September 26, 2009
The Times picks the 50 best paperbacks of 2009
Erica Wagner introduces our countdown of the year’s top 50 paperbacks, and Nicholas Clee explains the history of this revolutionary format
Fifty books — read one a week and they’ll last you nearly a year. Today is the kick-off of The Times WHSmith Paperback of the Year, writes Erica Wagner. On this page you’ll find all 50 books from which our winner, announced here on December 12, will be chosen. The judges — for the only prize in the UK given to a paperback — are myself, bestselling author Alexander McCall Smith and WHSmith book buyer Sandra Bradley, who have whittled these books down to a shortlist of 12, and chosen a winner, too. Over the next dozen weeks we’ll be counting down to the winning book. But why do we love paperbacks so much? Nicholas Clee reveals all . . .
When Woolworths went bust last year, the obsequies tended to concentrate on pick’n’mix rather than on the retail chain’s indispensable role in 20th-century literary history. But without Woolworths’ book-buyer (or rather, without his wife), Penguin Books, one of the glories of modern publishing, would have been as flightless as the bird from which it took its name.
Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin, did not invent the mass-market paperback. Cheap paperbacks were available before the 1930s — and you got what you paid for. Legend has it that Lane, returning in 1934 from a visit to Agatha Christie and her husband Max Mallowan in Devon, was so appalled by the fare on offer at the Exeter station bookstall that he immediately determined to produce worthwhile books costing “no more than a packet of cigarettes”.
He recognised that there was a new social atmosphere, defined by J. B. Priestley as one of “arterial and by-pass roads, of filling-stations and factories that look like exhibition buildings, of giant cinemas and dance-halls and cafés, bungalows with tiny garages, cocktail bars, Woolworths, motor coaches, wireless, hiking, factory girls looking like actresses, greyhound racing and dirt tracks, swimming-pools and everything given away for cigarette coupons.” The people inhabiting this world were not affluent, but had some disposable income; they were better educated than earlier generations; and they had leisure time. Lane believed that the book trade had been “sitting on a gold mine and not known it. It is quite clear that the time has come to wake up to the fact that people want books, that they want good books, and that they are willing, even anxious, to buy them if they are presented to them in a straightforward, intelligent manner at a cheap price.”
The book trade was, largely, appalled at this notion. Cheap paperbacks — Penguins were priced at 6d at a time when most new hardback novels were 7s 6d — would not only be unprofitable themselves, but would also undermine the entire industry. Publishers including Victor Gollancz and Stanley Unwin, the head of Allen & Unwin, refused to sell Lane rights in their books.
Jonathan Cape did agree to conduct business with him, but only because, as he later explained: “I thought you were bound to go bust, and I thought I’d take 400 quid off you before you did.” WHSmith and many other booksellers were similarly sceptical. Lane was in despair by the time he visited Clifford Prescott, the Woolworths buyer.
Prescott seemed no more enthusiastic than his counterparts had been. But then Mrs Prescott arrived at the office, to meet her husband for lunch. She liked the look of the Penguins. Prescott changed his mind, and Woolworths ordered 63,500 copies. There was a stampede for the new books, which sold 150,000 copies within four days of publication in August 1935. Within a year, Penguin’s sales were at three million.
It turned out that if you sold millions of books at 6d, you could be profitable. Penguin expanded, introducing lists such as Pelican, for serious nonfiction, and Puffin, for children’s books. Hardback publishers that licensed paperback rights to Penguin took shares of the revenues, so everyone was happy. Rival lists, including Pan (later to enjoy a bonanza thanks to the novels of Ian Fleming), Fontana and Corgi arrived.
For my generation, growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, Penguin almost defined publishing — a position it had cemented by battling to bring out an unexpurgated edition of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and so ushering in the artistic liberalism of the era. I was fascinated by Penguin’s editorial authority. Why was The Loved One a Penguin Modern Classic, alone of Evelyn Waugh’s oeuvre? A distinctive but confident judgment appeared to be at work. It is the kind of confidence that has evaporated from publishers and media organisations now that there are so many of them, competing ever more desperately for our attention.
