I’ve looked in previous posts at the development of Penguin Books in the US, first from 1942 to 1945 and then from 1945 to 1948, a period that led up to the final rift with the UK business and the creation of the New American Library. That rift was probably as much as anything to do with the use of illustrated covers in the American market, although Allen Lane seems to have seen it as a much wider difference of opinion over the direction of the business. His perception was that the business was going too far downmarket, publishing too many books of dubious morality.
That perception is challenged by the development of Pelican Books in the US. Victor Weybright, who had taken charge of the US Penguin business alongside Kurt Enoch, after Ian Ballantine’s departure, had been seriously impressed by Pelican Books in the UK. He saw a gap in the US market for a non-fiction paperback series and was convinced that Penguin could fill it with an American version of Pelicans.
The US Pelican series launched at the end of 1945 or the start of 1946 with a mixture of books sourced from Penguin in the UK, and others sourced from American publishers. The first volume, P1, was ‘Public Opinion’ by Walter Lippmann, first published in 1922 and a classic American text. It was followed by ‘Patterns of Culture’ by the American anthropologist, Ruth Benedict, hardly less classic – and then by a British text, ‘You and Music’ by Christian Darnton, that had appeared in the UK Pelican series as volume A68.
Slightly oddly, these first three numbered volumes are all dated January 1946, while volume P4, George Gamow’s ‘The birth and death of the Sun’, is shown as published in December 1945. Also slightly oddly, Weybright’s autobiography recalls ‘The revolt of the masses’ by José Ortega y Gasset as one of the first titles, although it did not appear until much later, after the split with Penguin in the UK.
The volumes look very similar to the main series US Penguins in the new format introduced at that time, with a Pelican logo in a circle replacing the various shapes used for the Penguin logo. The price was the same at 25c, the covers have the same plastic laminating, now often peeling away, and the cover designs, almost all by Robert Jonas, look very similar too.
By the end of 1946 the series had reached 11 volumes, and the eleventh volume, ‘Heredity, race and society’ by L.C. Dunn & T.H. Dobzhansky, is the first one to be a new book specially written for the series, rather than a reprint. In the UK, Pelicans had started as a reprint series before moving to commission their own books, and the process was now underway in the US as well. P11 was also the first for a period to have no direct indication of price on the book. It was becoming difficult to maintain the standard price of 25c and for a few months no price was indicated, although some books carry a 35c sticker. From volume P18 onward, the price is marked as 35c.
The format of mixing UK reprints with more specifically American books continued throughout 1947, while negotiations for the separation from UK Penguin went on. In October, E.V. Rieu’s translation of ‘The Odyssey’ that had been a surprising literary success in the UK, and had sold well also in the US Penguin main series, moved across to the Pelican series as volume P21. It followed another, perhaps less surprising success, Kenneth Walker’s ‘The physiology of sex’ that had been reprinted several times in the main series before appearing as a Pelican too.
Then in November 1947, Dunn & Dobzhansky’s ‘Heredity, race and society’ was reprinted, but given a new number as volume P23. I am not aware of any of the other volumes in the series being reprinted as Pelicans, either under the same or a different number.
As far as I can tell (from not only several decades, but several thousand miles away), this series was very unusual in the US market at the time. Paperbacks were generally downmarket and seen as not very serious. For a paperback publisher to be publishing not only non-fiction, but serious intellectual non-fiction (anthropology, astronomy, modern architecture, and sex) was at least surprising, if not groundbreaking.
So did it matter that it was doing so with illustrated covers (and hardly salacious ones)? And yet, for Allen Lane it seems that it did. His US business was publishing not only this kind of serious non-fiction, but in its fiction list, D.H. Lawrence, Joseph Conrad, Henry James, John Steinbeck, Bernard Shaw, Pearl Buck and William Faulkner (the latter four all, sooner or later, awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature). And still it seems, Lane felt it was straying too far from the traditions (little more than a decade old) of Penguin Books in the UK. Rather than focusing on The Odyssey or other Pelican titles, Lane saw novels by James M. Cain, James T. Farrell and Erskine Caldwell, and he saw, and disliked, the illustrated covers.
