‘Printers’ Pie’ had started in the early years of the twentieth century as a way to raise funds for a Printers’ charity. It continued until at least 1918, sometimes twice a year, with Christmas issues called ‘Winter’s Pie’, but stopped publication soon after. There may have been one or two publications in the 1920s called the ‘Sketchbook and Printers’ Pie’, but information is scarce.
In 1935 it was revived (see this earlier blog post) to raise money for the King George’s Jubilee Trust and then for other charities, now using the titles ‘Christmas Pie’ and ‘Summer Pie’. So far as I can tell the final issue in this series, published by Odhams, was in 1939.
But then after a gap of three or four years, it appeared again in 1943 under the original title, this time published by Hutchinson. The publication marked Walter Hutchinson becoming Festival President of the Printers’ Pension, Almshouse and Orphan Asylum Corporation, the original charity for which ‘Printers’ Pie’ had been created, and was to raise funds for them.
It was now in a small paperback format, and selling for the relatively high price of 2s 6d. Pre-war issues had sold for 6d and in 1943 most paperbacks were selling for around 9d. But as well as being for charity, this was on unusually good quality paper for a wartime publication, featured a colour cover and several pages of glossy photographs in two sections. There were stories by H.E. Bates, Howard Spring, L.A.G. Strong and James Hilton among others.
It was followed by ‘Christmas Pie’ at the end of 1943 in a similar format, again selling for 2s 6d. This time there was an appeal for donations to the same Printers’ charity, but no direct mention that the proceeds or profits from the publication would go to the charity. Most issues from then onwards contained no mention of being for charity, but on the other hand the price came down to 1s 6d. The exceptions were the Spring Pies for 1945 and 1946, with the price raised to 2 shillings and profits going first to the Bookbinders’ Cottage Homes and Pensions Society, and then to Toc H.
The format instead seemed just to be adopted by Hutchinson as part of their series of Hutchinson Pocket Specials. From Autumn 1944, there were more or less regular issues five times a year, titled as Spring Pie, Summer Pie, Autumn Pie, Winter Pie and Christmas Pie, published roughly in March, June, September, November and December.
Each issue had a colour portrait of a girl on the cover and inside a mix of articles, short stories, cartoons and photographs. mostly in a light-hearted tone. The style feels very similar to ‘Lilliput’, then a popular monthly magazine.
In April 1946 there was an extra issue called Pie’s Film Book, with Vivien Leigh on the cover as Cleopatra, from one of the big films of the year. It was printed entirely on glossy paper, lavishly illustrated with black and white photos of film stars, and selling at two shillings. Pie’s Film Book No. 2 appeared the following year in similar format, with Margaret Lockwood on the cover, but that seems to have been the end of this venture.
There were other attempts to modernise the format. Colour appeared internally for the first time in the Christmas 1947 issue, with four reproductions of Dutch paintings and in 1948 many of the black and white photographs were replaced by colour illustrations of various kinds. But perhaps it was still not modern enough for the post-war world. The Summer and Christmas issues of 1948 experimented with some discreet nudity, but it was too late or too desperate.
So far as I know, the 1948 Christmas issue was the last until it reappeared in a slightly larger format and at the reduced price of one shilling in December 1949 as ‘Winter Pie’. The editor is now shown as Barbara Vise and the cover illustration is by (presumably related) Jenetta Vise. Inside there’s no longer any colour, but the layout looks less cramped. The content though is less than riveting, featuring articles such as ‘Why I like going to the cinema’ by the Bishop of London, alongside articles on suits of armour and portrait miniatures.
It was followed by ‘Spring Pie’ in April 1950 in a similar format, although this time with a centrefold featuring colour photographs of pottery and porcelain. But then this too seems to have died.
After that, Hutchinson seem to have given up any ambitions to continue the series. Both the ‘Pie’ title and the aim of raising money for good causes seem to have passed back to Odhams, the publisher of the pre-war issues. They published at least one more issue in 1952 in the larger pre-war format, as ‘Summer Pie, in aid of the National Advertising Benevolent Society. That may well have been the last of the Pies.
Having recently written a post about the Jarrold’s Jackdaw Library, it seems appropriate to follow it up with one about the Toucan novels. The two series seem to go together in several ways. They both came from the Hutchinson group of publishers, and they share a physical similarity, not only with each other, but with almost all the new paperback series launched in those few years after Penguin’s breakthrough. They also share, with each other and with Collins, the use of a white circle as the main title panel.
