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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.

Pelican A1 dw

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.

Pelican A6 dw

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.

Penguin Special S2

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.

Chart of New Works against Reprints From Penguins Progress 6

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.

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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.