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Keep the blue flag flying

Pelican Books, the non-fiction imprint of Penguin, launched in 1937 and brought books on a huge range of serious topics within the range of ordinary people, publishing them at the standard Penguin price of sixpence.  They sold in their hundreds of thousands, bringing education to the masses.  It was conceived as an educational series.  It was no accident that one of the key editors behind Pelican was W.E. Williams, also closely involved in the Workers Educational Association.

But that’s also a clue to another aspect of Pelican Books that was perhaps less evident.  Despite the blue covers of the books, this for at least the first couple of years was very definitely a left wing publisher.  Take a look at the first few volumes.  Volumes 1 and 2 are ‘The intelligent woman’s guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism’ by Bernard Shaw.  The title manages in just a few words to be both patronising and sexist, but also essentially misleading.  This is no even-handed review of political philosophies.   Shaw was a Fabian socialist and this is a rationalisation of his political beliefs.

Pelican A3

Volume 3 is a very odd book to be included in the first few volumes of what is ostensibly a non-fiction series.  ‘Last and First Men’ by Olaf Stapledon is a science fiction novel, described as ‘a story of the near and far future’.  It is certainly fiction and would have been more appropriately published in the main Penguin series rather than Pelican.  For what it’s worth though, the author was undoubtedly left wing in his political beliefs, and during the war a supporter of the socialist Common Wealth party.

Volume 4 was a book on archaeology by Sir Leonard Woolley and probably outside the left / right spectrum, but volume 5 (‘A short history of the world’ by H.G. Wells) and volume 6 (‘Practical Economics’ by G.D.H. Cole) were both the work of prominent socialists.  Volume 7 (‘Essays in Popular Science’ by Julian Huxley) is again hard to categorise as left or right wing, but there is no doubt about volume 8.  ‘The floating republic’ by Bonamy Dobrée & G.E. Manwaring is the story of a naval mutiny and effectively an early example of trade union activism.  It may be presented as the non-political work of academic historians, but it is also a revising of history from a socialist perspective.

Pelican A8 dw

Volume 9 is the first of several volumes of a ‘History of the English people’ by Élie Halévy, surprisingly the work of a Frenchman.   Halévy was probably better described as a Liberal than as a Socialist, but he had left wing sympathies and he lectured and wrote on the history of socialism.   Volume 10 is then a book on astrophysics by Sir James Jeans.

This general pattern of mixing non-political volumes with volumes on a range of subjects by left wing authors, continued for a considerable time.   Over the next year or two the series included works by a long list of prominent socialists including J.B.S. Haldane, Harold Laski, R.H. Tawney, Beatrice Webb and G.D.H. Cole, and communists such as J.G. Crowther and Petr Kropotkin.   There were also several works by members of the Bloomsbury Group, including both Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Roger Fry and Clive Bell, all generally left / liberal if not socialist in their politics.  There are also plenty of non-political authors, but I struggle to find a single author in the first 50 volumes who could be clearly described as right wing.  What is striking to me is that these are not necessarily books about politics, economics or history – even for books about science or art, the series seems to have searched out left-wing authors.

There were of course other left wing publishers and left wing series.  The Left Book Club published by Gollancz springs to mind and was a successful series at much the same time as Pelican.  The difference though is that buyers of the Left Book Club were in no doubt about what they were buying.  Pelican’s position was much less explicit.  In buying a Pelican you were buying into a certain culture of popular education, but I’m not sure it was clear that you were buying into a left wing philosophy.

Krishna Menon

V.K. Krishna Menon

The key person behind the political positioning of Pelican Books was probably not Allen Lane, the owner of Penguin, but V.K. Krishna Menon, whom Lane appointed as overall Editor of the series.  In appointing him though, Lane must have known what he was getting.  Krishna Menon had worked as an editor at Bodley Head, the Lane family firm, and he had been a Labour councillor in St Pancras since 1934.   He was being considered as a Labour parliamentary candidate, but this fell through because of suspicions that he was actually a Communist.   He was a close friend of Nehru, a passionate advocate of Indian independence and a fierce opponent of the British Empire, to the extent that there were doubts about his loyalty to Britain during the war years.

