The birth of the Penguin paperback

I’m currently enjoying Niche by James Harkin, which is about how the mass-market is declining. The big idea of book is on the flap: “There’s a new rule in business: forget about the general audience and instead stake out an identifiable niche”.

James Harkin is like a museum curator, leading us through exhibition after another. On our guided tour through the not-too dusty halls of modern life we pass HBO making money by giving its writers creative control, Gap trying to appeal to older and younger audiences and failing to please either; MyBarackObama, the social networking site that won Barack Obama the election, and a thousand other fascinating little stories, many of which I will no doubt be writing up here.

One such little story is about the birth of the mass-market paperback.

“In Britain, Allen Lane, a director of the Bodley Head publishing house, designed a new size for his proposed paperbacks and assigned different colours for each genre, including the now-iconic orange for fiction, green for crime and dark blue for biographies. He also gave the company’s imprint its own name: Penguin. The first ten in his selection appeared in 1935, and included novels by Mary Webb, Compton MacKenzie and Dorothy L Sayers as well as Ernest Hemingway’s contemporary classic, A Farewell to Arms. …”

In order to break even however, Allen Lane had to sell lots of copies, which meant finding unconventional places to sell them. In June 1935, Allen Lane persuaded Woolworths to take a big order. Priced at sixpence, placed amongst the sweets, clothes and other nik-naks, it changed the face of publishing. Books which had once been exclusive and expensive items, were now available to the masses.

It’s a great story, but the thing that strikes me is that 6 pence converted to new money and adjusted for inflation is £1.29. Even if you calculate it as a measure of average earnings, the price is £4.88.

Maybe one of the reasons book sales are declining is because the books are overpriced!



Filed under Little things

6 responses to “The birth of the Penguin paperback

  1. Hannah

    Are books really overpriced though? Or are our ideas about what things should cost skewed out of proportion?

    I don’t have the mathematical skills to work out if Orwell’s argument is still valid today, but considering the amount people spend on things like take-out coffee which is drunk and gone in about 10 minutes, one of which costs about 1/3 of a normal paperback, suggests that he may still have a point.

    • I agree, a good book in terms of the time it provides pleasure for, is worth a lot. But I always feel the issue is you don’t know whether it’s going to be good. And it takes a lot of time to realise what you’re reading is rubbish. You spend £10 and invest 4 hours in a book, only to end up wanting to throw it away. I’d much more readily take a punt on something that was £5.

      I’ve always wondered whether there was some kind of online mail-order library you could have: bit like amazon, you order the book online, they send it to you, you read it and if you like it, you pay to keep it. I’d do that, because if it’s a book I like I want to keep it.

      • Hannah

        That seems like an idea waiting to be turned into reality!
        I tend to buy most of my books second hand, so I rarely spend over a fiver anyway. I know what you mean about the disappointment of realising halfway through something that its just no good. I was suckered into buying David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jakob De Zoet by its subject matter and fancy Hokusai-esque cover, only to be stuck with a really badly written “historical” thriller. Plus I bought it in Japan so it was new and probably twice the price it would be in England. If your mail order service existed that one would definitely be returned.
        Wouldn’t you end up with warehouses full of bad books though?

        • I was in love with the idea for a while, but I think the problem is when you read a paperback, you bend the spine and everything. I think people wouldn’t want to buy a used paperback. You could do something where you put it in a plastic cover, like the type libraries use. If you take the cover off you have to buy it
          It’s much easier to make it work with something that doesn’t deteriorate like DVDs

  2. Hannah

    Great blog by the way!

  3. nonfictionmonkey

    I used to have a terrible habit of wanting ot own a copy of every single book I’d read, even if I hated it. So I’d borrow a book, read it, and then have to spend weeks traipsing round second hand shops to find a copy. Needless to say I had to mofidy my behaviour when I moved to London and moved into a matchbox…:) I take you point about feeling swindled when you’ve paid for a book and don’t end up enjoying it. I have the same thing with films (or indeed drinks when you don’t have a good night). But then think of your favourite three books, books that might have completely changed how you think of the world, what you believe, how you live, books that have literally changed your life, and consider that all the joy, wisdom and beauty they brought (and, if they’re that good, bring) you cost you probably about £20. ..

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