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US Penguins 1942 – 1945

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.

Ian Ballantine much later in life

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).

Kurt Enoch in his time at Penguin (with acknowledgement to Charles Enoch)

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.

US Penguin 502

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.

US Penguin 508

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.

US Penguin 514

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.

Eunice Frost at an editorial meeting with Allen Lane and W.E. Williams

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.

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.

1945 Tales of the supernatural   1945 A Christmas Carol

The first two Pan Books

  1946 A sentimental journey   1946 The suicide club

… 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.

  1947 Diary of a nobody Book Society Edition from 1946  1947 Diary of a nobody

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.

 Pan 1 Ten stories   Pan 2 Lost horizon

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.

 The Joker  Claudelle

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.

Losing your soul – Penguin in America

Of all the innovations brought in by Penguin Books when it launched in July 1935, the one that had most effect on the UK market was non-illustrated covers.   Before Penguin, paperbacks had illustrated covers, after Penguin they largely didn’t.  For the next 10 years through to the end of the war, almost all the new paperback series launched in the UK had standard designed covers, with no illustrations.   Penguin succeeded in redefining the market so that illustrated covers on a paperback signalled down market.   In doing so, the lack of cover illustration became a defining feature of Penguins, almost the essence of the company.

After their success in the UK, it was natural for Penguin to think of tackling the US market.  Would the same formula work there?  Their first office in New York was set up in 1939, at first importing books from the UK, so the question of cover design didn’t arise.   By 1942 though, German submarines were making this a hazardous exercise and paper rationing in the UK was a problem anyway, so local printing seemed to be the way forward.   At first they simply reprinted Penguins and Penguin Specials from the UK, using the same format and the same series numbers.   But gradually differences started to emerge.   First they moved to thicker card covers, more in line with those typically used in the US.   Then they started to publish books locally that were more suited to the American market, rather than just choosing books from the UK list.

US Penguin 502 1st 1942 US Penguin 503 US Penguin 508

Rapid change – US Penguins numbers 502, 503 and 508

A new series of Penguins, published only in America, and numbered from 501 onwards, started in the Spring of 1942 with Mignon Eberhart’s ‘Murder by an aristocrat’ and ‘Pygmalion’ by George Bernard Shaw.  The first printing of each of these books had covers that followed the standard UK design of three horizontal stripes, colour coded to indicate genre, green for crime for the Eberhart and red for plays in the case of ‘Pygmalion’.  But Penguin’s local management in the US, headed by Ian Ballantine, must already have been concerned about whether this format was right for the American market.  By June 1942, with the issue of the next batch of books from volume 503 on, the design had been altered to one more specific to the US market.   Cover illustration was still absent, probably because of opposition from the UK, but there was space instead for a short blurb advertising the book.

The first tentative step towards cover illustration started with volume 508 – ‘Walden’ by Thoreau.  This was probably acceptable to the UK parent as the illustration was from a woodcut – there had been precedents for that.  But Ballantine clearly wanted to go further, and it was not long before he got his way.  Volume 514 – ‘Tombstone’ by Walter Noble Burns again featured a small illustration, and from there, there was no going back.   The illustrations continued to increase in size and in prominence.  From November 1943, with volume 525, the books reduced in size to a more standard US size, and then from volume 566 onwards they started to use additional colours on the covers.   By now Penguins had lost most of their distinctiveness and were looking increasingly like any other American paperback.  It should be said that the cover illustrations were probably relatively up-market, often designed by Robert Jonas, and a long way from some of the gaudier covers on the market.  But they were equally far away from UK Penguins, and the gap was only going to increase.

US Penguin 519 US Penguin 567 US Penguin 572

US Penguins – numbers 519, 567 and 572

From 1945 the books increased in size again, perhaps regaining some distinctiveness, but moved to full colour covers, still relatively restrained.  Tensions remained with the UK parent, with cover design still a running sore, and by 1948 separation seemed to be inevitable.   The business was bought out and Penguin Books became Signet Books as part of the New American Library.   The whole process from launch of the series in 1942 to separation in 1948 had taken just 6 years, and along the way almost everything that marked out Penguins as distinctive in the UK had been jettisoned.

US Penguin 662 - Penguin Signet    US Penguin 668 - Penguin Signet

Why did Penguins, and particularly the idea of paperbacks with non-illustrated covers, fail in the US?  Was it even given a chance, considering how quickly the non-illustrated covers were discarded?  It’s easy to say that the US market was different and Penguins had to compete with the wide choice of brightly covered paperbacks available there.  That’s true enough, but there were lots of brightly illustrated paperbacks available in the UK too when Penguin launched, and it wasn’t obvious that Penguins would stand out.   Somehow, for a brief period, something clicked in the UK, and Penguins caught the Zeitgeist.  By the time Penguin withdrew from the US in 1948, its home market was changing as well, and other paperback series such as Pan, with illustrated covers, were on the horizon.  It would still be more than another decade before Penguin made significant moves in that direction, but the winds of change were already blowing.

How Penguin lost its distinctiveness

How to lose your distinctiveness in seven easy steps

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!’