In ‘The Penguin Story’, published by Penguin in 1966 and, although written by Bill Williams, probably as close as we can get to Penguin history as Allen Lane wanted it to be seen, there is a remarkable attack on the position of Weybright and Enoch. After the split from Penguin in the UK, Lane is reputed to have never talked to Weybright again, and it seems that almost twenty years later, he still held a grudge.
Penguin’s ‘American associates’, writes Williams, without naming them, ‘wanted the mass market in terms of quarter million sales or more, for every title’. To achieve this they used distribution outlets ‘with no interest in books as such’ and that preferred ‘a commodity with garish and sensational eye-appeal’. ‘The contents of the book … were relatively unimportant: what mattered was that its lurid exterior should ambush the customers’. It seems to me difficult to sustain this charge against the range of titles published in the US Pelican series and their cover designs, or indeed against the US Penguins in the same period – but judge for yourself.
By October 1947 the split had been agreed and from early 1948 was being implemented. Penguins were re-branded as Signet Books and Pelicans as Mentor Books, both under the overall heading of the New American Library. For a brief period, Pelicans appeared as ‘Pelican Mentor Books’ and the numbering moved from P25 to M26, M27 etc. Volumes M26 to M29, published from March to June 1948, had the dual branding, and then traces of Pelican disappeared from the American market.
Where I left the story in my last post (US Penguins 1942 – 1945), Ian Ballantine had left the business to help found Bantam Books. For a period, Allen Lane sent Eunice Frost out to New York to work with Kurt Enoch, probably not just to help him out, but to keep an eye on him.
That was only ever a temporary measure – Eunice Frost was too valuable back at Head Office – but Lane had his eye on a longer term solution. He had made contact with Victor Weybright, an American with publishing experience who had been working at the American Embassy in London during the war.
Allen Lane needed someone to act as a balance to Kurt Enoch, whom he no longer fully trusted. Enoch had taken the business a long way away from the founding principles of Penguin, competing head-to-head with Pocket Books, Dell Books and others on their terms, rather than trying to change the market. US Penguins had adopted illustrated covers on US style glossy card and the standard size of other local competitors. And the quality of the list was arguably not consistent with Penguin’s UK positioning either.
But Enoch had a personal stake in the capital of the US business and as he had organised the capital raising, some of the rest was held by his friends and associates. So both Allen Lane and Victor Weybright had to tread carefully at first.
Lane’s policy seems to have been one of constructive ambiguity – sending Weybright out more or less to negotiate his own way into the business. When he arrived, Enoch claimed not to have heard of him and was unwilling to meet him. After a two hour wait outside a closed door, there followed a week of talks mostly conducted through lawyers. The story is told from Weybright’s point of view in his autobiography, although this is highly self-serving and may not be entirely reliable.
But in the end an agreement was reached, which Weybright characterised as ‘absolute parity’ for the two men in terms of status within the organisation. Enoch would concentrate on production and distribution and Weybright on the publishing programme and public relations, an area where he considered Enoch’s abilities extremely limited. Perhaps surprisingly after such a difficult start, they formed an effective partnership that not only stayed together for many years, but was highly successful in a very competitive market. Enoch initially saw Weybright simply as a stooge for Allen Lane, but it was not long before the two of them were united in negotiating a break from Lane and from Penguin Books.
It’s hard to know exactly when Weybright’s influence began to be seen in terms of the series itself. He arrived in August 1945, but probably had little effect on the books published in the following few months. They included notably ‘Trouble in July’ by Erskine Caldwell, an author not approved of by Lane, but who became enormously important for the business over the following years.
Weybright almost certainly though was influential in the major changes that took place from January 1946 and included a significant redesign in the look and feel of the books, as well as the launch of a non-fiction Pelican list. Both were important developments that had long-lasting effects, but I’ll leave discussion of the US Pelican list for another day.
In some ways the re-design was just another step in the gradual transition that had been going on for three to four years already, away from the UK Penguin style and towards fully illustrated covers. It introduced full colour printing and illustrations stretching right across the front cover, and perhaps even more symbolically, it abandoned the colour-coding that had been such a key part of the Penguin brand, in favour of a bizarre system of different shaped symbols to indicate genre. The changes could be seen as the final break with the sober traditions of Penguin in the UK.
