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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!

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