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US Penguins 1945 – 1948

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.

A typical US Penguin from 1945

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.

Robert Jonas designed a series of ‘peep-hole’ covers for Erskine Caldwell’s novels

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.

A more literary list?

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.

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.

The parents of American Penguins – rather different from the child

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.

The first American Penguin?

I’ve looked before at the story of how Penguin’s first operation in the US ended in tears, despite some commercial success.  The management team, initially headed by Ian Ballantine, quickly ‘went native’, adapting the product so that it was much closer to other US paperbacks than to Penguin’s brand and self-image in the UK.

But all that was in the unknown future when Penguin first arrived in New York in 1939, just before the outbreak of war.  Ballantine had been a postgraduate student at the London School of Economics when Allen Lane chose him to lead Penguin’s venture into the US market, and he established their first US office at 3 East 17th Street, New York in July 1939.

Ian-Ballantine-2

Ian Ballantine, much later in life

The initial plan was simply to sell books imported from Britain and for the first year or so, that was what they did.   But the war made shipping books across the Atlantic increasingly dangerous.  Even worse, paper was rationed in Britain and not in the US and it made little sense to send a scarce commodity in the wrong direction.

So the decision to start printing in the US was almost inevitable.  But that’s all it was.  A decision to print in the US some of the same books that had been published in the UK, in the same format.  The British operation retained control, not only over what was printed and sold, but crucially, how it looked as well.

A lot of Penguin’s effort, and a lot of their success in the late 1930s and the early years of the war, had been in publishing ‘Penguin Specials’ – topical books on politics, sometimes written and published in record-breaking time to respond to the latest events, and almost closer to journalism than to traditional authorship and publishing.  They sold in huge quantities in Britain, at a time when the public was eager for news and analysis of the latest political and military developments.  It seems unlikely that they would have had the same impact in the US in 1940, but there was clearly some market for them.

Almost certainly the first Penguin book to be printed in the US was a Penguin Special – ‘New ways of war’ by Tom Wintringham.  The book, which according to the dustwrapper contained ‘full instructions for making handgrenades in any village garage’, had been written in July 1940 and published in August in the UK.  The US printing is dated 1940 and so cannot have been long after.  Photos of both the UK and US first printings are shown below.

 Penguin Special S75   US Penguin Special S75

Although there are clearly some differences, at first sight it’s not obvious which is which, and both are numbered S75.  If anything, the US edition (on the right) looks rather more like a pre-war UK Penguin than the UK edition does.  For some reason though, the cover picture has been changed, to one that looks even more home-made than the original, and seems to show two British soldiers in extremely dangerous positions as they attempt to blow up a German tank.  Other internal illustrations have also been altered and new ones added.

US Penguin Special S75 new illustration

A new illustration in the US edition, with some idiosyncratic captioning

By this time, dustwrappers had been abandoned in the UK in the cause of wartime economy, the paper in the UK edition is of poor quality and even the colour doesn’t look quite right.   The US edition is a significantly higher quality product.  It has a price of 25c on the dustwrapper flap and a note on the back of the title page that it is manufactured in the US ‘by union labor’.  The back cover lists other Penguin Specials with numbers S46 to S56, although it’s not clear that all of these were available for sale in the US and the list may simply have been lifted from the cover of another UK Penguin.

US Penguin Special S75 back cover

By this time, Penguin had moved to East 28th Street

The book also exists in a Second Printing that is undated but possibly from 1941 and also then in a Second Edition, first printed in July 1942.  By that time the format has changed and it is co-published with the Infantry Journal.

Rather surprisingly, it seems to have been followed by few other locally printed US Penguins over the next year or so.  I know of no other example dated 1940, and only a few from 1941.  I’ll look at them another time.     But it was 1942 before local printing in the US really took off in a big way.

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

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