But in another way the business was actually moving back towards some of the key Penguin attributes in the UK. In particular the size of the books changed back to the standard UK size, distinguishing them from most other US paperbacks. And although not immediately apparent (perhaps not even to Allen Lane), the nature of the list was changing to one that was maybe more in line with Penguin principles.
From a list that throughout most of 1944 and 1945 had been dominated by crime novels and relatively light fiction, there were now indications of more serious literature. D.H. Lawrence and E.M. Forster appeared in the January 1946 list, Virginia Woolf, Jack London, Sherwood Anderson and John Steinbeck over the next few months, and then in July, three plays by Bernard Shaw were issued to mark Shaw’s 90th birthday. Weybright was diplomatically taking some of the best of Penguin’s output from the UK and mixing it with more specifically American titles.
There were still plenty of lighter novels, and several that were too racy for Allen Lane’s taste. Weybright records that Lane seemed annoyed by the fact that Erskine Caldwell’s ‘God’s Little Acre’ was a runaway success, supporting the business through a difficult time. But the proportion of crime stories certainly went down and there does seem to have been a serious attempt to position the series as rather more up-market and literary. Indeed I’d suggest that the 80 or so books published in 1946 and 1947 stand comparison with almost any run of 80 books appearing in the UK Penguin main series.
In September 1946 Lady Chatterley’s Lover appeared as volume 610 and it was followed in November by E.V. Rieu’s new translation of ‘The Odyssey’ published by Penguin in the UK. Early 1947 saw Henry James and Joseph Conrad added to the list followed by William Faulkner’s ‘Sanctuary’. Lane disapproved of Faulkner, but when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949, Weybright must have felt vindicated, as indeed when Lane later fought a court battle to publish Lady Chatterley in the UK.
Of course part of Allen Lane’s disapproval stemmed from the illustrated covers rather than the actual contents of the books. The covers were undoubtedly becoming more colourful and striking (regarded by Weybright as a necessity to compete in the US market), but Lane’s generalised slur on illustrated covers as nothing but ‘bosoms and bottoms’ would not have been a fair description of them, at least in 1946/1947.
Most of the covers were designed by Robert Jonas, often featuring stylised images evoking the spirit of the books rather than specific scenes from them. The Jonas covers are often described as having a distinctive style, but in fact several of the covers by other artists seem to me to be consistent with them, so it may be more of a house style influenced by Jonas rather than just the style of one artist.
Cover designs not by Robert Jonas
When Allen Lane visited New York in April 1947 it became clear that a split with the UK business was inevitable. The terms were negotiated in October of that year and by February 1948 the changes were under way. Penguins were to be re-branded as Signet Books, while Pelicans became Mentor Books – the overall business becoming the New American Library. For a period in early 1948 books were branded as ‘Penguin Signet’ but from August 1948 references to Penguin were dropped and the business was on its own.
Freed of UK constraints, the cover art took another turn. Robert Jonas was for a time Art Director, but from about November 1947 his stylised designs started to give way to a more brash style of which Allen Lane would certainly not have approved. Penguins had come a long way in a relatively short time.
Penguin’s attempt to woo the American market had started in 1939 with the establishment of an office in New York under the twenty-three year old Ian Ballantine, importing Penguins from the UK. It was not a great time though to be shipping books across the Atlantic and by 1941 it was clear that the operation had no future unless books could be produced locally.
A small number of UK books were reprinted in the US, but to extend the operation and move into local publishing, Allen Lane would need a more experienced publisher. He was perhaps lucky to find Kurt Enoch, one of the founders of Albatross Books, and a Jew who had been forced by the Nazis to leave Germany and then subsequently had had to flee for a second time from Paris, after it fell to the German army ( for the full story, see ‘A strange bird’ by Michele Troy).
Enoch had recently arrived in the US, was looking for work, and suggested to Lane that he could raise the capital to launch a local publishing programme. Lane took him on as Vice President responsible for production and design, with Ballantine in charge of distribution / sales. That leaves it a little unclear who was responsible for the core function of choosing and commissioning new titles. Enoch was the one with experience in this area at the time, so presumably took the lead, although Ballantine later went on to become a hugely successful publisher in his own right.
Albatross Books had been in many ways the model for Penguin, so Allen Lane might reasonably have expected to find in Kurt Enoch somebody who shared his ideals and vision for the business. But from the start Enoch seems to have had doubts about key parts of the Penguin brand that had been so successful in the UK.
