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Notes from the Undergrad: The Penguin Illustrated Collapse

Alyssa O’Connell is an English Honors junior in Professor Janine Barchas’s seminar, “The Paperback,” in which students used the Ransom Center’s collections to research the history of paperbacks.

Among today’s reading public, the ubiquitous Penguin Books are nearly synonymous with the notion of mass-market paperbacks. The publishing house’s continual commercial triumphs since Allen Lane founded it in 1935 have provided inexpensive literary texts for readers of all ages. Despite its successes, however, Penguin has also faced failure, and one such misstep occurred only three years after the company’s inception.

On May 18, 1938, Allen Lane introduced a new paperback series, the Penguin Illustrated Classics. Ten out-of-copyright novels, short stories, and poetry collections were released simultaneously and sold at the low cost of six pence each, which is the equivalent of around $1 to $2 in modern currency. The titles were Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, A Sentimental Journey by Laurence Sterne, Some Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe, Walden by Henry David Thoreau, Selected Poems by Robert Browning, Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (in two volumes), Typee by Herman Melville, The Story of My Heart by Richard Jefferies, and Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. Every book featured at least 12 woodcut illustrations by reputable wood-engravers of the twentieth century.

Penguin’s inspiration for the books came in part from a fellow member of the Lane family. Allen Lane’s uncle, John Lane, was co-founder of The Bodley Head publishing house. From the company’s beginnings in 1887 and into the 1920s and 1930s, The Bodley Head published elite illustrated hardbacks in small quantities at high prices. Because there was a woodcut revival in the 1930s, the nephew believed it was the perfect market to present such illustrated texts with wood engravings in the new, accessible, and inexpensive paperback format. To highlight the artists, each front cover featured the illustrator’s name in slightly smaller print than the author’s name. Also, while the front flap of the dust jacket provided information about the author, the back flap offered a biography of the wood engraver. Penguin, therefore, endorsed the artists nearly as strongly as it promoted the writers.

Despite its hopes and efforts, Penguin soon found the Illustrated Classics struggling in bookstores. World War II was approaching, and the refined series alienated consumers who sought simplicity and current information. The journalistic Penguin Specials, a different Allen Lane product that offered plain aesthetics and up-to-date intelligence, became extremely popular while the experimental Penguin Illustrated Classics failed to rouse much interest. Furthermore, as illustrated texts, the poor quality Classics did not impress customers. The cheap, thin paper could not support the rather bold art of the wood engravers, thus undermining Penguin’s venture to merge sophistication with an economical product.

Ultimately, the Penguin Illustrated Classics failed to secure a niche in the market, belonging neither with the expensive hardbacks that had inspired them nor among the pre-war softcovers associated with their publisher. Penguin Books could not transform The Bodley Head’s concept into one of mass production, and the series soon vanished from British bookstores. Allen Lane, who remained with Penguin Books from 1935 until his death in 1970, encountered a disappointing initial failure that forced him to abandon his idea of uniting sophisticated hardback trends with affordable paperbacks.

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Penguin and the Paperback Revolution

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According to popular mythology, the publisher Allen Lane, founder of Penguin Books, formulated his idea for a press dedicated exclusively to paperbacks while visiting a railway station. Having spent the weekend visiting his friend Agatha Christie, the famed author of Murder on the Orient Express, Lane arrived at the Exeter railway station and realized he had forgotten his book. Frustrated and facing the boredom of a long train trip, Lane tried to buy a novel at the station but found that there was nothing available that he felt worth reading. Bookless for the next few hours, he sat on the train and planned a new line of cheap, pocket-sized, and travel-worthy books, which could be sold at railway stations, grocers, and department stores. Penguin Books—and the paperback revolution—were born.

While this version of Allen Lane’s epiphany may be slightly romanticized, there is no doubt that Penguin Books, launched in 1935, sparked a new phase of publishing that would change the printing industry irrevocably. Mass marketing of paperbacks not only brought classics to a wider audience but also brought pulp fiction—previously published in magazines—to the forefront of the book trade.

The Ransom Center’s book collection is known for first editions, many of them lush volumes with elaborate bindings. Perhaps lesser known is the fact that the Ransom Center also houses multiple volumes that illuminate the development of the paperback book trade in both America and Britain. Alongside important editions of Lane’s Penguins, the Center also houses Tauchnitz editions of paperbacks that pre-date Penguin, as well as the “penny dreadfuls” and dime novels that slowly developed into modern pulp fiction. This slideshow exhibits numerous items from the library’s collections that represent landmarks in the history of the paperback book trade.

"What Maisie Knew" by Henry James. Book cover design by Edward Gorey. 1954.
"What Maisie Knew" by Henry James. Book cover design by Edward Gorey. 1954.