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.