Wiiliam Emrys Williams

William Emrys (Bill) Williams

He did not of course have total freedom to develop the Pelican list as he chose.  He was supported by three Advisory Editors, although it seems doubtful that they were much of a check on his left wing tendencies.  W.E. Williams, mentioned at the start of this post, was one of them.  He was primarily an educationalist, but certainly also a socialist.  As well as his role with the Workers Educational Association, he went on to head up the Army Bureau of Current Affairs, which was later accused of being so effective at spreading left wing opinion in the armed forces that it influenced the result of the 1945 election.

HL Beales

Hugh Lancelot Beales

Then there was H.L. Beales, a historian and another socialist.  In this context it is interesting to note a comment in the introduction by J.M. Winter to a much later collection of essays by R.H. Tawney: ‘That … working-class culture is a central part of European historical writing today is in part because of Tawney’s work and example, and that of a group of his contemporaries among whom G.D.H. Cole, H.L. Beales, the Webbs and the Hammonds are the most prominent.’   Every one of those mentioned was involved with Pelican in those early days.   It seems fair to assume that Beales was influential on the inclusion of Tawney, Cole and Beatrice Webb as well as J.L. (John) and Barbara Hammond in the series.

The third advisory editor at the start of Pelican was Lancelot Hogben, a biologist, who later had a rather odd book of his own published by Pelican. ‘Interglossa’, published in 1943, was a plan for a new world language to be part of a new world order after the war.  He was also a socialist.   So the overall editor of the series was a socialist, seen at the time as perhaps a bit of a firebrand, and all three of the advisory editors were known socialists.   Is it surprising that they kept the red flag flying in its Pelican blue camouflage?

It didn’t last of course.  The relationship between Krishna Menon and Lane deteriorated and ended with Krishna Menon leaving at the end of 1938.   The last volume to carry his name as editor was volume 33, although it’s probably fair to see his influence in terms of the choice of titles and authors at least across the first 50 volumes.


Special Penguins

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?

Penguin Special S30 dw

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.

Penguin Special S13

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.

Penguin Special S95

A Penguin special from 1943

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.

Collins 7d The lone house mystery

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.

The child of a brief affair

The myth about the birth of Penguin Books involves an immaculate conception on a station platform in Exeter.  In a post earlier this year though, I speculated that the new baby bore a remarkable resemblance to the continental Albatross Books, which might indicate some parentage.

Penguin-1785-a Greene End of the Affair

I have now come across an article by Alistair McCleery, which confirms the link and goes much further. Allen Lane was not only well aware of Albatross and its innovations, but had explored the possibility of a joint venture between Albatross and the Bodley Head, the publisher of which he was a Director. It was only when this possibility foundered that he went ahead with the separate launch of Penguin Books. The use of a seabird as a logo was then not in the slightest coincidental, and nor were the other design features shared by the two series. Penguin was indeed the child of a brief affair between Albatross and the Bodley Head.

Albatross 398   Brighton Rock

It is hardly surprising that copyright issues caused the end of the affair.   British publishers were wary of the potential damage that paperback reprints, even limited to the European continent, could do to their hardback sales, and would have been far more concerned about UK paperbacks.   In the nineteenth century Tauchnitz had built much of its reputation on publishing the latest English literature in continental editions more or less simultaneously with the first UK publication.   But by 1930 authors and publishers were enforcing a delay of at least a year before allowing continental publication.   Within the UK they would be looking for a far longer delay, and this is reflected in the titles that Allen Lane was eventually able to publish in the early days of Penguin, most of which came 10 years or more after first publication and many much longer than that.

On the other hand it is not difficult to see the initial attractions.   Despite the impact its books had made, Albatross was a long way from reaching the kind of mass market success that Penguin would go on to achieve.  A typical initial print run for Albatross would have been a few thousand copies, perhaps even as low as 2,000, and unlikely to be as much as 10,000.  In the European market alone, it could not achieve the kind of economies of scale that that UK sales could have brought.  Penguin started at 10,000 and was later printing 100,000 copies or more of its more popular titles. The prices this enabled it to achieve were vital to its success.

