Today is the anniversary of the publication of the first modern paperback books. On July 30, 1935, Penguin Books issued its first 10 paperback titles.
Penguin owes its success to a German publisher, Tachnitz, which had been publishing paperbound books in a variety of languages, including English, as early as 1845. In 1931 an English language offshoot of Tachnitz was established in London. Wanting a name for the company that could be understood in a variety of languages, the German company selected the name Albatross Books.
Albatross had early success in selling English books, but when the Nazis seized the company’s presses in Germany, the company failed.
The brief success of Albatross was noted by Allan Lane, the president of England’s Bodley Head Publishing House. Lane approached the head buyers of F.W. Woolworth, a chain of retail stores, with the idea of publishing ten literary titles in paperback in the Woolworth stores at a cost of sixpence each, about the same price as a pack of cigarettes. Imitating the Albatross model, Allan called his company Penguin Books.
Lane’s plan doesn’t sound very radical today, but in the 1930s books were sold in bookstores, not retails stores. In addition, the 10 titles Lane proposed were considered too highbrow for the lower classes, the main buyers of paperbacks.
Here are the titles and authors of the first Penguin paperbacks:
- The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Agatha Christie
- The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Dorothy L Sayers
- Gone to Earth, Mary Webb
- William, E. H. Young
- Carnival, Compton Mackenzie
- Poet’s Pub, Eric Linklater
- Madame Claire, Susan Ertz
- A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway
- Twenty-five, Beverley Nichols
- Ariel, Andre Maurois
The conventional wisdom of the publishing world was wrong, however, and Lane’s plan was a rousing success. Paperbacks became all the rage in England. By the end of the year over 3 million books had been sold, and by 1937, Penguin paperbacks were being sold from vending machines at train stations.
Making books less expensive has certainly done much to spread the cause of literacy. Another excellent feature of the inexpensive paperback is that it can be given away and enjoyed by others. In April 2001 a website was created to encourage book sharing. The site is called Bookcrossing.com founded by Ron Hornbaker. Taking the idea of PhotoTag.org, a site that tracks disposable cameras, and WheresGeorge.com, which tracks U.S. currency, Hornbaker had the idea of creating a site where readers could register a book and then deposit it in some public place: a park bench, a laundromat, or a coffee shop. The Bookcrossing.com website provides an ID number for each book and a registration card that can be attached to the inside cover of the book. The card briefly explains the Bookcrossing mission and directs finders of books to the online journal page of the website where they can document where and how they found the book and, if they read it, what they thought of the book.
To date, nearly half a million people have become bookcrossers. The practice has become so popular that it has been added as a word in the August 2004 edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary:
bookcrossing n. the practice of leaving a book in a public place to be picked up and read by others, who then do likewise.
To date, the two most popular books at Bookcrossing.com both have over 50,000 registrations:
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon (2).
Today’s Challenge: Caution – Bookcrossing
What one book do you think everyone should read? What makes that book so special? Write your own literary message in a bottle. Imagine you are writing a note that would be placed on the inside cover of your favorite book. Write the note to invite and to entice the finder to take the book home and to take the time to read it.
Quote of the Day: A book is not only a friend, it makes friends for you. When you have possessed a book with mind and spirit, you are enriched. But when you pass it on you are enriched threefold. –Henry Miller