And of course they both use a bird as their brand and series title. They were far from the only series to do so in the period after the launch of Penguin Books.
Toucans and Jackdaws – birds of a feather
In choosing a Toucan as their brand, Hutchinson may have had one eye on Penguin and on Jackdaw, but they probably had the other eye on Guinness, whose famous toucan had appeared just two years earlier. What would previously have been a rather obscure bird, had been propelled to the centre of media attention by the Guinness advertising campaign.
In reviewing Jackdaw, I asked the question why Hutchinson needed another paperback series in October 1936. At that point they already had the Hutchinson Pocket Library, the Hutchinson Popular Pocket Library and the Crime Book Society series, all launched within the previous 12 months. So it’s even more strange that just 4 months later they launched yet another new series and another new brand. Was there really a market space left for the Toucan Novels when they appeared in February 1937?
I can’t work out whether it was a deliberate strategy not to put all their eggs in one basket, or just a lack of strategic co-ordination within the group.
Other Hutchinson 6d series from 1935 / 1936
Toucan at least showed some evidence of co-ordination, as the books came from several different publishing imprints within the Hutchinson Group. Most of the first group of titles came from Hurst & Blackett, although there were two from Hutchinson itself. Then a group of books from Stanley Paul and another from John Long. But like Jackdaw, and like several other new paperback series in the 1930s, there was then a pause after an initial rush of titles. It took time for the market to adjust to yet another new paperback series, and time for the initial print run to sell out.
After volume 20 appeared in June 1937, there were no new titles for almost a year, then a small group of titles in summer 1938, but it was not until May 1939 that the series really got going again. The main publisher in this second phase was Stanley Paul, although there were also books from Hurst & Blackett and a few from Skeffington & Son.
The covers of the early books were printed in two colours to highlight the Toucan’s yellow beak, and most of the early books were in a purply crimson colour, with a few in green. The group of books from volumes 17 to 20, all published by John Long, are missing the yellow highlighting on the book covers, although it is still there on the dust-wrappers. Was this an economy measure, saving on two colour printing in a place where it would not normally be noticed by the purchaser? Or was it just a mistake?
Front cover and dust-wrapper of volume 17
It turned out, perhaps inadvertently, to be a herald of the future. From around volume 32 onwards, possibly earlier, all or almost all books were printed with yellow covers. This allowed the toucan’s beak to be yellow without the need for two-colour printing, although it did lose some of the earlier impact. A little while later, dust-wrappers were dropped, and then prices started to creep up, with some volumes selling for a while at 7d, before wartime economy measures really started to bite.
An early Toucan in green and a later one in yellow
By mid 1940 it was impossible to continue on anything like the pre-war basis, and the numbered series came to an end with volume 62. A few more books were published during the war, effectively as one-offs, but they had to meet the war economy standard, which meant low paper quality, small fonts and small margins, making the most of the paper rationing that was hitting all publishers. I know of two wartime Toucans at 9d, although there may well be others. Then later, at least three books at 1s 3d, and post-war others at 1s 6d.
The books published in the Toucan series had no great literary pretensions, and few of them are much remembered today. The authors are generally pretty obscure, although there is one Edgar Wallace title and perhaps most significantly, two of the Maigret books by Georges Simenon. Simenon was at that time so little known in Britain that he had to be described on the book cover as ‘The Edgar Wallace of France’.
As a final comment, seven books in the Hutchinson Group series of Services Editions were also referred to as Toucan Novels in a brief mention at the top of the cover. It’s not entirely clear what the point of this was, as there was no other Toucan branding, and only one of the books had previously appeared as a Toucan novel. Indeed three were from a publisher, Rich and Cowan, which had not previously contributed books to the Toucan series. But it’s one of many examples of confusion in branding within the Hutchinson Group at that time.
It’s usually only people from Norwich who recognise the name Jarrold. In that area it’s well known as the name of a big department store, and was for a time the name of a stand at Norwich City’s football ground. The Jarrold Group that run the store was also for many years involved both in printing and in publishing. The John Jarrold Printing Museum in Norwich is a lasting reminder of their connection with printing.
