The Penguincubator: The 1937 Vending Machine for Books

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Sir Allen Lane is the creator of Penguin Books, which is credited with popularizing high-quality mass-market paperbacks. Paperbacks existed prior to Penguin, but they were often poorly made and/or had trashy subject matter. Lane changed all that, publishing classic literature in paperback form and legitimizing the paperback and offering an affordable price (sixpence per book at launch; or about the same as a pack of cigarettes). But he didn't stop there. He also invented the "Penguincubator," a vending machine for his paperbacks. In 1937.

From an article in Publishing Perspectives:

[Lane's] Penguincubator [was] first installed outside Henderson's (the "Bomb Shop") at 66 Charing Cross Road, which signaled his intention to take the book beyond the library and the traditional bookstore, into railway stations, chain stores and onto the streets. It is worth noting, given publishers' frequent timidity in this area, that this really annoyed booksellers. (Lane's lack of trepidation is an important part of this story; worth noting, too, that he was the first English publisher of James Joyce's Ulysses, at the Bodley Head, despite the widespread contemporary fear of prosecution for obscenity.)

In the Penguincubator we see several desires converge: affordable books, non-traditional distribution, awareness of context, and a quiet radicalism. And it's not a huge leap of the imagination to see how these apply now. I see the same bored gaze on the bus and tube today, as people reflexively flip open their phones and start poking at email or casual games, as Allen Lane saw on the platform at Exeter in 1933. And slowly -- oh, so slowly -- publishers are seeing that what we are presented with is not the death of everything we trust, value and hold dear, but a similar widening vista of opportunity to that which arrived with the mass-market paperback.

Lane's story about why he invented the Penguincubator is fun. From Penguin's Company History page:

After a weekend visiting Agatha Christie in Devon, he found himself on a platform at Exeter station searching its bookstall for something to read on his journey back to London, but discovered only popular magazines and reprints of Victorian novels.

Appalled by the selection on offer, Lane decided that good quality contemporary fiction should be made available at an attractive price and sold not just in traditional bookshops, but also in railway stations, tobacconists and chain stores.

Hence the Penguincubator. While the Penguincubator is no longer operational, the New York Times' Paper Cuts blog found an operating paperback vending machine in a Barcelona subway station. Have you seen a paperback vending machine? Would you buy from a Penguincubator if one were installed in your area?

(Story via BBC News; photo by STML on Flickr; another photo is here -- the later-model Penguincubator is on the right.)

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August 9, 2010 - 9:20am
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