Blog Archives

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.

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.

Special Penguins

Allen Lane’s decision to abandon cover art when he launched Penguin Books in July 1935, was a revolutionary move that was followed by almost all of his competitors.  Previously lurid cover designs gave way to much more restrained design.   So what is happening just two years later, when Lane seems to abandon all restraint with the Penguin Specials series?

Penguin Special S30 dw

It is not yet the return of multi-coloured cover art.  It would be many more years before Lane could reconcile himself to such a step.   But the screaming headlines, the long prose blurbs and the occasional cartoons and maps on the covers of the Penguin Specials are a long way away from the simple tripartite model of the main Penguin series.

The series of topical political tracts on world affairs, launched in late 1937 was a huge success.  The turbulent state of European politics had created an appetite for information on international affairs that Lane was happy to satisfy.   The initial print run of 50,000 for the first volume sold out within four days and had to be almost immediately reprinted.   Other books sold in their hundreds of thousands and their success gave Penguin a platform for later domination.  When paper rationing was introduced later in the war, the allocations were based on paper use in these pre-war years and Penguin were using paper in vast quantities.

But why the lack of restraint in design?  Penguin seem to have decided that in the political situation of the time, with the threat of war looming, restraint was simply not appropriate.  Every new book in the series, and every new topic, was a matter of screaming urgency and the covers should reflect this.

Penguin Special S13

And the books were after all, despite their lack of restraint, still recognisably Penguins.  Enough of the basic Penguin design was retained for that to be clear.   They carried the Penguin brand and the values associated with it – a certain vague notion of seriousness, quality and intellectual aspiration.   Despite the shoutiness of the covers, these were not to be seen as populist or downmarket.  The basic colour was still orange, the colour most associated with Penguin (or Pelican blue for those volumes branded as Pelican specials), the design was still based on horizontal bands, the Penguin logo was still in much the same place at the bottom of the front cover, and the price of course was still 6d.

The style of cover was not really new.  The covers remind me particularly of the dustwrapper designs on many hardback books from Gollancz in the 1930s, and no doubt other publishers too.  But I don’t think they were normal on paperbacks at this time, and if anybody was going to introduce them, the last person you’d have in mind would be Allen Lane.   For the second time in three years, he was revolutionising paperback cover design.

But in the end this one wasn’t really a revolution.   Other companies didn’t copy it, although Hutchinson moved some way in the same direction for a while.   Perhaps even more significantly, Penguin themselves didn’t persist for too long with the policy.  When war was declared in September 1939, the series had reached almost 40 titles, but gradually screaming headlines started to give way to the more sober realities of war.  By 1942, as the series passed 100 volumes, a new design was emerging that had no room for long quotations or cartoons and was much more like the classic Penguin design.  This looks to me to be a recognition that the technique of shouting can be very effective in the short term, particularly if unexpected, but almost inevitably loses its effectiveness and shows diminishing returns if persisted with.  Restraint was back in fashion.

Penguin Special S95

A Penguin special from 1943

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, 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.