The first ten Penguins. From Stevenson: "Book Makers", 2010

The first ten Penguins. From Stevenson: “Book Makers”, British Library 2010. These books were reissued in 1985 to celebrate Penguin’s 50th anniversary

Allen Lane, founder of Penguin Books, is widely credited with creating the paperback revolution when he published the first Penguin Books in 1935. But others (e.g. Dent, OUP, Nelson, Collins, Macmillan) had published books in paperback before: what Penguin Books did that was transformative was (in the English-speaking world) to reissue books from various publishers under one imprint, at the same time publishing their own originals, and, most importantly perhaps, manage to get credited with originality. Their success came from their managing to establish a strong brand which caught on quickly. The books were sold at 6d each through chain stores like Woolworths and Boots as well as bookshops. Many booksellers resisted the idea, complaining that it cheapened the book, and several publishers refused to sell rights to Penguin for quite a while. Penguin Books was originally an imprint of The Bodley Head, becoming an independent company in 1936.

Mental Floss has a good article telling the story of the “invention” of paperback publishing from a US perspective. It is perhaps surprising that the paperback revolution took place in Britain about four years before it did in USA. says “The perfect binding was invented in 1895, but wasn’t used popularly for bookbinding until 1931 when Albatross Books first introduced paperback books. Soon Penguin Books followed in 1935 producing paperbacks in their classic books. Then Pocket Books in 1939, started producing its popular titles in the paperbacks, they caught on quickly and soon everyone was reading paperback books.”

Albatross 1 lowIn fact The Albatross was founded in Germany in 1932, and was picking up on an idea pioneered by Tauchnitz, who had been publishing inexpensive paperbound English-language reprints for the continental market and British tourists since 1841. The Albatross did standardize the format, at 181 x 111mm (4.37″ x 7.12″) which remains pretty much the standard mass-market paperback trim size to this day, and used typographical cover designs and color coding for genre (green for travel, orange and yellow for fiction); a style followed by Penguin until the sixties.

One contender for original paperback is Brother Jonathan, a periodical book of British fiction extracts published in America in 1839, and classified as a newspaper in order to get free distribution. Over 60 million romans à quatre sous, cheap paperback fictions, were distributed in France between 1848 and 1859. W. H. Smith began issuing their Yellow Backs, paperback reprints, in 1850 for sale in their railway bookstalls. Notwithstanding, some have attributed Lane’s idea to his impatience at not being able to find something to read on a railway journey. His paperback revolution has in fact been referred to as the third paperback revolution.

Many of us remember Pelican Books (1937-84), Penguin’s more serious brother, and will be happy to note that Penguin Books is bringing the Pelican back as an on-line service. The Digital Reader has the story on 18 November. Here’s the story from Book Patrol of Pelican Books’ taking off again. TechCrunch tells how it will work.

Publishers Weekly reports on 31 October that the mass market paperback is still a viable format. Maybe “mass” is just a little less massive than it used to be. Of course in origin mass-market paperbacks depended on a specific supply chain which has now evaporated. Wholesalers would stock racks and shelves in a variety of (non-book) outlets for an impulse-driven customer base. The retailer would get a selection of books without any input into title selection. Today’s mass-market paperbacks are really just another price point for books, not the separate distribution channel they once were.