Penguin’s UK launch had been almost an overnight success and had transformed the UK paperback market, with almost all competitors adopting the main elements of the Penguin ‘package’ – size, price, colour coding, dustwrappers and so on, but above all, no cover illustration. The first tentative steps in the US market had not triggered any similar revolution and Enoch seems to have been sceptical that it ever could. Almost from day one, he seems to have had his eye on illustrated covers.
For Allen Lane and others back in Harmondsworth though, this was an article of faith. Before Penguin’s UK launch, there had been plenty of people saying that non-illustrated covers could never work in the UK market and they had proved them all wrong. Now they saw the brightly striped and immediately recognisable covers of Penguin Books as their main weapon in conquering new markets. The scene was set for a struggle that could have profound consequences for Penguin’s future.
In early 1942 the new US Penguin series launched, with numbers starting from 501. The first two books, numbers 501 and 502, appeared with the iconic striped covers. First blood to the Brits. But by volume 503 the design had changed significantly to one that allowed space on the front for a brief written description of the book, and on the back for advertising or for information about the author. Enoch must have been planning this for some time, perhaps waiting for approval from Head Office.
While Lane may not have been happy with any move away from the classic design, this change looks as though it may have been deliberately designed to get approval. It retains enough elements of Penguin identity to still look Penguin-ish and it’s still a very restrained design that doesn’t introduce any illustration to the front cover. It also retains the principle of colour coding used in the UK. Crime is still green, although perhaps strangely, the classic Penguin orange for novels is replaced by red, and yellow is more widely used for a range of books including non-fiction and westerns.
But this was by no means the limit of Enoch’s ambitions. He wanted cover illustration, and as it happened he had the right opportunity to get a foot into the door. A short series of classic texts illustrated by woodcuts had appeared in the UK in 1938 as Penguin Illustrated Classics. They had used illustration on the covers and had included ‘Walden’ by Thoreau, an American classic that would fit well into the new US Penguin series. How could the UK Head Office possibly object to a cover illustration that they had themselves used? The book appeared as volume 508 and was the first American Penguin to feature cover art.
Once the principle had been breached, Enoch was not going to let go. He had shown how a simple illustration could (not coincidentally?) fit well into the cover design he had introduced and others would follow. The first was ‘Tombstone’ by Walter Noble Burns, volume 514 published in October 1942, and from then on illustrated covers were the norm. It may have grated even more in the UK that the process started with a western – at this stage considered too down market for Penguin in the UK, although later on in the series, a few did appear.
The first illustrations were quite small, but it was not long before they were taking up the entire panel. And in the meantime, Enoch was attacking another of Penguin’s key brand attributes – the size of the books. Penguins had always been roughly 11 cm by 18 cm, a format based on the golden ratio and again copied from Albatross. But paperbacks in the US and particularly those from the main competitor, Pocket Books, were shorter and squatter. So Penguin moved in line with them.
This was in November 1943, barely 18 months after the launch and already Penguins had little in common with their UK parents and looked more like the local competitors. Even the glossy card covers and the red page edges looked more American than British. Any idea of changing the market had been abandoned. It was the Penguins that were having to change.
From late 1943 onwards, the rate of new titles started to increase and the cover illustrations became more and more dominant, with the single colour of the covers increasingly used within the picture as well. From volume 566 in October 1945, a second colour is used on the cover before moving on to full colour shortly afterwards.
This was though another turbulent period for the business. Some time around the end of 1944 or the beginning of 1945, Ian Ballantine resigned to work on the launch of a competitor, Bantam Books. He had learned what he could from Enoch and was ready to take the next step in his publishing career. Allen Lane however was not prepared to leave Kurt Enoch in sole charge of Penguin’s US business. Eunice Frost, originally Allen Lane’s secretary and still in her twenties, but in practice one of his closest aides in London, was sent out to New York to hold the fort, while Lane attempted to make more permanent arrangements.
That eventually led to the appointment of Victor Weybright to work with Enoch, and to a whole series of other developments. I’ll come back to them in another post and also look separately at the US Penguin Specials, an important series in their own right, which had been published alongside the main series throughout the period I’ve been talking about.
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
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!’
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.
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.