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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"The Pickwick Club" by Charles Dickens. 1842. In 1837, Christian Bernhard Tauchnitz (1816–1895) founded the Leipzig printing and publishing firm that became famous for its inexpensive, paperback English-language editions of British and American authors. The simple Tauchnitz cover became iconic in the publishing world; it was first used in the 1840s and remained virtually unchanged for nearly a century. This 1842 edition of "The Pickwick Club" was one of the first paperbacks published by Tauchnitz, and the first of a long run of Dickens novels that the company would distribute in continental Europe. More than 2,000 of the now-rare Tauchnitz editions, recognized for their influence in gaining attention for English-language authors in Europe, are located at the Ransom Center, as well as a substantial collection of papers (1931–1954) associated with Albatross Verlag, the publisher that later absorbed the Tauchnitz firm. "Have Gat—Will Travel" by Richard S. Pranther. 1957. Throughout the late 1930s, Penguin Books and Pocket Books dominated the American paperback industry with their cheap reprints of books that had already appeared in hardcover. Fawcett Books, a smaller company that marketed primarily crime novels and westerns to a male audience, had difficulty paying copyright costs for existing titles. In the late 1940s, therefore, Fawcett introduced Gold Medal Books, a line of 25-cent paperback originals. Gold Medal Books was the first paperback imprint to use exclusively original material, and it launched the careers of multiple pulp writers—such as Richard S. Pranther and Kurt Vonnegut—who abandoned magazines to get advances from Fawcett. Gold Medal Books also became well known for their aggressive and sensational advertising campaigns, as you can gather from the moxie-filled copy on the back cover of this 1957 edition of "Have Gat—Will Travel." The Ransom Center’s Ellery Queen book collection houses a large number of Gold Medal Books published by Fawcett in the 1940s and 1950s. "The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism & Fascism" by George Bernard Shaw. 1937. In 1937, Allen Lane expanded Penguin Books to include a “Pelican” imprint that specialized in non-fiction titles. George Bernard Shaw’s 1937 political tract "The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism & Fascism" was the first book published by Penguin under its Pelican imprint. For this edition Shaw wrote a new introduction on the subjects of bolshevism and fascism. His introduction became the first original writing published by Penguin and thus a forerunner of the “paperback original” that came to dominate the paperback book trade in later years. "What Hitler Wants" by E. O. Lorimer. 1939. Following the success of his fiction paperbacks in the mid-1930s, Allen Lane turned his attention toward global affairs as Britain entered World War II. As this title reveals, Penguin played a role in politics as well as in literature and design, and its left-leaning stance figured into Britain’s war and postwar efforts. After the Labour Party came to office in 1945, the new Prime Minister Clement Attlee declared that the accessibility of left-leaning reading during the war helped his party succeed: “After the WEA [Workers’ Educational Association] it was Lane and his Penguins which did most to get us into office at the end of the war.” "Oliver Twist" by Charles Dickens. 1943. This edition of "Oliver Twist" is part of the Ransom Center’s Armed Services Editions collection, which houses more than 1,000 paperback editions printed for soldiers during World War II. The U.S. Army began publishing Armed Services Editions in 1943, hoping the portable volumes would entertain soldiers between duties. By the time the army stopped publishing the editions four years later, they had distributed more than 123 million copies of 1,300 titles to soldiers on active duty on the battlefields in Europe and the Far East. The subjects of the Armed Services Editions ranged from mystery and adventure tales to the classics. The paperbacks were generally produced in a horizontal format with a picture of the original hardback’s dust jacket. "Lady Chatterley’s Lover" by D. H. Lawrence. 1960. Perhaps the most controversial paperback ever published by Penguin Books was the unexpurgated version of "Lady Chatterley’s Lover" in 1960. Allen Lane and his company were tried by the government under the British Obscene Publications Act of 1959, and were forced to prove the “literary merit” of a book that featured frank sexual content and a copious amount of expletives. Lane and Penguin won the highly publicized trial, and the following year Lane dedicated a second paperback edition of the novel to the jurors who decided the case in his favor. The D. H. Lawrence collection at the Ransom Center contains correspondence related to the obscenity trial centered on "Lady Chatterley’s Lover," as well as four drafts of the novel itself. "Malaeska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter" by Mrs. Ann Stephens. 1860. In American publishing, one of the most important forerunners of pulp paperback fiction was the dime novel of the late-nineteenth century. "Malaeska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter" is generally considered the first dime novel: it is the first in a series published by the company Beadle and Adams, beginning in 1860. It sold 65,000 copies within three months of publication, setting off a craze for sensational and inexpensive fiction. The Ransom Center houses more than 850 dime novels published by the firm Beadle & Adams in its dime novel collection. The collection includes dime novels by Buffalo Bill Cody, who wrote for the series, as well as the mounted head of a buffalo shot by Cody. There are also dime novels found in the Ellery Queen book collection. "What Maisie Knew" by Henry James. Book cover design by Edward Gorey. 