This was nearly the end of an era. The B-format lists — larger, designed to reflect more idiosyncratic tastes — were arriving, pre-eminent among them Picador, which won a reputation for publishing at the cutting edge with hits such as Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story and Ian McEwan’s First Love, Last Rites. The industry was becoming corporate, and the new publishing giants were determined to publish their own paperbacks rather than license them to another firm.
In 1980, the Penguin boss Peter Mayer secured the rights to issue paperback editions of five of the seven novelists shortlisted for the Booker Prize, in advance of the announcement of the winner (William Golding —– who was with Faber and Faber). This year, none of the Man Booker contenders is a Penguin author. The firm’s backlist is less comprehensive too. For example, Aldous Huxley and Graham Greene, a large number of whose novels I read in Penguin editions, have been reclaimed for Vintage, an imprint of Random House. Penguin, Random House, Hachette and HarperCollins are the four largest publishers in the UK, and there is no cultural or structural reason why one of them should have a better paperback list than any of the others.
This is merely an evolution, though, of what Lane created. Paperbacks in many cases follow hardbacks, but they are the primary format for most titles — the one in which titles that endure will remain most widely available. According to the Publishers Association’s Statistics Yearbook, 81 per cent of the fiction and general nonfiction titles sold by UK publishers last year were paperbacks. The share of the fiction market taken by paperbacks was 89 per cent.
However, perhaps another era is coming to an end. There is much publicity for the Sony Reader, the Amazon Kindle and other handheld devices for reading texts in digital form. Say goodbye to holiday luggage crammed with bulky books. Say goodbye to unfriendly fonts: if the text is too small, you simply enlarge it. And say goodbye also, sadly, to browsing in bookshops, to handling books, to sensing them as designed objects complementing the texts they contain. Despite the promises of digital enthusiasts, some of us will take a lot of convincing that there can be a rival to the paperback, the most democratic method of disseminating texts yet invented.
Nicholas Clee appears at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival on Friday, October 16. 0844 576 7979; www.cheltenhamfestivals.com
THE LONG LIST 50
The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale: Reinvestigation of a killing in an isolated Wiltshire house that became the prototype for the Victorian murder mystery.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga: Adiga’s first novel and Man Booker winner is a highly original story about the lengths to which Balram Halwai (the White Tiger) must go to break free of his caste.
Dreams from my Father by Barack Obama
Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier
Churchill’s Wizards by Nicholas Rankin: Along with cigars and rallying speeches, Churchill liked deception. Rankin reveals the ingenuity of the men and women who fought Winnie’s secret war.
The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry
The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Bad Science by Ben Goldacre
Bones of the Hills by Conn Iggulden
The Palace of Strange Girls by Sallie Day: In 1959, the burgeoning freedom of the Sixties forces a crisis at the heart of the superficially stable Singleton family on their annual trip to Blackpool.
Mystery Man by Colin Bateman
The Girl Next Door by Elizabeth Noble
The Other Half Lives by Sophie Hannah: Aidan Seed, a picture-framer, confesses to his girlfriend, Ruth, that he killed a woman called Mary Trelease. But Ruth knows her and that she’s still alive.
The Return by Victoria Hislop: Sonia, a PR exec, flees her banker husband to dance flamenco in Granada. But the Spanish Civil War’s turbulent legacy permeates her experience.
The Broken Window by Jeffery Deaver: The retired criminalist and quadriplegic Lincoln Rhyme teams up with his paramour Amelia Sachs to trace “Unknown Subject 522”, the identity-stealing villain.
My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult
The Reapers by John Connolly
A Most Wanted Man by John le Carré
The Unicorn Road by Martin Davies
Remember Me by Melvyn Bragg: The estrangement of two young lovers has a tragic ending in Swinging Sixties London. The fourth in a series of Bragg’s autobiographical novels.
Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh
Testimony by Anita Shreve: A videotape of three boys and an under-age girl performing sex acts is found at a New England boarding school. It sparks a disproportionately damaging scandal.