The standard price in Germany for an Albatross book, as for Tauchnitz before it, was RM1.80, and as far as I can work out from exchange rates at the time, this was closer to 2 shillings than to the sixpence that Penguins initially sold for.  Certainly Albatross was a superior product, and its distribution network spread over many countries would have been expensive, but longer print runs could undoubtedly have reduced its unit costs substantially.  So a flirtation was understandable, and if it never led to marriage, the liaison did result in a beautiful child.

Why did Penguins have numbers?

If you p-pick up a Penguin book published recently, you won’t find a series number prominently displayed on the spine or on the half-title.   When Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin, picked up the original books that he was about to republish as paperbacks, he wouldn’t have found series numbers on them.   As a publisher, and Director of The Bodley Head, he had already published many books and I doubt there was a number on any of them.

Yet of all the many decisions he had to take as he set about launching Penguins, the question of whether or not to use series numbers was probably one of the easiest.   They were paperbacks – of course they would be numbered.   However much of an innovator or revolutionary Lane was, not to number his new paperbacks would have been a step too far.

Penguin spines 1st ten

The continental Albatross Books from which Lane took many of the ideas for Penguin, had series numbers.  The Tauchnitz Editions that were effectively the predecessor of Albatross, had been numbering their books since the first volume in 1842, and had reached over 5000 by 1935.  In Britain too, paperbacks were almost always numbered.   The Hutchinson paperback series of ‘Famous sixpenny novels’ had already gone past 400 and Victorian paperbacks such as W.T. Stead’s ‘Books for the Bairns’ and ‘Penny Poets’ had all been numbered.   There were certainly a few hardback series that were numbered as well, but the general rule was to issue paperbacks as a numbered series and hardbacks as individual books.

Albatross spines 2  Volume 4 low

Albatross paperbacks and an early Tauchnitz paperback

But why?  Was it that paperbacks were seen as more like magazines than books?  Magazines had traditionally been numbered, although often split into in volumes, rather than just numbered sequentially.    Newspapers, even today, are often numbered – The Times is currently over 70,000, The Independent at a more modest 8,500ish. 

Did it go back to the days when novels, such as several of those by Dickens, were sold as a series of parts, in numbered paperbacks?  Or was it just that paperbacks needed the branding of a series, whereas hardbacks sold more on the reputation of the author, or the cover illustration.  The logic doesn’t seem to apply any more, as few paperbacks are now numbered, or have any conspicuous series branding or publisher branding.

Whatever the reason, Penguin came to love their numbers.   Special numbers soon became reasons for celebration.   George Bernard Shaw was the prime celebratory author in the early days, being given numbers 200, 300 and 500.  Volume 1000 was saved for a book by Edward Young, a former Penguin employee who had drawn the original logo, before going on to become a submarine commander.   It was followed by volume 1001 – ‘The thousand and one nights’.   Earlier, number 666 had been used for ‘Defy the foul fiend’.

Penguin 1000

From the point of view of modern day collectors, series numbers are a great help, making it much easier to see what exists and which books are missing.   They almost provide a rationale for collecting – to find the first 100 or the first 1000 Penguins – although they also provide some intriguing mysteries, where numbers are missing or duplicated or inconsistent.

Penguin eventually stopped showing series numbers on their paperbacks some time around the 1970s, although they couldn’t entirely kick the habit.   Almost alone amongst major publishers, they continued to print the ISBN at the bottom of the spine, from which a series number could be inferred, for almost another twenty years before eventually deciding it was entirely redundant.

It should’ve been me!

Whether you believe or not the story about the inspiration for Penguin Books (see Hit or Myth), there is no denying that the launch of Penguins in July 1935 was a key moment in the history of paperbacks. They were by no means the first paperbacks of course – there were lots already on sale when Penguins started – but paperbacks were a down-market product, seen as relatively trashy and disposable.

Pre-Penguin paperback Pendulum swings Pre-Penguin paperback Will of Allah
Two Pre-Penguin paperbacks

Penguin’s vision was much more up-market – making available in paperback form, books that had previously only been available, at several times the price, in hardback. Price was a major part of their attractiveness, but the innovations they copied from Albatross – the size of the books, the colour-coded covers, and the dustwrappers, were also key, and effectively defined this sector of the market over the following few years.

