I recently read a paperback novel published by Penguin and, at the end of the book, there’s the story of how Sir Allen Lane came up with the desire to launch a new line of books. He just wanted a quality paperback to read on the train! Before reading this, I never thought about…
Who Invented the Paperback Book?
The paperback is simply a book with a cover made of thick paper (or paperboard), instead of cardboard–or wood, as that was the case for a long time. So, we are not talking about the invention of the book, but of what is now considered to be the mass market paperback.
Before it, there was the dime novel–also known as Yellowback or the pulp novel. In fact, the dime novel was more of an all-encompassing word to talk about cheaply printed quickly written sensationalist works destined to entertain working-class readers. Lightweight tales of romance and adventure for the uneducated, some were serialized.
The dime novels really blow up during the last half of the nineteenth century with the help of the mechanization of printing, but also the developments of new (and obviously) cheaper types of paper. With the boom of public transportation, the circulation of those magazines also spread notably.
The paperback came later, filling the void between this type of reading and the more literary kind. One German thought of it in the 1840s.
Tauchnitz Editions: The Continental Paperback
In the mid-19th century, book publishing primarily catered to the upper classes, with expensive hardcover editions being the norm. But Christian Bernhard Tauchnitz (1816-1895), a Leipzig-based publisher, recognized the demand for affordable, portable books among travelers and readers from various socioeconomic backgrounds.
And so, Tauchnitz established the Tauchnitz Publishers, which specialized in producing English-language books for the continental European market. And in 1845, he introduced his innovative paperback format–known as the “Tauchnitz Editions” or “Collection of British Authors”–books that were compact, lightweight, and bound in flexible paper or card covers. By using cheaper materials and simplified production processes, Tauchnitz was able to offer his “paperbacks” at a significantly lower price than traditional hardcovers.
Tauchnitz’s paperback editions primarily featured works of English-language fiction, including popular authors like Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, and George Eliot. The books were designed to fit easily into a traveler’s pocket, making them ideal for readers on the go. Tauchnitz’s editions became immensely popular, particularly among tourists, travelers, and expatriates living in Europe.
One key element of Tauchnitz’s success was his desire to respect copyright laws. Before doing anything, he would obtain permission from authors and publishers to produce authorized editions of their works for the continental market. By doing so, he established a precedent for copyright protection in the publishing industry.
Tauchnitz’s success prompted other publishers to adopt similar formats, leading to the widespread availability of affordable and portable books for a broader readership.
Albatross Books Standardized the Paperbacks
Based in Hamburg in 1932, the German publishing house Albatross Books started to develop a new approach, posing the bases for the mass-market paperback format. Inspired by the work of Tauchnitz, Albatross had the goal of modernizing the format.
First, the books used a layout designed by Giovanni Mardersteig (an Italian art director) who introduced a standard size of 181 x 111 mm. Then, a new sans-serif font was used, the collections were color-coded by genre, and the covers only used typography and logo but no illustrations.
Albatross Books had to stop as World War II was taking form in the heart of the country, but the works of the publishers didn’t go unnoticed as British publisher Allen Lane clearly used Albatross Books as a blueprint for his paperback collection.
Allen Lane and the Creation of Penguin Books
As the legend goes, it was 1934, and Allen Lane, who was then a managing editor at Bodley Head, was on a train journey back from visiting Agatha Christie and her husband. On an Exeter station platform, Lane found himself with nothing available worth reading, there were only popular magazines and poor-quality paperbacks.
This experience inspired him to remedy the problem. He was going to produce inexpensive yet high-quality books and put literature in the hand of the general public. He did just that.
With his brothers Richard and John, Allen Lane founded Penguin Books in 1935. It was at first part of the Bodley Head, but that changed the following year. Now a separate company, Penguin Books started its run to the top.
Following the roadmap left by Albatross Books, Penguin also introduced its own logo and color scheme–orange and white, designed by Edward Young designed the horizontal bands who decided to use Gill Sans Bold for the title’s letting and went to the Zoo in Regents Park to sketch penguins for the cover–and added the use of high-quality paperback binding.
The books were initially priced at six pence (equivalent to today’s 2.5 pence) each. Naturally, believing they were going to make less money, most booksellers and authors were against the idea of paperbacks.
Still, by providing a wide range of quality reprints of great books at an affordable price (starting with André Maurois’ Ariel), the “Penguin Paperback Revolution” happened.
Four years after the creation of Penguin Books, Robert de Graaf was inspired to do the same and created the Pocket Books label in the United States, partnering with Simon & Schuster. For a long time, it was the only line of paperbacks in the country. The main difference between the British publisher and the American one is that de Graaf chose to use illustrated covers.