The name is less well remembered in publishing, but it has a history stretching back almost 200 years. According to the history on the company’s website, John Jarrold had established a printing press in 1815 and was moving into publishing by 1823. Jarrold & Sons, as the business became known, was never a major publisher, but it had some striking successes, notably publishing the first edition of ‘Black Beauty’ in 1877.
After that the company history becomes a bit vague about what happened to the publishing business. Wikipedia says Jarrold Publishing was sold to Sutton Publishing in 2007, but the story must be more complicated than this. It seems clear that at least by the end of the 1930s, the publisher Jarrold & Sons was part of the Hutchinson Group, the group of companies put together by Walter Hutchinson. The group included John Long, Hurst & Blackett, Stanley Paul, Rich & Cowan, Skeffington and others, as well as Jarrold and Hutchinson itself. I’m not clear how separate all these companies were. Each continued to publish books under its own imprint, but particularly in paperback, the books increasingly resembled each other, and sometimes books from different publishers appeared in the same series.
By October 1936, when Jarrold launched a new paperback series, the Jarrolds’ ‘Jackdaw’ Library, the whole paperback publishing industry in Britain was in turmoil. Penguin’s launch a year earlier had completely changed the basis of competition in the industry. Illustrated covers suddenly looked either old-fashioned or down-market or possibly both.
The Hutchinson Group had already reacted by launching a new Penguin-style series, the Hutchinson Pocket Library, just three months after Penguin. Alongside this, it had started the companion ‘Crime Book Society’ series, and also a more down-market series of mostly romances, the Hutchinson Popular Pocket Library.
So quite why it needed another paperback series competing in the same market, is far from obvious. Perhaps Jarrold was at this point operating independently from the Hutchinson Group? Perhaps there was some perceived distinction between the type of stories in the Hutchinson Pocket Library and the sort published by Jarrold? In retrospect it seems surprising that they didn’t just combine the series, but at the time they no doubt had their reasons.
They were far from the only company to choose another bird’s name for a series competing with Penguin, and the choice of Jackdaw probably owed something to alliteration. In most other respects they followed the Penguin model directly – same size, same price, same standard designed cover with a strong series branding, same variety of bold colours, same use of dustwrappers in the same design as the covers.
In some of the details though they were a bit quirkier. Their title panel, a white circle on the cover, was copied directly from Collins rather than Penguin, and the choice of colours on the books seems initially to be fairly random, rather than representing genre. Later on they came into line with almost everybody else by mostly allocating green covers to crime books. Another quirk was the picture of the jackdaw, which varied slightly from book to book. There were at least five different drawings, all perched on a post and creating much the same visual impact, but adopting different positions.
The type of book published was very similar to Penguin. One of Jarrold’s leading authors at the time was Ethel Mannin, and they had already sold paperback rights for two of her novels to Penguin before starting their own series. Now another five appeared in the Jackdaw Library, alongside three others by Margery Allingham, later acquired by Penguin. The highlight of the short series though was Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s ‘Scots Quair’ trilogy. All three volumes appeared in the series, although slightly oddly, not in the ‘right’ order. Also included was ‘Spartacus’ written under the same author’s real name, as J. Leslie Mitchell.
The first eight Jackdaw books appeared together in October 1936 and were followed by another eight in the first three months of 1937, bringing the series up to volume 16. Volumes 17 to 20 were published in June 1937 before they seemed to run out of steam. Perhaps they weren’t selling well, or perhaps it was just that as a small publisher they didn’t have enough titles to maintain such a fast pace.
A further two titles appeared a year later in June 1938, both crime titles, and after another year’s gap the series re-launched as the Jackdaw Crime Series, with the numbering starting again from one. Presumably the crime titles were selling better than the general fiction.
An early Jackdaw Crime Series title and a later one, unusually in yellow
But by this time war was on the horizon. Eight Jackdaw Crime Series titles were published in 1939 and another eight by about the end of 1940. But the books became thinner and lost their dustwrappers as wartime conditions and paper rationing started to bite. The numbered series ended at volume 16, with a few more unnumbered books appearing later, with the price increased to ninepence.
A wartime unnumbered title at ninepence
The Hutchinson Services Editions later included a small number of Jarrolds Jackdaw titles and there were even a few more Jackdaws published after the war, but that’s another story. As a branded series of paperbacks, the Jarrolds Jackdaw Library really lasted only about four years, between 1936 and 1940. I don’t imagine many people collect them today, or even remember them. They were though an important part of the great flourishing of paperback series that occurred between the launch of Penguin and the Second World War.
