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. —

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

The Portfolio: Nthikeng Mohlele

A veteran author and part-time festival director, Nthikeng Mohlele can attest to the respective experiences being irreconcilable. Or are they?

The Portfolio: Maggie Davey

Jacana Media was established in 2002. We are the preeminent independent publishing firm in South Africa. We’re devoted to our authors’...

How a pandemic took the book industry online

Writers, publishers and bookshops are trying to keep afloat during the extended lockdown with digital and virtual offerings

The business of fake science

Publishers that flout sound peer review practices encourage bogus reports with widespread ramifications

Stories in mother tongues matter

"Too often I have been on platforms that bemoan the shortage of storybooks in the mother tongue."

Mandela book withdrawn after outrage from Graça Machel

A new book detailing Nelson Mandela's last days has been withdrawn, publisher Penguin Random House said on Monday.

Subscribers only

Toxic power struggle hits public works

With infighting and allegations of corruption and poor planning, the department’s top management looks like a scene from ‘Survivor’

Free State branches gun for Ace

Parts of the provincial ANC will target their former premier, Magashule, and the Free State PEC in a rolling mass action campaign

More top stories

Entrepreneurs strike Covid gold

Some enterprising people found ways for their ventures to survive the strictest lockdown levels

Ithala backs its embattled chairperson

Roshan Morar is being investigated in connection with KwaZulu-Natal education department backpack sanitiser tender worth R4-million and a batch of face masks that vanished

Inside the illicit trade in West Africa’s oldest artworks

Nok terracottas are proof that an ancient civilisation once existed in Nigeria. Now they are at the centre of a multimillion-dollar, globe-spanning underground industry — and once again, Nigeria is losing out

Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza: Liberating Africa from land of liberté

The cultural and political activist is on a quest to bring looted treasures back home

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday