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.
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!”.