Home > Lifestyle > Books > News
Tuesday October 15, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Tuesday October 15, 2013 MYT 7:46:33 AM
by robert mccrum
You’ve come a long way, baby: From cast-metal type pieces to virtual words on a digital screen (below), the publishing industry has changed almost unrecognisably. — Main image from Wikimedia Commons
They were radicals in their time. Perhaps the changes they embraced hold clues that can help book publishers today.
THESE are disturbing times for booksellers, publishers and writers. The last 20 years have seen a transformation in the world of letters unequalled since the days of William Caxton.
In 1993, we were in limbo between hot metal and cool word processing. Neither Amazon nor Google had been invented. The e-book was for science fiction.
Today, however, the world of books has become a kind of IT laboratory. On this new frontier, publishers face a future whose shape is a mystery.
In a confusing present, traditionally, it’s the past that can often supply a quantum of solace. I’ve just completed a BBC Radio 4 series about five great independent British publishers – John Murray, Macmillan, Penguin, Weidenfeld and Faber – and have discovered in the stories of the Victorian and 20th-century British book world some intriguing clues to the future prospects for editing and writing.
Probably the most prominent ogre in the contemporary book trade is Amazon. By one crude analysis, the recent Penguin-Random House merger is a defensive alliance motivated by “the threat of Amazon”. However, for an 18th-century bookseller, say John Murray, whose imprint came to publish Byron, Austen and Darwin, the service offered by Amazon could seem a natural progression-state-of-the-art book distribution. The “threat” comes from Amazon’s intentions, its extraordinary grip on the market share of the big conglomerates.
The first John Murray’s answer to the book-selling trade wars of late 18th-century London was simple: he quit the shop floor and became a publisher – just as Amazon has begun to explore the possibilities of publishing. Murray was an innovative entrepreneur, but he was typical of his trade. He was a Tory (in stark contrast to the Whig radicalism of his fiery poet Lord Byron) and the British book trade has always been inherently conservative. Its grandees tend to resist change. Usually, it has been maverick outsiders whose impact on the book world has been the most profound.
Allen Lane, the publisher who created Penguin and became the father of the paperback revolution, was another classic outsider. Born in Bristol in 1902, he left school at 16 and learned the book business on the shop floor, stacking shelves.
In the 1920s, Lane was among the first to understand that the impact of World War I, successive education acts and votes for women had created a potentially huge mass market for cheap books in soft covers. But it wasn’t until he took a frustrating train journey to stay with his friend, the young crime writer Agatha Christie, that he stumbled on his opportunity.
The story goes that, waiting for his connection, Lane could find nothing worth reading on the station bookstall – still an all-too familiar experience. Whereupon Allen Lane had his eureka moment: inexpensive books, in paper covers, at sixpence apiece – the price of a packet of cigarettes then. Cheap, attractive paperback editions for a new generation of readers. Bingo!
The old guard in London’s clubland was horrified. “Far too risky. Far too popular. This fellow threatens the heart and soul of the hardback business.”
But Lane forged ahead. In 1935 he set up Penguin to produce nothing but paperbacks. He also pioneered the idea of a brand. A uniform typeface. Those famous colour codes: orange for fiction, green for crime, and black for classics.
Lane’s brainwave was the biggest single book innovation of the 20th century, and in its day the equal of the e-book. For a while, his idea dominated the market. Households across Britain began sprouting those colour-coded spines. A format that at the outset seemed to threaten vested interests became an object of veneration.
Another timely lesson from the Penguin story is Lane’s confidence in the taste of the ordinary reader. It has become commonplace, in culturally nervous times, to disparage the mass market. See, for instance, virtually any review of Dan Brown’s Inferno or the critical indifference shown towards a popular writer such as Bernard Cornwell.
Allen Lane, however, was on the side of the majority. For him, the explosion of mass culture was simply an opportunity to discover a new market, and few were better equipped than he to exploit a huge new readership.
When World War II broke out, he saw his chance. His pre-war sales success – massive printings of Dorothy L. Sayers books and Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms – gave Penguin the right to claim an extra paper ration.
With this competitive advantage, Lane set out to unlock the new market represented by the overseas armed forces. Penguins were perfectly suited for the tedious hours of waiting that goes with conflict. The paperback fitted naturally into a battledress pocket. Overnight, Penguins became part of the war effort.
When peace came, Lane saw another opportunity in the “new Jerusalem” of post-war reconstruction. His populist instincts told him that a newly demobilised Britain with its radical Labour government was hungry for knowledge. His Pelican titles, specially commissioned non-fiction with an educational slant, became an informal university for 1950s Britons.
Pelicans, said Lane, were “another form of education for people like me who’d left school at 16”. Central to post-war renewal, his pale blue Pelican titles sold a staggering 250 million copies. Lane was a loner and a troublemaker. Easily bored, he combined a love of mischief-making with a taste for cocking a snook at the establishment.
By the end of the 1950s, a new generation had grown up with Pelicans, books by Richard Hoggart and F.R. Leavis. As the 1960s came into view, Lane instinctively went looking for a fight with the arbiters of conservative culture. He found it in the new Obscene Publications Act and the banning of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Lane risked imprisonment to publish language and sentiments hitherto unprinted in the canon of English literature. Few jury verdicts in British history have had such a deep social impact.
The trial promoted huge sales – Penguin went on to sell three million copies of the book – in the first few months, and Penguin as floated on the stock exchange. Lane became a millionaire.
But he was less adept than some of his rivals in looking to the future. That supreme opportunist, Harold Macmillan, for instance, had no difficulty in mixing business with politics when the future of the family firm was at stake. Touring Africa in the aftermath of his “Winds of Change” speech, Macmillan oversaw an ambitious expansion programme for the family firm, an educational books market in Africa.
Macmillan’s publishing ambitions were limited by national borders. He could trade in the newly created Commonwealth, but virtually nowhere else. In 2013, the digital revolution has made publishing truly global. Companies can reach new markets at the click of a mouse. The delivery system has changed, but the publishing instinct remains unchanged.
Looking at the lives of these remarkable cultural impresarios, it’s clear that, while the book world still awaits its e-Lane or e-Murray, he or she will be little different from these pioneering predecessors.
Every one of these publishing giants, from John Murray to George Weidenfeld, would have revelled in the opportunities available through the digital revolution. – Guardian News & Media
Tags / Keywords:
Lifestyle, Books, Publishing, Innovation, Allen Lane, Penguin
Copyright © 1995-2013 Star Publications (M) Bhd (Co No 10894-D)