Penguin goes to Hollywood

The new boss may be a marketing man, but the books giant has always been canny, argues Robert Winder
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The Independent Online
The appointment of a Hollywood executive to run Penguin Books has presented the book world with a nice new version of a very old story: the time-honoured war between literature and commerce. Raymond Chandler pointed out years ago that the trouble with publishers is that when you want to talk about your ambiguous ending, they speak eagerly of market forces and urge you to work in a murder; but when you want to discuss royalties, they pretend to be gentlemen poets above such gaudy trifles as payments. Nevertheless, the appointment of Michael Lynton, at present the head of Disney Publishing, as the new King Penguin, will be taken as the latest unmistakeable sign of a decisive shift in the priorities of publishing.

Lynton has previously presided over the business development of Disney's consumer products division. It is tempting to imagine how he might bring this experience to bear on his new role. From now on, perhaps Tolstoy and Chekhov, Plato and Socrates can look forward to some hot new Mickey Mouse merchandising. Our children will soon be curling up in Virginia Woolf pyjamas, beneath colourful Dostoyevsky duvets. They'll be crying out for those infuriating Kafka crayons and (what on earth do they see in them?) those ghastly Dickens dolls. Perhaps, one day soon, Penguin will make a surprise takeover bid for Mr Kipling Cakes, so they can give away free copies of "Mowgli and Balloo" with every Bakewell tart.

Actually, Lynton will merely be continuing the trend set by his predecessor, Peter Mayer. When Mayer took over in 1978, he inherited a Penguin that could hardly swim, let alone fly. The company was in a classic predicament: high status and a special place in the hearts of bookworms, but dwindling sales. He put pictures on the covers, creating "breast sellers," and supervised the transformation of Penguin from a learned philanthropic cottage industry into a booming international conglomerate (not painlessly: there have been 100 redundancies in the last 18 months in the UK division). The proud publishers of the world's greatest literature have become the even prouder publishers of Stephen King and A Dog Named Spot. The appointment of Michael Lynton is hardly, in this context, a surprise.

All the same, it is proof that the company has travelled a long way from its origin. When Alan Lane founded Penguin in 1935, he said: "We believed in the existence in this country of a vast reading public for intelligent books at a low price, and staked everything on it." The staff in the early days were paid 37s 6d, plus 1d a day for the public loos at Great Portland Street. Lane wanted, so the in-house mythology has it, a "flippant but dignified icon," and his secretary (Joan Coles) suggested the penguin.

It was a good idea. That bright-eyed little bird gave a chirpy feeling to some otherwise austere text. Beginning with budget versions of 10 books - by authors such as Andre Maurois, Ernest Hemingway, Eric Linklater, Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers - the brave new Sixpenny Editions were a triumph. George Orwell wrote: "The Penguin books are splendid value, so splendid that if other publishers had any sense, they would combine together and oppress them." That is quite a long way from yesterday's announcement, which presented Penguin as a global conglomerate with revenues of pounds 360m and profits last year of pounds 34m. "You either have to have a powerful franchise," said Mr Lynton, "or a very powerful brand."

Whether this amounts to anything more than a pragmatic acceptance of modern business ways is another question. Penguin has a special place in the recent history of English letters. In introducing the idea of cheap paperbacks for the masses it seemed like the friend of the common man (and woman). It was the best, most benign sort of elitism. Through its "Penguin Specials" - classy pamphlets on topical subjects such as Hiroshima, Ireland and industrial disputes - it came to seem like a higher sort of magazine, a club. Through the Lady Chatterley trial it took on the British establishment and won an historic victory for free speech, after which that inscrutable little penguin gained a new subversive cachet, as well, perhaps, as the tiny gleam in its eye. The Lady Chatterley case proved (once, but not, alas, for all) that going to law is no way to keep a matter hushed up. The book sold two million copies in the six weeks up to Christmas 1960.

Penguin was at that time in a unique position: demotic but lofty, mass- market yet select. Its anthologies had canonical authority. And the books were an aesthetic triumph. Those colourful spines - green for detective stories, orange for Eng.Lit., black for classics - were as identifiable as a badge. For several generations of students, Penguins were synonymous not just with paperbacks, but with the whole idea of intellectual life. Literature, philosophy, politics and science came tumbling down from those forbidding, glassed-in shelves in the library. From now on you could shove Rousseau in your cricket bag, or take Wordsworth to the top of a Lakeland fell. For a while it seemed as if you really could judge a book by its cover.

But the sentimental idea that Penguin is a fallen angel, dwelling now among corporate thieves, is a bit too easy. The company was always canny - it began, after all, with Agatha Christie, and the colour-coding of the spines was simply brand marketing in an age before the term was vogueish. And it was always shrewd enough, when publishing two-volume works such as War and Peace, to publish fewer copies of volume two in every print run (knowing that many of us would not make it past the War).

It reacted like any big fish, as well, when Wordsworth and Oxford began last year to produce classic works for 99p and pounds 1.99, stealing Penguin's original notion. Penguin slashed its own prices and introduced, as an unanswerable trump card, the 60p birthday edition, of which sales so far amount to 24 million. Penguin has had to react to the collapse of its attractive monopoly, as other, brighter competitors (such as Picador) started eyeing up the high ground for themselves.

So why the sense of decline? The urge to mourn the so-called demise of once-great institutions seems well wired into the English soul. It fuels all those nostalgic feelings about the disintegration of the consensus about morals, marriage and the police - the lack of respect for law and order (ie the old order). Penguin once enjoyed a fabulous monopoly which it had created itself. Now it is just like anyone else, only bigger. Those Penguin Sixties showed that, with the right packaging, Marcus Aurelius could still top the bestseller list, even without a movie tie-in. Stand by for Horace the Christmas Horse, Ovid the Orang Utan and Livvy the Loveable Lizard.