When Albatross Books was launched in 1932 to compete with Tauchnitz selling English language books in continental Europe, the name was said to have been chosen because it was almost the same word in all European languages. The elegant silhouette of an Albatross was a nice design touch, but it seems unlikely that they started off with the idea of having a bird as a motif and then settled on an Albatross as the most suitable bird.
But that seems to be precisely what many other publishing companies did in the years that followed. The first imitator was Penguin Books, who launched their paperback series in the UK just 3 years later. Before the launch Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin, had explored the possibility of a joint venture with Albatross. When that didn’t work, he decided to go it alone, but copied all the principal design features of Albatross, including the use of a seabird as the logo and name of the series.
Penguin’s launch in the UK was such a success that a large part of the UK publishing industry felt it had to respond by launching similar series, copying many of the design features that Penguin in turn had copied from Albatross. Perhaps most importantly this meant scrapping cover art and using instead a standard cover design, mostly typographical, and designed to provide a strong identity for the series rather than the individual book.
But for several publishers, copying Penguin’s design features also meant copying their use of a bird as a logo. The Hutchinson Group even had two goes at it, with the series of Toucan novels, and the Jarrolds Jackdaw series. When the Lutterworth Press launched a series of children’s books, it looked for a correspondingly small bird and came up with Wren Books. Another publisher of children’s books, Juvenile Productions Ltd., started the Martyn Library, featuring a bird that is presumably meant to be a martin, although I can’t explain the slightly odd spelling.
One publisher, Methuen, settled on the kingfisher as a logo, but resisted the temptation to call their series Kingfisher books, choosing instead the more prosaic ‘Methuen’s Sixpennies’. Penguin meanwhile, perhaps concerned that it was losing its distinctiveness, decided to lay claim to all the other birds it could think of that began with a P. So its non-fiction series was called Pelican Books, its children’s series was called Puffin and there was even a short-lived series of miscellaneous titles at the end of the war called Ptarmigan Books.
I make that at least eight series of paperback books in the UK given bird logos just between 1935 and 1939, with one later on in 1945. Not bad for the brood of a single Albatross.
The launch of Penguin in July 1935 changed many things in British paperbacks. Most of their design innovations were copied from the continental publisher Albatross, but other publishers quickly copied them from Penguin and in just a few years they became the standard market practice.
One of these changes was the use of colour to signify the genre of the book. For Penguin, orange meant fiction and crime was green. These two became the dominant colours in the Penguin series, although there was also blue for biography, cerise for travel, red for drama and so on.
For Albatross though, green had meant travel, and they had used red for crime, both in the main series and in the Albatross Crime Club series, which had distinctive red and black covers. Was red a more appropriate colour for crime? On the other hand Collins had already issued Crime Club paperbacks in the UK, predominantly in green, so perhaps it was the more natural choice in the UK.
Pre-Penguin crime paperbacks in the UK were often green
But for Albatross in continental Europe, crime was always red
When it became clear that Penguin’s experiment was a success, others rushed to follow, including of course Collins, who relaunched their Crime Club paperbacks in 1936 in a Penguin style format, with no cover art. They naturally chose green, using a stylised illustration of two figures with knife and gun, later adding westerns in yellow and mysteries in purple.
Hutchinson had launched its rival Penguin-style series in October 1935, using a variety of colours, but no clear indication of genre. In June 1936 it added an associated crime series under the ‘Crime Book Society’ brand, and again used a range of colours.
Early Crime Book Society titles used all sorts of colours
But their distinctiveness didn’t last for long. Within a year or so they too had accepted that crime meant green. From about September 1937 onwards, all Crime Book Society paperbacks appeared in green covers. They were soon followed by two other imprints, both related to the Hutchinson Group, the Jackdaw Crime series and the Crime Novel Library. Both series used only green covers and the convention now seemed to be well established – green means crime.
From quite early days, the advertising and marketing for Penguin Books was associated with a kind of whimsy, a gentle sort of humour, both in terms of words and pictures. Cartoon penguins appeared in all sorts of guises to illustrate text that didn’t seem to take itself too seriously. Other companies still try to use the same kind of style today – somebody like Ben & Jerry’s for example, so maybe Penguin were ahead of their time. Here’s an example of Penguin’s (sometimes quite wordy) style, taken from an American Penguin in 1943.
