Writing in the New English Weekly in March 1936, George Orwell drew attention to a new publishing phenomenon:
The Penguin Books are splendid value for sixpence, so splendid that if the other publishers had any sense they would combine against them and suppress them. It is, of course, a great mistake to imagine that cheap books are good for the book trade. Actually, it is just the other way about. If you have, for instance, five shillings to spend and the normal prices of a book is half-a-crown, you are quite likely to spend your whole five shillings on two books. But if books are sixpence each you are not going to buy ten of them, because you don’t want as many as ten; your saturation-point will have been reached long before then. Probably you will buy three sixpenny books and spend the rest of your five shillings on seats at the ‘movies’. Hence the cheaper books become, the less money is spent on books. This is an advantage from the reader’s point of view and doesn’t hurt trade as a whole, but for the publisher, the compositor, the author and the bookseller it is a disaster.
As was quite frequently the case, Orwell, in spite of his apparent self-assurance (that characteristic “of course”), didn’t get things quite right here. In one sense the entire history of books and their audiences can be “read” from the perspective of the material conditions attending their production. Illuminated manuscripts were very much a luxury item, requiring often years of patient work to prepare, and also involving considerable skills and expensive materials (parchments and dyes). Printing by moveable type made possible the rapid manufacture of multiple examples of an identical object, potentially a hugely profitable enterprise ‑ if there was a sufficient market. The size of the market depended on the percentage of the people who were literate; this was greater than it had been in the medieval period but still remained very small almost everywhere until the nineteenth century.
Larger markets, including export markets created by imperialist expansion, made possible bigger print runs and lower prices, a profitable nexus that appealed to commercial publishers in the nineteenth century (Dickens in England and Verne in France were major beneficiaries). The Penguin Books phenomenon, appearing in the mid-1930s, was to expand the market still further, particularly with the social changes and increased democratisation of society that came with the Second World War and the expansion of free education in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s. Rather than thinking of Orwell’s chap with five shillings in his pocket buying two hardbacks or three paperbacks and a couple of seats at the “movies” we should think rather of the hundreds and thousands of young chaps and girls who began to go into bookshops (and whose parents had never done so) in the late middle decades of the twentieth century to buy the hundreds of thousands of books by DH Lawrence and F Scott Fitzgerald, Evelyn Waugh, William Faulkner, George Orwell and Edna O’Brien and Saul Bellow that lay in untidy piles in poky bedrooms in council houses or in student bedsitters through all those decades before anyone knew what a device or an app was.
It is good to see that Penguin Books has not lost its marketing flair. Its latest venture, Penguin Black Classics, a series of eighty booklets published at 80p each, features short extracts from its hugely extensive back catalogue, from The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-tongue, to Michel de Montaigne on How We Weep and Laugh at the Same Thing to Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth and Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s The Communist Manifesto, all of them beautifully laid out on the Penguin website by the cleverest device I have seen in a long time (based on a roulette wheel – just go and take a look). The success of the series has been such that The Communist Manifesto a few weeks ago entered the Sunday Times bestseller list (take that, David Cameron!) and was among a small number of titles from the series which Tesco has decided to stock, leading to the splendid headline in the Daily Telegraph “Unexpected item in the bagging area”.
Read Enda O’Doherty on the history of books, markets and literacy: http://www.drb.ie/essays/the-last-chapter
Penguin sets out its stall: http://www.littleblackclassics.com/