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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.