It’s hard to say exactly where and when they started using this style. It probably developed gradually rather than arriving fully formed. But by March 1937 there were at least the first signs of it, as shown by the small advertising booklet illustrated below.
Penguin had launched in July 1935, so was almost 2 years old by this time and had already published 80 books in its main series. It had also already attracted several serious competitors. Hutchinson had launched their Pocket Library in a very similar style in November 1935 as well as their ‘Crime Book Society’ series in June 1936. The first paperback Chevron Books were on the market by February 1936 and the Collins White Circle series was only just behind in March 1936. Other competitors were certainly on the horizon.
Penguin had a head start, but there was a relatively short window of opportunity for them to establish their brand, not just as one of many types of paperback books, but as the name that customers associated with the whole idea of paperbacks. They did that, not only by pushing ahead with an ambitious programme of new titles in the main series, but by diversifying away from general fiction and crime fiction into other areas.
This little brochure as well as promoting the next ten main series titles (volumes 81 to 90, published on 19th March), also announces the launch of both the Penguin Shakespeare and Pelican books. Six of Shakespeare’s plays were to be published on April 23rd, Shakespeare’s birthday, and the first Pelican Books were to appear on May 21st. The Penguin Shakespeare is still published today, and Pelican Books ran for 53 years to 1990 before being recently revived. So not a bad three months work really, with volumes 91 to 100 of the main series to follow shortly after.
The book industry has never been shy of using a marketing stunt or two to publicise its wares, and these days it puts a lot of its efforts behind World Book Night, when it gives away a lot of free books. At the end of 2010 it launched what I think was the first World Book Night, with the catchy slogan ‘The largest book give-away ever attempted’. It was nonsense of course, and at the time I suggested a comparison with the Hutchinson Free Victory Gift promotion in 1945, when a single publisher gave away as many books as the whole of the book industry was planning to do on World Book Night.
Arguably the entire programme of Services Editions during the Second World War was an even bigger book give-away, indeed on a totally different scale. But there the comparison is getting a bit strained, because although the books were issued free and strictly ‘not for sale’, the publishers were still being paid for them in one way or another.
Hutchinson’s Free Victory Gift for the Forces however appears genuinely to be a publishing group giving away a million books for free. It was a stunt too of course, no doubt done with more than one eye on the publicity to be generated from it, but even so a remarkable gesture and one that doesn’t seem to have come with any catch. You didn’t have to sign up to a book club, or (in modern terms) give your e-mail address and risk being bombarded with junk mail. You didn’t have to show any evidence of previous purchases. The books were simply offered for free to the armed forces through the Services Central Book Depot, to mark the ‘Glorious Victories’.
I’ve never been able to find any records of what was given away or exactly how, so I can only judge from the evidence of the books themselves. And it’s not easy to find them. You wouldn’t believe how easy it seems to be to make a million books disappear. In more than 25 years, I have found fewer than 20 copies and heard or seen reports of a handful of others, to make up a total of 30 known titles. I suspect there may be many more out there to be found, but it’s certainly possible that of the original million books, no more than a few hundred now remain. They’re printed on poor quality wartime paper, were probably sent all round the world to some pretty inhospitable environments, and the vast majority have just been thrown away.
There is a standard cover in various different colours specially printed for the give-away, but the books themselves don’t seem to have been specially printed. They were just existing stock given a new cover, and so it probably wasn’t really a series, it was just whatever happened to be on hand at the time. It may be that there were 50,000 copies of one book and only 10,000 copies of the next, and it may never be possible to establish a full list of titles. I’d still like to get as much information as I can about them though, so if you have any, or know anything about them, please get in touch.
The two longest series of UK Services Editions, from Guild Books and from Collins, between them account for almost 400 of the 500 or so books that exist in total, at least in paperback. In comparison with those two, Hutchinson were a minnow. But they still produced a series of over 30 Services Editions as well as offering a million other books to the forces as a free Victory Gift.
