In Relaunching Pelican Books, Penguin Breaks With the Past in Pursuit of a Digital Future
When it was launched in the 1930s, Pelican Books was the nonfiction imprint for the then-new paperback publisher Penguin. It brought self-improvement and self-education to a customer base which was unable to afford the more common hardback books (then as now a luxury item).
But in relaunching Pelican Books 30 years after it closed, Penguin has shown that it has either forgotten about or simply doesn’t care about Pelican’s original goal; aside from one small modernization the new Pelican Books bears little resemblance to the old.
The one modernization was caught by Creative Review last week. They reported that the new Pelican was letting digital drive print:
One of the most interesting aspects to the Pelican relaunch, which we covered in detail in the CR June Monograph, was that on-screen development had influenced the design of the printed editions, and vice-versa.
While the rich heritage of the imprint could have weighed down on the shoulders of the design team – Penguin’s non-fiction brand originally ran from 1937 to 1984 and spawned a multitude of great cover design – it was in fact the digital era that influenced its new direction in 2014.
Perhaps even more unusual was that the idea for how the online versions of the books might work came out of Penguin’s art department and its work on the new Pelican range, rather than from any editorial or marketing directive.
Given that ebooks are the new paperback, letting digital lead print is in keeping with Pelican’s history, and the attention paid to the quality of the digital edition follows logically from that conclusion.
And Pelican is doing some great work with digital, including well-designed footnotes, large interactive maps, and other features:
But that is about the only way that Pelican honored the past; the new digital editions are neither as prevalent as the paperbacks which Pelican produced when it launched 80 years ago nor are the ebooks as cheap (even accounting for inflation).
Pelican’s new digital editions are sold directly to the public (good) from a website that works on most web browsers (great) but have to be read online (bad) and cost £4.99 (terrible).
When Penguin first introduced paperbacks in the 1930s, they cost sixpence in the UK and ten cents in the US. It’s difficult to find an exact match in today’s dollars, but the official inflation index based on the CPI would peg the value of a dime 1935 as being worth about the same as $1.80 in 2014.
Pelican is charging the equivalent of $7.80.
And not only is Pelican charging many multiples of a budget price, they are also restricting their customer base to those who can afford a data plan in order to read the ebooks on their mobile device. This is a far cry from the original paperbacks, which could be found at most newsstands.
In short, Pelican Books only shares the name of its antecedent; it certainly doesn’t share the goals. Had Pelican shared the goals of its predecessor, it would produce DRM-free ebooks which can be read anywhere and cost only a £1, rather than producing books which cost the same as and are even less prevalent than most ebooks.
And in case you’re wondering, it is fair to compare the old to the new; while I was researching this story I found any number of articles that gushed about the old Pelican Books, how wonderful it was, and how great things will be now that it has been relaunched.
I found articles in The Guardian, the Independent, the Seattle PI, and elsewhere, and guess what?
I’m the only one who actually looked at the new Pelican Books with a critical eye. Everyone else just assumed a connection that did not actually exist.
And in case you’re wondering, I wasn’t expecting the old and new to have any real connection, nor do I see the above post as a rebuke of Penguin (their business is their business). I just thought that the contrast was worth a comment.
Mackay Bell November 18, 2014 um 10:20 pm
Nice piece, Nate. What a missed opportunity. There is so much complaining about piracy and people being unwilling to pay and then they take an approach like this which is doomed to failure. They are basically creating a market for piracy by both overcharging and making it difficult for people to enjoy the material off line. Seems like these big companies never learn how the internet works.
Nate Hoffelder November 18, 2014 um 11:13 pm
It is, yes.
puzzled November 19, 2014 um 4:00 am
And the weird bit is that they publish books on how the internet works…
bangbango November 19, 2014 um 6:52 pm
Well, don’t know if you are actually aware of what publishers usually charge for non-fiction—and that can be a lot, like $30 for Kindle eBooks which are of mediocre quality (low-res pictures, typos, really bad reflowable design)—but as a matter of fact, those books are quite affordable in this specific market.
"When Penguin first introduced paperbacks in the 1930s, they cost sixpence in the UK and ten cents in the US. It’s difficult to find an exact match in today’s dollars, but the official inflation index based on the CPI would peg the value of a dime 1935 as being worth about the same as $1.80 in 2014.
Had Pelican shared the goals of its predecessor, it would produce DRM-free ebooks which can be read anywhere and cost only a £1, rather than producing books which cost the same as and are even less prevalent than most ebooks."
I think, is on the verge of being in bad faith as it’s basically like saying "come on Pelican, build an unsustainable business in a market where Kindle Singles (short books) may be sold $5".
I do like your work but sometimes, because of some posts, I’m starting to wonder if you are not getting big-headed.
This article, honestly, feels like you are trying to criticize for the sake of criticism.
And we don’t need more arseh•les in publishing right now, there are plenty enough (you know, like that "J.A.K. of one trade" who excels at arrogance and disrespect so much that some people feel ashamed human beings can actually behave like that for instance).
I don’t mean to be rude, I just want to be honest because I love what you are doing. But that article, my oh my, looks like it was actually designed around this specific line:
"I’m the only one who actually looked at the new Pelican Books with a critical eye."
And that’s really sad to me, bro.
Nate Hoffelder November 24, 2014 um 5:04 pm
I’m all for Penguin launching a digital imprint, but if they’re going to build on the cachet of the old name then it is only reasonable to point out that the only similarity was in the name.
I can see where you are coming from, but as I see it if The Guardian can publish a fan piece which doesn’t even look at the new Pelican Books while gushing about the old, I can turn a critical eye. I read this again, and I still like it.
Paperback revolution | Making Book January 5, 2015 um 10:32 am
[…] note that Penguin Books is bringing the Pelican back as an on-line service. The Digital Reader has the story on 18 November. Here’s the story from Book Patrol of Pelican Books’ taking off […]