1954. In 1953 Anchor Books, the paperback division of Doubleday, centered its efforts on marketing classic works of literature to libraries and students. The imprint was created by then-25-year-old Jason Epstein, who would go on to become editorial director of Random House for more than 40 years. Epstein introduced the trade paperback format (larger in size and higher in price than mass-market paperbacks) and hired the young artist Edward Gorey as his Art Editor. Gorey worked for Epstein from 1953 to 1960, and the artist’s distinct lettering and design layout helped make the Anchor Books series a wild success. Never abandoning his distinctive combination of the whimsical with the morbid, Gorey created covers for classic works by authors as disparate as Franz Kafka, Collette, James Conrad, and Stendhal. The Ransom Center holds numerous Anchor paperbacks featuring cover artwork by Gorey and material related to Gorey’s life and career in its Edward Gorey collection. "Howl and Other Poems" by Allen Ginsberg. Published in 1956 by City Lights Pocket Bookshop, signed by Ginsberg and inscribed to Edith Sitwell. In 1955, writer Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of San Francisco’s City Lights Bookshop, launched the first American publishing company dedicated to editions of poetry printed in paperback. With its iconic cover and small size, City Lights Publishers’ Pocket Poetry Series became an enormous success and published such well-known poets as Denise Levertov, Gregory Corso, and Frank O’Hara. Ferlinghetti and City Lights are perhaps best known for their role in the widely publicized obscenity trial revolving around the publication of Allen Ginsberg’s "Howl and other Poems" in 1956. Drafts of the poems in this volume, as well as correspondence related to the trial, are housed in the Allen Ginsberg collection at the Ransom Center. Title page of "Malaeska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter" by Mrs. Ann Stephens. 1860. "The Case of the Velvet Claws" by Erle Stanley Gardner. 1948. Like many genre authors of his generation, mystery writer Erle Stanley Gardner got his start by publishing stories in pulp fiction magazines such as "Black Mask" and "Detective Fiction Weekly." These magazines were known for their low-quality paper, inexpensive prices, and escapist, sensational tales featuring tough-talking heroes, pretty girls, exotic settings, and mysterious villains. Eventually the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s would be replaced by new media such as radio, TV, comics, and films—and, in particular, cheap paperbacks. Gardner was one of the first of the pulp writers to make the switch to paperbacks, a move that quickly increased his popularity and finances. Other writers that successfully transitioned from pulp magazines to paperbacks include Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Bradbury, H. P. Lovecraft, Raymond Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett. The Erle Stanley Gardner collection at the Ransom Center houses pulp magazines and novels that span the author’s nearly 50-year career as a crime and mystery writer. "Le terze rime di Dante" by Dante Alighieri. Published in 1502 by Aldus Manutius of the Aldine Press. The sixteenth-century Italian printer and publisher Aldus Manutius is generally credited with first developing the publishing methods that would lead to the modern paperback. Many of his publications were issued in octavo format (the size of which roughly corresponds to modern trade and mass-market paperbacks) to produce small, easily portable editions of popular works. Manutius also standardized grammar, introducing the comma and semi-colon, and produced the first italic type. The Ransom Center’s Aldine Press collection houses more than 900 volumes of Aldine Press books published between 1494 and 1588. In 1501, Aldus began to use his signature printer's device, the Aldine anchor and dolphin. This type of branding would be one of the most distinctive marks of later paperback companies, such as Penguin and Pocket, who published centuries after Manutius. "Walden" by Henry David Thoreau. 1938. Seeking a new, high-end market, Penguin experimented with a line of Illustrated Classics in 1937. For the first print run, Arthur Lane chose works (such as "Walden") that were out of copyright, so the money saved on royalties could be put toward commissioning artists. Lane hired Robert Gibbings, the owner of the Golden Cockerell Press from 1924 to 1933, to become Art Editor for Penguin Illustrated Classics in 1938. Gibbings was an expert on wood engravings and commissioned highly qualified artists to illustrate the novels. Under his direction, the Illustrated Classics books featured elaborately illustrated title pages, each with its own distinct penguin. The Ransom Center holds many of these early pictorial classics in its book collection, as well as material related to Gibbings and his illustrations in its Golden Cockerell Press collection. "A Farewell to Arms" by Ernest Hemingway. 1935. This edition of "A Farewell to Arms" was part of the initial ten-book print run of Penguin’s launch in 1935. Other titles in the series included Agatha Christie’s "The Mysterious Affair at Styles" and Dorothy Sayers’s "The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club." As you can see from this cover, Penguin paperbacks emphasized the company’s branding rather than the subject or author of the work; the original covers included the trademark drawing of the penguin but only rarely included illustrations pertaining to the book’s content. The covers were color-coded: orange for fiction, green for crime, and blue for non-fiction. "Terrible Tales" by George Sala. 1873. The story collection "Terrible Tales" is an example of the “penny dreadful” that was enormously popular in Britain in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. Penny dreadfuls, as well as the melodramatic “yellowback” novels often sold in railway stations, were the forerunners of the pulp fiction paperbacks of the ensuing century. Penny dreadfuls were printed on cheap (pulp) paper and aimed toward working-class adolescent boys: most of the penny dreadfuls featured lurid stories of murderers or highwaymen such as Sweeney Todd or Dick Turpin. When they first appeared, these cheap periodicals cost a penny; in later years the prices fluctuated, but the name “penny dreadful” came to encompass all sensationalized publications aimed primarily at children and young adults. The Ransom Center holds numerous examples of nineteenth-century pulp fiction in its Robert Wolff collection of Victorian literature.
Back cover of "Have Gat—Will Travel" by Richard S. Pranther. 1957.