A climate change puts the heat on Penguin

The publishing industry is said to have been rocked back on its heels at news that ebooks have outsold hardback books on Amazon in the United States.

But the ghost of Allen Lane, publishing impresario and the founder of Penguin, might raise an eyebrow at the notion that usurping hardback books with a new technology is really news at all.

Seventy-five years ago he launched his paperback imprint and, as birthdays are one thing that Penguin does better than any other bird or beast in the publishing jungle, we’re going to hear all about it.

As early as 1956 it produced a “Penguin Comes of Age” special written by Lane himself to mark its 21st. For the 60th anniversary of Penguin Classics, in 2006, it was commissioning artists — including shoe designer Manolo Blahnik and photographer Sam Taylor-Wood — to design covers for dinky limited editions of classic texts. For Penguin’s 70th, it treated itself to 70 short books, with texts excerpted from the work of its most illustrious authors.

By the arrival on July 30 of the 75th anniversary of the first book to roll off its presses, Penguin was seven months into a celebration that began in January with a jamboree involving 50 writers recommending 50 titles, and frolicked into the reissue of 20 novels that shaped modern Britain.

The self-image, then, remains strong. But what exactly does that image represent? And how well will the venerable old seabird be able to swim in the age of the ebook? One senses that Lane would be relaxed.

He revolutionised the industry with the commercially brilliant idea in the depressed Britain of the 1930s of producing paperbacks for the people at sixpence a copy, available at Woolworths or from vending machines.

The contradictions — of high culture and low cunning, exclusivity and populism — that have become such a feature of the Penguin project are exemplified in that very first book, a 1924 biography of Shelley, garbed in stern purple livery.

None of the first batch of 10 books was new — Lane’s genius was as a snapper-up and spinner rather than as a literary originator. Even the idea of cheap paperbacks was pioneered first by a Hamburg publisher. And so, arguably, it has continued, with Penguin Classics becoming its most famous international brand, though the separate imprints are all big hitters in their fields — from the heavyweight non-fiction of Lane to the commercial brio of Michael Joseph.

So, happy birthday, Penguin, but I would like to make a suggestion: perhaps your 80th birthday present to yourself should begin with the letter e. Because although, as a fan of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, I am delighted to have received a new Penguin edition, I searched in vain for the ebook to upload on to my new iPad and take on holiday with me. —

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