Penguin 008 Web-Mysterious-affair
Penguins looked very different

The lack of any cover illustrations was also crucial in distinguishing them from what went before and in establishing their up-market image. For years afterwards, Allen Lane had an aversion to illustrated covers, famously describing them as ‘bosoms and bottoms’. In the long run, he was on the wrong side of history, but in the short term, it was a critical issue. Penguins were defined as much by what they were not, as by what they were.

It was fairly quickly clear that they were a success, with some of the books reprinted within a month, and at that point you can almost imagine the commotion in the marketing department of every major publisher in London. How should they respond to this potentially disruptive change in the market?

As a reprint publisher, backed by a relatively small publisher of original hardbacks, Penguin presumably needed the co-operation of other publishers to survive, or at least to flourish. Several of the first set of books had come from Jonathan Cape. Some rivals no doubt decided not to co-operate in selling the paperback rights to any of their books, and hoped to strangle the infant at its birth. Others saw the way the wind was blowing and decided that they needed to compete in this new market.

Hutchinson-PL5 Hutchinson-PL6

The publisher most firmly in this camp seems to have been Hutchinson, already an established producer of paperbacks. Within 3 months of the launch of Penguins they responded with the launch of Hutchinson’s Pocket Library, the first volumes appearing in October 1935. The format of these was very similar to Penguins – the same size, covers in similarly bright colours, and dustwrappers in the same design as the books.


An even more obvious competitor would have been Collins. They were closely associated with Albatross in Continental Europe, with two of the Collins family on the Albatross Board, and many of the Collins Crime Club books, published as hardbacks in the UK, appearing as Albatross paperbacks. The idea of using some of the Albatross ideas to launch a similar series in Britain must surely have occurred to them long before Allen Lane’s moment of inspiration on a railway platform. Were they really taken by surprise by the launch of Penguins? Certainly it took them significantly longer to respond. The Collins Crime Club paperbacks (in Penguin format) didn’t start to appear until April 1936, followed over the next year or two by other genre series in different coloured covers. As they watched Penguin’s success over the next twenty-five years though, they must surely have been thinking ‘It should’ve been me!’

Hit or myth: the inspiration for Penguin Books

Every successful and long-lasting venture needs a creation myth. In the case of Penguin Books, the story goes that Allen Lane was on his way home from visiting Agatha Christie in Devon and browsed the station bookstall on the platform of Exeter Station. He was struck by the absence of any serious contemporary fiction at reasonable prices, and came up with the idea that led shortly after to the launch of Penguins.

Station Bookstall at Horsted Keynes

Station Bookstall at Horsted Keynes

How much the story represents the real genesis of Penguin Books, and how much is a myth created later, we can never really know. It has an attractive plausibility. Se non è vero è ben trovato. It would gain considerably in credibility though if we knew that Lane had visited other station platforms in continental Europe in the preceding months. There he would have found a very different position, and the contrast could have been quite striking. Paperback copies of the English-language Tauchnitz Editions had been sold in station bookstalls on the continent for almost a hundred years before Lane’s trip to Devon, and had more recently been joined by the brightly coloured Albatross Books.

Certainly as a publisher Lane would have been familiar with both Tauchnitz and Albatross, and it seems clear that the Albatross Books provided much of the subsequent inspiration for Penguin Books. Similarities between the two series include, amongst other things:

• The use of a seabird as name and logo
• Brightly coloured covers, with different colours to indicate genre of book
• The size of the books (broadly 181 x 112 cm, corresponding to the ‘golden ratio’)
• The use of dustwrappers in basically the same design as the cover underneath
• Return postcards slipped into the books inviting readers to join a mailing list / suggest titles


Some of these things may seem like coincidental similarities, shared by many other series, but they were all essentially new practices introduced by Albatross (in 1932/33), then taken up by Penguin (in 1935), and only subsequently spreading to other series. By the start of the Second World War in 1939 the ornithological theme had spread to Jackdaw Books, Toucan Books and Wren Books, as well as Penguin and Pelican, and the book format introduced by Albatross had been widely copied in the UK market. Albatross itself did not long survive the end of the war, so it was Penguin which became identified in the public mind with good contemporary fiction in brightly coloured paperbacks. But when the story is told of how Penguin Books was born, it should be remembered that an Albatross was there at the birth.