Paperback books will be the death of us, or how “industry” always finds new technology threatening

If a book is any good, the cheaper the better

-George Bernard Shaw

E-books are a new thing, the idea of a “digital book” is something that has been scoffed at, but within the past few years, the e-book has steadily gained ground on the more traditional form. Barnes and Noble claim they sell three times as many e-books compared to all forms of physical books and Amazon claim that since the start of the year they are selling 114 e-books for every 100 physical books. It was George Santayana who said “Those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it” and so for any discussion of the latest developments in technology and social relations, we need to start with an understanding of what has gone before.

George Orwell is quoted as saying “If other publishers had any sense, they would combine against them and suppress them” in relation to paperback books, specifically Penguin books. Orwell was writing in response to the potential lowering of royalties that writers could expect to receive in the paperback form as opposed to hardback.

It was Allen Lane who saw the huge gap in the market in which he could exploit and profit hugely from. Inexpensive paperbacks had existed from the 19th century onwards, whether as pamphlets, airport/train novels or the wider genre of pulp fiction. Lane didn’t invent the paperback, but he upped the quality in both production and design alongside the low cost, revolutionising the format (much like Apple with the iPhone and iPad) suddenly making literature available on a mass-scale, moving away from its earlier perception as a sophisticated and expensive commodity to a mass-based medium, available to all. Like the printing press before it and digitial technology after it, paperback publishing revolutionised the way the book was seen and consumed.

“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.”- Carl Sagan

Penguin looked to produce inexpensive books, the only way to do this was to produce them cheaply and in large runs. Initially printing in 20,000 runs (a large amount in the late 30’s), Penguin needed to find new avenues to distribute their books on a scale that at that point did not exist. Signing a deal with the Woolworths chain (similar to The Warehouse or Farmers) for 63,000 freed Penguin from the hostile rejection of the concept by traditional book retailers.

Penguin promoted their books (costing 2½ pence) as being the same price as cigarettes. The books themselves were an 1/8th to a 1/12th of the cost of existing hardbacks (which indicates the huge profit made to the point from book selling), even by undercutting to such an extent, there was still a large profit to be made. Needing to sell 17,000 of each book to break even, Penguin sold over three million copies. In 1945 Penguin began publishing a series titled “Penguin Classics”, with a translation of Homer’s Odyssey, ultimately publishing over 1,300 titles in that time, making a reliable and cheap copy available, popular especially in schools/universities.

An interesting aspect developed as a call-sign for Penguin was the use of a regimented modernist design platform for its works, with its distinctive use of colour (orange for fiction, dark blue for biography etc.) and ‘thirds’ layout, basing the series as being as much about Penguin’s brand and the collective reputation as on the individual book itself. Encouraging readers to branch out beyond what they were familiar with, in a similar vein, Amazon has reported that existing customers who began buying e-books would purchase four times as many books as they had pre-e-book. A similar principle exists.

What came first the consumers or the producers?
World War Two and the paper shortages that went along with it, narrowed and consolidated the publishing industry with Penguin being in a prime position to profit from this situation. Being able to produce en masse and cheaply allowed Penguin to get its books out amongst the British armed forces and the wider mass of the people. This wartime development led to an explosion of paperback publishers Ballantine, Signet, Avon, Viking, Vintage, Bantam, Pan etc. producing accessible and cheap books for mass-consumption, spurned in part from the expectation that the supply of cheap paperbacks popularised during the war would continue.

Audience and production developed hand-in-hand, much like the post-war record industry, new technology that massively lowered the costs of production coupled with the post-war boom in both profit and consumption created a space in which they could flourish in. The rise of supermarkets and nationwide distribution lowered the time and cost involved in stocking commodities, from a localised shop-based relationship to national/international framework in which millions of books (remember Penguin shipping 20,000 books in the 30’s was quite a big deal) could be shipped around the world, further lowering the cost and increasing the profit to be gained from paperbacks.

Being cutting edge as well as cheap allowed publishers to take risks and push against laws like the Obscene Publications Act in 1960 when Penguin published ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ in defiance of the law. Huge queues formed outside stockists as over two million copies sold in less than six weeks, a similar situation happened with the “Spycatcher” memoir of Mi5 agent Peter Wright, sold large amounts based on the controversy involved in it’s

Something often forgotten is the work of Progress Publishers (USSR) and the Foreign Languages Press (China) in undercutting and challenging the publishing houses of the west. Bahman Azad estimates that in the later part of the 20th century maybe two thirds of all books printed at the time came from the USSR. The output of both Progress and Foreign Languages had a large effect especially in the third world, where their books (sold at not much more above cost) made a large impact. Little has been written about either of these publishing operations, but nonetheless their presence was felt.

The political pressure of Progress and Foreign Languages as well as locally in the example of the Left Book Club (a more mass-publisher to the left of Penguin who published writers such as Orwell, Edgar Snow etc. from the 30’s to the late 40’s) pushed Penguin in the direction of the Penguin Specials. Acting as a critical voice against Fascism and appeasement in the 30’s to the important critical and empirical study of British capitalism in crisis as well as the emerging radical student movement in British Capitalism – Workers and Profits by Glyn & Sutcliffe and Student Power by Blackburn & Cockburn respectively.

What distinguished this event (namely mass-paperback publishing) was the convergence of technology and social form at a particular period of time. What generalises the specificity of this example is the way in which sections of capital buck against new technologies. Recognising the emergent aspirational mass-consumer culture, various capitalists, in their desire for profit, were prepared to see a lower profit in order to stake a claim for market share. Many publishers went out of business and disappeared during this turbulent period as the market dramatically changed its form and structure. So when you see someone bemoaning this new technology or these new forms, ask them if they’d say the same thing about the paperback.



  1. OMG is this article saying that a capitalist free market is good and that those who seek to control or manipulate the market to maintain the status quo are bad?

  2. No. Just how wasteful an inefficient it is.
    We’re better off for mass-paperback publishing, but at it’s core is a general failure to treat people as intelligent human beings, as well as the whole copyright thing (
    Yeah, it could be worse, but it could also be so much better. This could have all happened much earlier and on a much wider scale as illustrated by the scale and breadth of the distribution in the third world by progress publishers and foreign language press.
    The profit motive trumps actual human needs. It’s almost accidental when they meet.

  3. So it is still a freemarket that works best. copyright and corporate control just creates or strengthen monopolies which deny freemarkets. Go far enough right and you become left.

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