The Bolter by Frances Osborne
In the Dark by Mark Billingham
The Behaviour of Moths by Poppy Adams: A reunion between a solitary moth expert and her sister in their creepy childhood home masterfully reveals the rivalry and strange secrets that bind them.
The Host by Stephenie Meyer: Meyer’s first novel for adults is set in a future in which humans have been body-snatched by mind-controlling aliens. It involves a love triangle with only two bodies.
Full Hearts and Empty Bellies by Winifred Foley
The Paper Moon by Andrea Camilleri
Revelation by C. J. Sansom: While Henry VIII is pursuing Catherine Parr, Matthew Shardlake, a hunchback lawyer, is on the trail of a serial killer who is a religious fanatic.
The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent
The Way Things Look to Me by Roopa Farooki
An Equal Stillness by Francesca Kay: Rivalry between painters Jennett Mallow and David Heaton results in a competitive marriage. But drink dilutes his flair and lets her slow-burning talent eclipse his fame.
Hold Tight by Harlan Coben
Doors Open by Ian Rankin
Too Close to Home by Linwood Barclay
The Brass Verdict by Michael Connelly: When a Hollywood lawyer is murdered, Mickey Haller inherits his case. Enter detective Harry Bosch, hell-bent on trapping the killer and keen to use Haller as bait.
A Simple Act of Violence by R. J. Ellory
A Secret Alchemy by Emma Darwin
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid: An ambitious young Muslim leaves Pakistan to go to Princeton, where he wins a prestigious Wall Street job. But 9/11 changes his fortunes.
Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks: The Bond torch has passed to Faulks for the latest instalment of 007, picking up where Ian Fleming left off in 1966 with Octopussy and The Living Daylights.
The Believers by Zoë Heller
The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson
Fractured by Karin Slaughter: An Atlanta housewife discovers her teenage daughter dead on the landing, with a stranger wielding a bloody knife. Special Agent Will Trent has his work cut out.
Becoming Queen by Kate Williams
Dambusters by Max Arthur: Fascinating oral history from the men in 617 Squadron whose key Second World War mission, Operation Chastise, was to destroy Ruhr dams.
The Murder Exchange by Simon Kernick
Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith: Stalin’s Government won’t admit that crime exists in communist Russia. Exiled war hero Leo Demidov becomes an enemy of the state for hunting down a child serial killer.
When Will There be Good News? by Kate Atkinson
Keeping the Dead by Tess Gerritsen: A killer with a knack for ancient mummifying death rituals is leaving a trail of victims. The race is on to prevent him adding to his grisly collection.
THE SHORT LIST: NUMBER 12
Doors Open, by Ian Rankin
The 2008 publication of Ian Rankin’s first post-Rebus novel, the art-world thriller Doors Open, coincided with a record-breaking auction in which Damien Hirst sold works for £111 million — timing Rankin commended as exemplary.
If Hirst’s windfall sounds like daylight robbery, he has nothing on the gall of Rankin’s three protagonists, who plan to exploit a public “doors open” day to rob the National Gallery in Edinburgh. But a professor of art, a computer software mogul and a banker seem unlikely crooks from the man who reshaped the Scottish literary landscape with his hard-boiled detective and a parade of twisted villains.
“I wanted to write about a different side of Edinburgh from the side you see in the Rebus novels,” Rankin has said of his novel, “so I wanted these to be successful professional people who get caught up in something that spirals out of control.”
Indeed, when a gangster joins the trio the plot darkens considerably: he owes money to some Hell’s Angels and intends to use the stolen paintings to appease them, but his naive accomplices will also end up under their power. The novel began as a New York Times serial: Rankin worked it into a novel three times the size of the original series, a task he relished: “The characters were little more than thumbnail sketches and I’ve been able to flesh them out.”
Doors Open (rrp £7.99) will be available for £2.99 from next week when you buy The Times or The Sunday Times at participating WHSmith stores
Buy one of our 50 Paperbacks of the Year at WHSmith and get another free