Penguins were more at the top end of the paperback price range and only just below the 7d price of cheap hardbacks at the time.
But in 1940 the Leisure Library capitulated and joined the rush to establish Penguin-style paperback series, adding another to Hutchinson’s long list. Although in this case, it might be more accurate to describe them as Collins White Circle style.
Like Collins, the Leisure Library started separate sub-series for crime, westerns and romantic novels. Each sub-series had its own colour, with both companies using green for crime and yellow for westerns, and each added a stylised picture as part of the cover design.
To some extent also like Collins, the connection between the sub-series was not particularly emphasised, and the books were primarily branded as coming from ‘The Wild West Library’, ‘Crime Novel Library’ or ‘Romantic Novel Library’. The crime and romance novels are still shown as published by the Leisure Library Co. on the title page and the spine, but the westerns refer only to the Wild West Library. The westerns are though clearly linked to the crime novels by the square white title panel with perforated edges. These two series could almost have been called the Hutchinson White Square books, but oddly the Romance sub-series went for a white circle instead, making it easily confused with the Collins series.
The series was not very long-lived, although that was probably as much to do with the effect of the war on publishing, as with the commercial success or failure of the books. They were all published in 1940, in a relatively short period between about May and July, and few paperback series were able to maintain much of a publishing programme after that until the end of the war. There were a total of 32 books – fourteen crime, twelve westerns and six romances. I don’t think any of them have achieved much of a mark on literary history, even amongst fans of the relevant genres, but they added another layer to the story of the paperback revolution unleashed by Penguin.
Allen Lane’s decision to abandon cover art when he launched Penguin Books in July 1935, was a revolutionary move that was followed by almost all of his competitors. Previously lurid cover designs gave way to much more restrained design. So what is happening just two years later, when Lane seems to abandon all restraint with the Penguin Specials series?
It is not yet the return of multi-coloured cover art. It would be many more years before Lane could reconcile himself to such a step. But the screaming headlines, the long prose blurbs and the occasional cartoons and maps on the covers of the Penguin Specials are a long way away from the simple tripartite model of the main Penguin series.
The series of topical political tracts on world affairs, launched in late 1937 was a huge success. The turbulent state of European politics had created an appetite for information on international affairs that Lane was happy to satisfy. The initial print run of 50,000 for the first volume sold out within four days and had to be almost immediately reprinted. Other books sold in their hundreds of thousands and their success gave Penguin a platform for later domination. When paper rationing was introduced later in the war, the allocations were based on paper use in these pre-war years and Penguin were using paper in vast quantities.
But why the lack of restraint in design? Penguin seem to have decided that in the political situation of the time, with the threat of war looming, restraint was simply not appropriate. Every new book in the series, and every new topic, was a matter of screaming urgency and the covers should reflect this.
And the books were after all, despite their lack of restraint, still recognisably Penguins. Enough of the basic Penguin design was retained for that to be clear. They carried the Penguin brand and the values associated with it – a certain vague notion of seriousness, quality and intellectual aspiration. Despite the shoutiness of the covers, these were not to be seen as populist or downmarket. The basic colour was still orange, the colour most associated with Penguin (or Pelican blue for those volumes branded as Pelican specials), the design was still based on horizontal bands, the Penguin logo was still in much the same place at the bottom of the front cover, and the price of course was still 6d.
The style of cover was not really new. The covers remind me particularly of the dustwrapper designs on many hardback books from Gollancz in the 1930s, and no doubt other publishers too. But I don’t think they were normal on paperbacks at this time, and if anybody was going to introduce them, the last person you’d have in mind would be Allen Lane. For the second time in three years, he was revolutionising paperback cover design.
But in the end this one wasn’t really a revolution. Other companies didn’t copy it, although Hutchinson moved some way in the same direction for a while. Perhaps even more significantly, Penguin themselves didn’t persist for too long with the policy. When war was declared in September 1939, the series had reached almost 40 titles, but gradually screaming headlines started to give way to the more sober realities of war. By 1942, as the series passed 100 volumes, a new design was emerging that had no room for long quotations or cartoons and was much more like the classic Penguin design. This looks to me to be a recognition that the technique of shouting can be very effective in the short term, particularly if unexpected, but almost inevitably loses its effectiveness and shows diminishing returns if persisted with. Restraint was back in fashion.
A Penguin special from 1943