Paperbacks and Blogs

The truly excellent The Life and Times of Allan Lane continues to provide entertainment and enlightenment: I’ve been reading all about the launch of Penguin books in 1935 and the enormous uproar it caused. Allan Lane was on a mission that was both cultural and economic. He was the first publisher to create a series of mass market paperbacks that brought ‘literary’ reads – from Agatha Christie to Ernest Hemingway in the initial run – to the populace at large. They cost 6d, the equivalent of a packet of cigarettes. Up until this point in publishing history the paperback had been a reviled item, a symbol of all that was trashy and sleazy in publishing, and confined to romances and thrillers sold on railway stations. Allan Lane saw a new market opening up for the literate but low-income masses, people who wanted to read more than the newspaper but for whom the seven shillings required to buy a hardback edition were entirely out of the question. There had been attempts at low price hardback reprints of the classics, the Everyman library being a good case in point, but even these were beyond the means of most ordinary people. Reading literature, and certainly being up to date in literary developments, was something only open to the elite few.

The other publishers hated it and Lane met with enormous opposition. Many refused initially to have anything to do with him, claiming that his attempts to provide literature for six pennies would have a devastating effect on the book industry. People would expect books at that price, hardbacks would die out, the lending libraries (astonishingly based in most chemists) who were the chief market of the book trade, would hate their business to be undercut, publishers would be ruined. Lane attempted to forestall these fears by only publishing in paperback titles that had exhausted their market in hardback. The Agatha Christie that was published among his first ten titles must have been about ten years old. That was why Lane needed the other publishers on his side – he had to buy the rights off them for the books he wanted to put into paperback. Authors were firmly in Lane’s camp; they saw the possibility of their beloved novels having a new lease of life.

What it all boiled down to was the age-old fight between the forces of democratization in literature and the rearguard action of economics and book snobbery. It’s all encapsulated in a letter to the Times Literary Supplement by one of the big, big publishers of the day, Stanley Unwin. The cheap paperback might enjoy a short success as a novelty, he thought, but the public would soon tire of them, ‘only a modest quantity of bestselling books would sell well enough to justify the 50,000 print-runs needed to price them as 6d each’ and authors’ royalties would fall. He quoted Ruskin’s insistence that ‘a book is not worth anything unless it is worth much’ and an essay by the economist Keynes who scolded the public for ‘their mean and tricky ways where a book, the noblest of man’s works, is concerned.’ This kind of argument was countered by the supporters of the paperback revolution like Margaret Cole, a Fabian, who was hugely enthusiastic at the prospect of books changing ‘from something that was only suitable to members of an upper or educated class to something which anybody may enjoy or possess without being thought odd, highbrow or “apeing one’s betters”.’ She went on to say that: ‘It is high time that book-owning should cease to be the preserve of a small class… by giving them the best you can, not either by playing down to them or lecturing them on their “duty” to uphold literature.’ Oh hear, hear! Bravo! And the outcome of these squabbles? Well, history speaks for itself. In three years time, Lane told the Evening Standard that he had sold over 17 million books, was shifting six tons of books a day, and never printed fewer than 50,000 copies of any new title.

This whole episode in history reminded me so very much of the current annoying attacks on book bloggers made by the professional press. This time what is at stake is not the ordinary person’s right to read literature, but the ordinary person’s right to write about it and have an opinion on it. What IS it with literature that it provokes these snobbish ghettos? You could pretty much substitute the term ‘review’ for the word ‘book’ in the quotes above. Reviews aren’t worth anything unless they’ve been paid for. Reviews are the preserve of a tiny class – of literati, in this instance, who are now fairly viciously defending their patch. I’m not going to quote any of these silly attacks – you’ve all heard them. The economic argument is still at the heart of the debate: the real threat blogging poses is that it is free, and if people would rather visit the internet to find out which books are worth reading, then journalists fear that the profession of book reviewing will die out. I’m afraid there’s very little more to it than that, and the best argument such journalists can muster is that the quality of their work is far superior to that found amongst bloggers. Given that those of us who do book blog know this to be an utter nonsense, we can see the extent of the threat blogging poses to people who make a living out of it. Writing about books has to be portrayed as a difficult exercise, only to be attempted by people with a PhD. I’m so tired of these endless unprovoked attacks and my stance now is simply to pity those people who make them for the extent of their insecurities. Times are changing and the march of history will eventually scatter the players in the book world into new permutations, unguessable by any of us. But my own feeling is that book blogging, like the paperback in 1935, is only at the start of its revolutionary career.

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20 thoughts on “Paperbacks and Blogs

  1. Ooh, to think I am in the revolutionary vanguard! It’s so exciting. You have helped me make a resolution: to post more about the books I read. I’ve got such a great reading list so far this year and have only posted on eight to ten of them. Time to change all that.

  2. Hobgoblin – well exactly – why is it that people aren’t allowed to simply take pleasure where they find it in reading? It’s a mystery. So glad to have you on the barricades too! Stefanie – I must say I am really enjoying it; best NF of the year so far for me. Kelly – that’s exactly what this book is – interesting from start to finish. I’m prepared to skip chapters but I end up reading every one. Charlotte – delighted to have you on board! And I love your book reviews. Yes please to more of them.

