A story book book story
Today Penguin Books is a world-famous brand - the gold standard in paperback book publishing. But in a tale stranger than fiction, here we tell the story of how Mrs E. Clifford Prescott's love of Agatha Christie's Hercules Poirot helped to set the brand on the road to success, with a little help from her husband, the fancy goods Buyer at Woolworth's.
F. W. Woolworth first stocked books in 1895, when the founder decided to buy a selection of 'job novels' to sell for ten cents each as an experiment. The idea quickly lifted off and Americans bought huge quantities, soon establishing the book department as an important part of the operation. The first British Woolworth's also stocked books when it opened its doors on 5 November 1909.
Today paperback books are everywhere. They are vastly more popular than the hard cover equivalents, thanks to their pocket size and competitive prices. It's hard to imagine that soft cover books only became respectable in the mid 1930s, thanks to the vision of 33 year-old Allan Lane. The entrepreneur evangelised the idea that station bookstalls and general stores could sell lts of good books for sixpence (2½p then, around £2.11 today), the price of a packet of cigarettes. Shortly after setting up a business, he targeted Woolworth's, whose motto was 'nothing over sixpence'. He thought his paperbacks would be a perfect fit.
Lane had learnt his craft at the publishing company of his uncle, John Lane. He had joined 'The Bodley Head' at the age of seventeen. He had risen quickly to become the Managing Editor. His dynamic ideas had sometimes proved controversial with the firm's conservative directors. For example they had challenged his decision to publish the James Joyce novel Ulysses, which they feared could expose the company to the risk of prosecution. They were also unconvinced by Lane's idea of publishing softcover books for sixpence. In 1935 he decided to go it alone. He persuaded Bodley Head to allow him to produce imprints of some of their older titles. He also purchased the rights to a number of other titles directly from the authors. The Penguin Company launched in July, operating from the crypt of a church in St Marylebone, London. The new books had distinctive, plain covers which used the Gill Sans typeface for the title and sported a cartoon penguin, which been drawn by his twenty-one year old office clerk, Edward Young. Initial sales were modest, with Lane admitting to friends that the idea might fail - until he had a brainwave.
Lane's carefully crafted sales pitch appeared to be falling on deaf ears as Prescott shuffled in his seat and looked out of the window. It seemed that books were not 'fancy' enough to catch his interest. The Buyer seemed happy enough with the firm's range of bin-end titles, colouring books and job novels printed on low grade paper with simple cardboard covers and brightly coloured dust jackets.
But, just at the opportune moment, Prescott's wife poked her head around the door, apologising for the interruption but telling her husband that she had finished shopping and was now ready to be taken for lunch in nearby Regent Street. Prescott explained that his good lady was making a rare visit into town.
Mrs Prescott spotted the Agatha Christie Poirot Book The Peculiar Affair at Styles among the assorted titles spread around her husband's meeting table. She enquired whether the firm was considering selling the softcover books, declaring that she would buy several a week if the price was sixpence or less.
Whether the Buyer respected his wife's opinion or was simply hungry, he quickly changed his position, agreeing to buy 36,000 assorted titles. He instructed that each of the firm's 600 stores should be sent a crate of 500 books, and that an additional thousand should be sent to the outlets at the major seaside resorts of Eastbourne, Bournemouth, Southsea, Margate, Blackpool and Skegness. By the end of the summer season top-up orders from the branches brought the total sale to 63,000 books. This was enough to make Penguin financially secure, and prompted Lane to relocate the business to Harmondsworth, Middlesex in a spot adjacent to the modern-day Heathrow (London) Airport. Woolworth went on to establish a dominant market share in the soft cover books between 1935 and the outbreak of war in 1939. Detective stories, particularly Agatha Christie's Poirot and Marple stories, sold well as predicted. But at Woolworths there was an even bigger seller - the Sixpenny Romance, where the girl always got her guy.
Sadly after World War II, the low-priced books did not seem 'fancy' enough for a new Buyer at Headquarters. He chose to build his range of more expensive items, allowing book sales to decline, and opening the way for W. H. Smith and Sons and independent bookstores to capitalise on Penguin's ever- growing range of classics and best-sellers.
Did Woolworth save Penguin, or simply accelerate its route to the top? Well, it's said that Allen Lane sent Mrs Prescott a card every Christmas with the simple words "thank you".
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