Books About Publishing: The Life and Times of Allen Lane

30 Oct

It’s turning out to be a blogging kind of Tuesday morning because now that I’m in the midst of the 2½ hour flight from Savannah to Houston I thought I’d go ahead and give my take on The Life and Times of Allen Lane (Penguin Special) of which I finished my leisurely read this past week. Allen Lane was a British publisher who founded Penguin Books in 1935 and basically created the paperback book market there in and amongst other adventures like being sued for obscenity when he published the first unexpurgated British edition of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

There were factoids about publishing scattered throughout the book—for example, author advances were calculated by taking 40% of the total royalties of the projected print run and, as well, Penguin never accepted returns from bookstores (Ah! Those were the days!)—but the most interesting section came early on with a comprehensive overview of traditional hardback publishing in England and how Allen Lane was the first mover in licensing paperback rights for those titles.

Basically, before Allen Lane began Penguin, hardback publishers did not publish (or license the publishing) of their titles in paperback. And, if you were a hardback publisher, your market was essentially upper-class readers and/or libraries (public and private). Hardback publishers weren’t really that interested in paperback editions because they were afraid it would cut into their profit margin with hardbacks. And, bookstores weren’t really that interested in selling paperbacks for the same reason. Nonetheless, Lane pushed ahead with his first list of ten titles—reprints of books published earlier in hardback; one was an Agatha Christie mystery—even though the initial orders were so low that he was considering selling Penguin before these were released. Then, at the last second, in a move that really did ultimately change the dynamics of the publishing industry, Woolworth’s decided to carry the books and ordered tens of thousands of copies of each title. The books were a big hit—mainly because they made good literature (both fiction and nonfiction) available to a public that didn’t have the resources to buy hardbacks—and the rest is history. (Discovering an untapped market is now called a “blue ocean strategy” in reference to the book of the same title, Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make Competition Irrelevant.)

For sure, Penguin was Allen Lane’s company for thirty-five years and much of the last half of the book dealt the succession issue; that is, who was going to run the company after he died. As with any organization there was a lot of scheming, maneuvering, and politicking as various presumed successors to the throne came and went. Ultimately it worked out like a lot of internal backbiting over succession issues: nobody won. The day after Allen Lane’s funeral it was sold to Pearson/Longman.

Overall it was an interesting read but, nonetheless, it’s not what I would call compelling. First of all, as a biography it occupies the uneasy position eventually being about both Lane and Penguin because I think in reality the author, Jeremy Lewis, wanted it to be primarily about Lane. Even so, however, he is still a cipher at the end of the book. As a result—and due to the fact there’s just more information about Penguin itself available—much of the book deals with Penguin’s publishing issues. Plus, the book is just strewn with references to British publishing and political figures that, for an American reader, have little or no accompanying background to provide a useful context for their relevance.

Next up on the books about publishing to-read list is either The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing 1450-1800 (Verso Classics, 10) by Lucien Frebvre and Henri-Jean Martin—at least that’s what I was planning to read—but I just picked up a copy of Bookmaking: Editing, Design, Production, Third Edition by Marshall Lee—it’s like an actual textbook about publishing (one of the few I’ve come across)—and I may take a stab at it first.


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One Response to “Books About Publishing: The Life and Times of Allen Lane”

  1. Stephen Tiano October 31, 2007 at 8:42 pm #

    Let me know if the Marshall Lee book is a good read. I’m not really at a stage where I need a textbook on all that jazz, but I’d like an interesting read on those topics.

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