Although the Hutchinson Services Editions appear to be a consistently branded series, this hides the complexity of the underlying businesses. Having been mainly a publisher of magazines, Walter Hutchinson, son of the original founder, had switched the direction of the firm into books and by the start of the Second World War seems to have built it up into quite a mini-conglomerate of publishing businesses. It included amongst others, Hurst & Blackett, Jarrolds, John Long, Stanley Paul, Rich & Cowan, Skeffington and Andrew Melrose. It also operated through a bewildering variety of paperback imprints including Toucan Books, Jarrolds Jackdaw Library, The Crime Book Society, The Leisure Library, Readers’ Library, Four Square Books and so on, as well as several different series using the Hutchinson brand more directly. What the marketing logic was behind such a variety of different brands and series, is completely beyond me, but at least for the Services Editions they left most of that behind and brought order from the chaos.
Not entirely, because the books still carry different series names on the front cover and different publishers’ names on the title page. For instance ‘Rapid Fire’ by Joan Butler is headed ‘The Toucan novels’ on the cover, and is published by Stanley Paul & Co. Ltd. But at least the cover design is standard, the books clearly form a single series and they are listed together in the advertising pages within the books.
Those lists within the books also mean that for once we do more or less know what exists in this series. There are 33 books in the series, including 15 from the Hutchinson’s Pocket Library, 7 from Jarrolds Jackdaw, 7 from Toucan Books, 2 from John Long Four Square and 2 from Skeffington’s Pocket Library. They’re produced to War Economy standard, so very poor quality paper and production, but a surprising number seem to have survived and some of these books are less rare than other Services Editions. This may be because they come from Iater in the war, possibly around 1945, although the books are undated. I don’t know how many were printed, but comparison with other non-Services Editions suggests it may have been 25,000 copies of each book. For instance the Services Edition of ‘In Brighton Waters’ by Gordon Volk says ’52nd thousand’ on the title page, while the Free Victory Gift edition of the same book says ’27th thousand’.
As well as the paperback editions, several of the books are also found in a simple red hardback format. This was probably produced by the publishers, although it could have been added later by the Services Central Book Depot, or some other agency.
I’ll look at the Free Victory Gift series in a separate post. The sting in the tail from Hutchinson though, is that I have a single copy of a Crime Book Society Services Edition, which comes from the Hutchinson Group, but is not in the standard format or included in any of the standard lists of books. Was this a one-off, or are there others out there waiting to be discovered?
I’ve talked before about how Penguin transformed the market for paperback books in the UK in 1935, particularly by using non-illustrated covers, and how other companies reacted to this. Recent posts have looked at how Collins in particular reacted with the launch of their White Circle series.
But the fastest company to react seems to have been Hutchinson. The first Penguins appeared in July 1935 and by October of the same year, they had competition in the form of Hutchinson’s Pocket Library, clearly copying some of the principal design features of Penguins – the same size, covers in similarly bright colours, dustwrappers in the same design as the books, and of course the same sixpenny price. Perhaps most important though, is the lack of any illustration on the cover. Hutchinson were an established paperback publisher, but their pre-Penguin paperbacks had illustrated covers. Within three months of Penguin’s launch, here they are launching a new series without illustrations.
It seems to have been reasonably successful, running to around 75 titles before the outbreak of war and ran alongside various other series in different genres – the Hutchinson Crime Book Society published a similar number of books, competing with the Collins White Circle Crime Club as well as the Penguin crime novels, and a Hutchinson non-fiction series competed with Pelican. Pelican having launched in 1937 with a two volume book by Bernard Shaw, the Hutchinson non-fiction series launched in 1938 with a two volume book by H.G. Wells. All of these series had covers in a standard non-illustrated design, following the fashion set by Penguin.
But there was also one other series – the Hutchinson’s Popular Pocket Library, a series of romantic novels. The insertion of that one word ‘popular’ distinguished it from the more serious Hutchinson’s Pocket Library, but the real distinguishing factor was that this series had illustrated covers. This comparison, more than anything, showed the effect that Penguin had had on the market. Illustrated covers now implied a lack of seriousness, or pure escapism. Novels with any literary pretensions at all, even crime novels, or in the case of Collins, westerns, had to have non-illustrated covers. But books that were happy to flaunt their lack of any pretensions, could use illustrations. The word ‘popular’ is being used here almost as a taunt – “we know this is escapist rubbish, but we don’t care – look, cover art!”.
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!’