  3. ‘Some have at first for wits, then poets pass’d,
    Turn’d critics next, and prov’d plain fools at last’

    Alexander Pope ‘An Essay on Criticism’ (1711)

    Clearly the debate on critics has been going on a long time. On a happier note, going back to the tango (sort of):

    ‘True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
    As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance.’

    Alexander Pope ‘An Essay on Criticism’ (1711

  4. Excellent comparison!

    I agree with you – blogging is here to stay. And I don’t even think it threatens professional book reviewing economically, just like paperbacks didn’t threaten publishing or the existence of hardbacks.

  5. I, too, was reminded of the current brouhaha over blogging and professional book reviewing.

    Funny, I am reading a book on Mary Lamb (of Lamb’s Tales of Shakespear fame) — which describes the popularity of books among a large segment of the population, especially female. This was in the late 1700s. This doesn’t seem as if only “certain educated elite” were the intended audience…

  6. Excellent indeed Litlove.
    I really think this type of post will put paid to the drivel from the few hidebound fools who happen to have positions of power and the ability to pontificate who still believe that blogs are just yammering!
    Quality,
    Eoin

  7. Hear! Hear! If all those reviewers were really as smart as their collective PhDs would indicate, they’d shut up and figure out a way to turn a profit by blogging (but, of course, the rest of us don’t want that).

  8. Anyone who has read my recent entries re blogging and the insults recently received from someone who should know better, is well aware where I stand on this issue. Those that buy and read them should be at liberty to say what they think about them. Since meeting up with like minded fellow bloggers my reading has broadened immensely and then the extra pleasure in discussing them with everyone.

    All I have to say to all these blog critis is ‘Bah! Humbug!”

  9. It’s fascinating to read about how recently quality paperbacks weren’t available and how changed reading and book-buying habits are now from what they once were. And excellent point about reviews and blogging — you sum up the situation nicely!

  10. My dislike of critics stems from a background in amateur theatre. After a few attempts at book reviewing I have found it is an interesting exercise in fixing the qualities of a volume in my mind. This article tempted me to Google a couple of my reviews. “Cloudsteet” has been drawing between 8 and 12 hits every day in the past couple of months and is at #10 on a Googling of “Cloudstreet review”. Another review which has been drawing regular hits is Joseph Conrad’s “Nostromo”. Even though there is some computer hardware which is named “Nostromo”, my review of the book still comes in at #18.

    I wonder how other reviews by Litlove’s readers rate. I get a feeling that while a New York Times, or a Washington Post, or even a Times Literary Supplement critic may be read once by a large number of people, we bloggers have a special power. A power given to us by the search engines of the internet. Our reviews are read by a continuous trickle for months and possibly for years. Is this what professional critics fear? Their impermanance and our immortality?

    Oh well, back to the Danish Blue and the Port :)

  11. Bookboxed, you show your wonderful talent for quotation again! Thank you for these little treasures. Nymeth – thank you and I couldn’t agree with you more. There is room in the book world for all, and these territorial fights are pointless. LK – how interesting. My literary history suggests that women have been considered through the ages as huge consumers of trash (and producers of it too) but how intriguing to think that there was a time when this was very different! Eoin – well thank you so much. That’s all I need to hear! Emily- I totally agree. There are far smarter ways to interact with the blogging community! Lee- absolutely. Another significant area whose real impact we will have to track. Elaine – humbug indeed! I’ve loved every aspect of blogging too, and my reading has also been transformed. Dorothy – I was thinking of the book that you were reviewing recently when I wrote this that dealt with large changes in journalism in the 18th century (ummm, I think). These big shifts are so fascinating. Archie – I think that’s a brilliant thought. Checking back I see in the last 30 days, 146 posts have been accessed by internet browsers – which journalist could claim as much? Hello J. S. and welcome! I’ve been thoroughly enjoying this book, and I warmly recommend it.

  12. I caught the tail end of a political conversation on the radio yesterday that seemed relevant to this. The point that the speaker was making was that the only political parties that would survive would be the ones that realised that the virtual world in all its forms had given the power back to the people. He was talking about the way in which films were being promoted by people who had seen them rather than by the critics, and saying that very soon political issues would be discussed in the same way. For films substitute books.

  13. I’m reading this a bit late–but well said. I never really understood all the literary snobbery–but it does indeed exist. I even felt it back when I worked in a bookstore. You’d think it would be a good thing to see so many people excited about books–discussing them and writing about them?!

  14. Ann, how very interesting. Now I think that is a truly sensible thing to say. It strikes me how undemocratic our democracies are becoming, whether in small things or big – all those marches against the war, all those petitions against motorway charges, and yet nothing changes the government’s mind. It’s only natural that significant alternative networks like blogging will flourish under such circumstances. Danielle – that is exactly what I think. The more forums for people to discuss books the better. And I remember that bookshop snobbery too. Tinylibrarian – hello and welcome! and thank you for your lovely comment. I shall be coming over to visit you!

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