Penguin: what happened?

COVER STORY: There's a chill wind blowing through the books industry. And Penguin Books, 60 this year, is feeling the cold more than most. Jeremy Lewis reports
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The Independent Culture
A couple of years before the death of Penguin's founder, Sir Allen Lane, in 1970, a group of distinguished academics - Alan Bullock, Richard Hoggart and Asa Briggs among them - met in Lord Goodman's house to discuss the possibility of their various universities forming a consortium to acquire, and safeguard, a publishing house which had come to be seen as a unique British Institution, often compared with, and discussed in the same reverential tones as the Times as it was or the BBC. Nothing came of their plan, which was probably just as well, and within days of Lane's death his firm had, in fact, been sold to its present owners, the Pearson Group; but its mere existence was indicative of the extraordinary position Penguin had come to enjoy in English cultural life since Lane and his two brothers set up shop in 1935.

Rather to Lane's irritation, Penguin had become synonymous with "paperback", in much the same way as "Hoover" did duty for a host of vacuum-cleaners, while its austere orange-and-white livery had made it the most distinctive and immediately recognisable of all publishing imprints. Paperback publication in Penguin was the ultimate accolade for the aspiring writer; students or laymen who wanted to know about Tudor England or the philosophy of Hegel automatically turned to the part of the bookshop that housed the blue-clad Pelicans which were considered quite as authoritative but rather less daunting than rival volumes from the OUP. Kaye Webb's Puffins, and the green-and-white of crime, and scholarly series like The Buildings of England and the Penguin History of Art provided further evidence of an institution in which perfect taste and scholarship and a benign urge to educate and improve the lot of mankind were combined.

Twenty-five years on, Penguin remains a remarkable and distinguished publishing house, but its titles often look indistinguishable from those of the upstart imprints with which they now jostle for space in the shops, and the publication of each month's new titles is no longer the event it was some 30 years ago. Like the BBC, it has lost what amounted to a near-monopoly, and is subject to direct competition of a kind unknown to its high-minded founding fathers. Although an invaluable core of authors and literary estates have remained loyal to the old imprint - Orwell, Waugh, Greene and Iris Murdoch among them - bright young writers of the kind that once pined for Penguin are quite as likely now to be paper-backed by rival lists like Picador or Vintage. Penguin Classics - one of the great achievements of post-war publishing - has found itself challenged not just by OUP's revitalised World's Classics and Everyman paperbacks, but by the previously unheard-of Wordsworth editions, selling at a pound a go and provoking a reluctant response in kind. The fact that Penguin is no longer as unique as it was tends to provoke spasms of possessive nostalgia among the middle-aged and among those who would normally be chary of anything that smacked of a monopoly, in the field of ideas if not of public utilities. Its dethronement reflects the ways in which trade publishing has changed, for good and for bad, over the past two decades.

Although Penguin soon diversified into original publishing - most notably through Pelicans, and the more journalistic Penguin Specials - its raison d'etre was as a reprint house, acquiring under licence the paperback rights in titles already published in hardback. Literary publishers like Cape, Secker, Hamish Hamilton and Chatto - all of them still small, independent houses - were happy to lease their classier titles to Penguin, splitting the royalties paid to them with authors who were suitably flattered to appear under the Penguin imprint. For many years after the war, Penguin's only competition came from Pan Books: but Pan tended to be rather more down-market, specialising in war memoirs like The Colditz Story and lurid picture jackets.

All this began to change in the Seventies and the Eighties, when publishing became big - or bigger - business, and all but a handful of independents were swallowed up by conglomerates like Reed, News International, Pearson and Random House. Although Faber, that most literary of publishers, had been a pioneer of what would later become known as "vertical" publishing - publishing the paperback as well as the hardback within the same firm, rather than licensing the paperback rights to a specialist firm like Penguin - the arrival of the conglomerates, with conglomerate money behind them, made it possible for new arrivals to enter mass market paperback publishing, in direct competition with Penguin and Pan. With more and more titles being paperbacked "in-house"- a move that was welcomed by increasingly powerful literary agents, since that way their authors were guaranteed a full paperback royalty, rather than a half share as before - Penguin became vulnerable to having titles and authors withdrawn when their licenses came up for renewal. Cape and Chatto authors who might well have been with Penguin in the old days now appeared in Vintage, and Secker and Heinemann writers with Mandarin, while Penguin itself - following the logic of "vertical" publishing - increasingly relied on its own hardback imprints: Viking, Hamish Hamilton and Michael Joseph.

All this coincided with the development of the high street chains like Waterstone's and Dillons. In an increasingly commercial and competitive world, Penguin were no longer separated from the hoi-polloi or granted the deference of yore, and at the popular end of the spectrum at least they began to look and behave like everybody else. Towards the end of his life, Allen Lane was so outraged by a book of Sine cartoons published by his flamboyant heir-apparent, Tony Godwin, that he had stolen into his Harmondsworth warehouse in the middle of the night, removed the entire stock, and burned it in his garden. No doubt he would have felt similar pyromaniac urges when faced with some of the titles taken on by Penguin's current supremo, Peter Mayer; but after the lean years of the Seventies, Penguin is back in business, and the great trick of literary publishing has always been to finance with the profits from bestsellers more difficult or worthwhile work.

The truth of the matter is that once the rest of the world began to catch up, and even overtake, Penguin's uniqueness was harder to maintain. Perhaps the saddest loss of all was the disappearance of Pelican as an imprint in the late Eighties, ostensibly for legal reasons (another firm had the use of the title in the States, so making it impossible to market Pelicans on a world-wide basis); since so many Pelicans had been originated in- house they were less vulnerable to the clawing back of licences than novels or travel books, and the fading of their familiar blue covers coincided with the great boom in university numbers. That said, old friends still linger on now rejacketed as Penguins and uneasily rubbing shoulders with New Age paperbacks on the Age of Aquarius: Metals in the Service of Man, first published in 1944, recently celebrated its 10th edition, while Doris Mary Stenton's England in the Early Middle Ages waits to be supplanted in due course by its equivalent volume in the new Penguin History of England, edited by David Cannadine.

One of the more welcome trends of the Nineties has been a retreat from the gigantism of the Eighties, when books of every kind grew larger and more unmanageable. Pengin are marking their anniversary by publishing 60 miniature paperbacks, most of them consisting of extracts from books they already have in print. A more permanent memorial might be to restore to their original, pocketable format books that are currently available in the more cumbersome "B" format. The ghost of Sir Allen would surely approve, and so might a good many others.