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The Editor's View July 05


John Jenkins

John Jenkins' monthly column from Writers' Forum magazine

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Which authors would you choose to launch Penguins? . . .

Personal taste in poetry . . .

Two Britneys please . . .

PENGUIN is celebrating its 70th anniversary in style with The Life and Times of Allen Lane by Jeremy Lewis, a Penguin special at the un-Penguin-like price of £25.

Lane more than anybody transformed British reading habits but was not universally thanked by the mandarins in the industry.

Even some authors like George Orwell had mixed feelings.

As a reader I applaud Penguin Books; in my capacity as a writer I pronounce them anathema. Hutchinsons are now bringing out a very similar edition , though only of their own books, and if the other publishers follow suit, the result may be a flood of cheap imprints which will cripple the lending libraries and check the output of new novels. This would be a fine thing for literature but it would be a very bad thing for trade, and when you have to choose between art and money – well, finish it for yourself.

He later added that the books were splendid value and that if other publishers had any sense they would combine against paperbacks and suppress them.

J.B. Priestley, however, offered unqualified support.

Lane’s idea for sixpenny paperbacks was scorned by most with the exception of Jonathan Cape who leased him ten titles and claimed to regret it.

"You’re the bastard who ruined this trade," he complained to Allen.

Penguins were an immediate success and sold a million copies in four months with sales climbing to 17 million in the first three years. I have a collection of the first 10 Penguins, not the originals I hasten to add, but a commemorative boxed set issued on the company’s 50th anniversary.

They were: A Farewell to Arms (Hemingway) Poet’s Pub (Eric Linklater) Madame Claire (Susan Ertz) Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (Dorothy L Sayers) The Mysterious Affair at Styles (Agatha Christie) Twenty-five (Beverley Nicholls) William (E.H. Young) Gone to Earth (Mary Webb) Carnival (Compton Mackenzie) and Ariel (Andre Maurois).

They are of course colour coded with orange for fiction, blue for biography and green for crime. And at sixpence they equalled the price of a packet of cigarettes.

Lane, a former director of The Bodley HeadRandom House imprint, was not a man to stand still and Pelicans and Puffins soon followed.


IF YOU were Allen Lane starting today which 10 recent novels would you choose? Remember that Lane’s first titles had all been published as hardbacks for a minimum of six years and in one case, Compton Mackenzie, 25 years.

Here’s my ten authors to set you arguing but I have not named the books: Ian Rankin, Val McDerrmid, Sebastian Faulks, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Peter Ackroyd, J.G. Ballard, Nick Hornby, Susan Howatch and Peter Ackroyd.

This list caused such uproar in the office that no other work was done for a morning. Try it on your writers’ circle or readers’ group.

And I wonder just how many Penguins I have bought, read and passed on over the years.

An advertisement which caught my eye recently appeared in a national daily newspaper. It was for a typewriter. An old-fashioned sit up and beg manual portable. At £39.99 a snip.

Take pleasure and pride in typing out letters, invoices and much more, it cooed. There’s nothing more satisfying than the click, click of a traditional typewriter . . .

Most of us moved on to the incredible golf ball machine, then electronic and finally word processors.

One eminent novelist confessed that if a word processor had been available 30 years earlier he would have written at least another ten books.

I’ve still got my first portable, given to me by my mother as a birthday present. I wrote my first features on it and my first short story. And all my job applications. Wouldn’t part with it for worlds. It’s a Bluebird portable made in West Germany and as good today as it was all those years ago.


FEW people can write entertainingly and authoritatively on poetry so it is a special pleasure to read Michael Cullip in the current issue of Acumen.

Drawing a comparison with wine tasting he writes:

The same dominance of the subjective over the objective applies to poems . . . there is no final arbiter of good taste. In its absence there is every reason for readers to trust their own subjective taste in these matters. Quite.


Language is always changing and a couple of recent candidates made me smile:

Percussive maintenance – slapping the side of a computer to make it work again. Salad dodger – name for an overweight person and Cockney rhyming slang – A couple of Britneys please – two beers.


John Jenkins, Publisher, Writers' Forum


Read the article about setting up WritersServices which was originally published in Writers' Forum magazine.

© Writers International Ltd 2005. Reproduced from the December-Januray edition of Writers' Forum magazine by kind permission of the editor.