Hat Tip: “The Penguin Books are…so splendid that if other publishers had any sense they would combine against them and suppress them.”

I listen with fair regularity to a podcast on publishing produced by Oxford Brookes University and the Oxford International Centre for Publishing Studies.

The latest podcast, posted on March 15, 2012 was a re-broadcast of a BBC Oxford lunchtime program on World Book Day, March 1, 2012. One topic of conversation was the recent explosive growth in popularity of e-books facilitated by the arrival of relatively low cost e-book readers and multi-function tablet computers. The other topic pointed back to the history of the book, focusing in particular on the paperback book publishing revolution started in the mid-1930s by a man named Allen Lane. Lane founded Penguin Books. Lane didn’t invent the paperback book. But he brought high quality contemporary content and high quality design and production value to the low cost paperback format. The result revolutionized publishing and the way people viewed books and accessed quality literature.

It is a fascinating story, and I commend a listen to the podcast. Take a look, too, at the company history page on the Penguin Books website. Penguin was set up as a separate company in London in 1936, and “within twelve months, it had sold a staggering 3 million paperbacks.”

We take this book format pretty much for granted today. But it has been and is a wonderful thing. I still recall the wonder of the paperback book as expressed by Carl Sagan when he said, “For the price of a modest meal you can ponder the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, the origin of species, the interpretation of dreams, the nature of things.” (Cosmos. New York: Random House, 1980, p. 281.)

Looking back, we would not hesitate to call Lane’s innovation “disruptive” in the publishing world. Indeed, it is told that the penguin was chosen as the company logo because Lane “wanted a ‘dignified but flippant’ symbol for his new business.”

I was particularly struck by this comment on the Penguin history page, followed by a quote from George Orwell:

Traditional publishers tended to view Penguin with suspicion and uncertainty, as did some authors.

“The Penguin Books are splendid value for sixpence, so splendid that if other publishers had any sense they would combine against them and suppress them.”

I don’t know whether to take this as ironic in view of some “traditional” publisher behavior observable today as book (and journal) publishing moves into the digital world. Although Allen Lane clearly started Penguin to sell books, he also wanted to increase the accessibility of good quality books to the general public. I see in his disruptive innovation—his flippant dignity (or dignified flippancy)—a challenge to “traditional” publishing models, and maybe even an analogy that would support the spirit, at least, of open access.

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Posted in "The Hat Tip", Book History, Book Technology, Commercial Publishing, Economics & Business Models, Open Access, Publishing Platforms, Publishing Technology
2 comments on “Hat Tip: “The Penguin Books are…so splendid that if other publishers had any sense they would combine against them and suppress them.”
  1. Phil Hanna says:

    During the sixties I lived in the country of Lebanon. When we visited Beirut, we would usually spend some time in Khayat’s Bookstore, an English language bookstore near the American University of Beirut. It had a large collection of Penguin paperbacks, all with interesting titles and cover art. I rarely see a Penguin book here in the US, but when I do it takes me back to Khayat’s bookstore and the dimly lit corners where you could explore the wider world. Phil Hanna

  2. […] the rise of paperback books, including a misquotation of George Orwell (which is a shame, because the full quote is an apt fit for recent history). The letter goes on to remind us of that recent history, […]

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