Written specially for Penguin
In a recent post on Pelican Books, Penguin’s non-fiction imprint, I looked at the left-wing bias in the early days after their 1937 launch – clear, but undeclared. But there’s another aspect that deserves looking at, which is their part in moving Penguin from being a pure paperback reprint publisher, towards having a stronger role in commissioning new works.
Before Penguin, paperbacks in the UK were almost always reprints. It’s a model that is still extensively used today. Books are published first as expensive hardbacks, and only after sales at the higher and more profitable price have been maximised, does the paperback follow. Publishers have always been frightened that paperback sales would undermine sales of the more expensive hardbacks.
When Penguin launched in 1935 their list was not only all reprints, but really quite old reprints. Their first ten books were published on average 12 years after first publication. That increased to 17 years for the second ten and almost 20 for the third ten. It was not easy to persuade publishers to release the paperback rights for more recent novels.
These two early Penguins had been first published in the 19th century
So when Pelican launched two years later, it was natural that they should scour the market for reprint rights on non-fiction titles that had been best-sellers 10 years or so earlier. And for the first few years, that was indeed largely what they published, subject to that bias towards left-wing authors and left-wing content.
To launch the series though, they wanted something a bit different and they succeeded in persuading George Bernard Shaw, not only to allow a reprint of his ‘The intelligent woman’s guide to Socialism and Capitalism’ (published 9 years earlier), but to extend it by writing two new chapters on Sovietism and Fascism. As far as I know, these two chapters were the first new writing, not already published elsewhere, that Penguin had ever issued.
The book sold well, although judging by the number of copies surviving in pristine condition, many copies may have remained unread. That’s perhaps just as well, as Shaw was barely a democrat and certainly no strong opponent of either fascism or sovietism. He was attracted by, and effectively duped by, what he saw as strong leaders such as Mussolini and Stalin, and saw much to admire in Hitler. The arguments in his new chapters would not have stiffened many spines in pre-war Britain.
The book may though have given Penguin a taste for the publication of more new works. One of the other early Pelicans, ‘Practical Economics’ by G.D.H. Cole (volume A6) was also a new work specially written for the series. Indeed as this was an entirely new book and the first nine Pelican volumes were issued simultaneously in May 1937, this one rather than Shaw’s, should arguably be considered the first new work to be published by Penguin.
Others followed, although only sporadically at first in the Pelican list. The focus for new writing moved decisively away from Pelican with the launch of the Penguin Specials in late 1937. The first book in this series was a reprint, but the vast majority of the volumes, coming thick and fast after that, were new works written specially for the series – books written and published in almost record time as they reacted to fast-moving international events. In some ways the Penguin Specials were closer to journalism than to traditional book publishing.
By mid-1940 the Penguin Specials had published around 40 completely new works. In comparison there were only about 10 new works in the Pelican list by this point. The academics and intellectuals who wrote for Pelican were certainly not used to writing at the speed of journalists. Nevertheless the combined effect of the two series and others like the King Penguins, was that astonishingly, by 1941 Penguin was publishing more original works than reprints. There’s a fascinating graph in one issue of Penguin’s Progress that shows how from a standing start in 1937, new works climbed rapidly to around 60 a year, while reprints fell from up to 90 a year, down to more like 50.
That’s an amazing change in a few short years and one that goes against most people’s preconceptions. It led to the surprising position where Penguin was selling hardback rights to other publishers for books that had been first published as paperbacks. And where Penguin also ended up publishing quite significant numbers of hardbacks itself. But that’s another story.