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Archive for September 26th, 2022

A new study shows that Penguin Books’ publication of low-cost paperback editions of Virginia Woolf’s work helped her reach a mass market.

In “Virginia Woolf, Penguin Paperbacks, and Mass Publishing in Mid-Century Britain,” published in Vol. 25, No. 1 of Book History, Martina Vike Plock explores how Penguin negotiated financial, logistical, and ideological transactions with Leonard Woolf that re-packaged Virginia as a mass-market Penguin author (238-68).

Penguin, which had started to publish mass-produced, cheap paperbacks in the mid-1930s, began publishing Virginia’s non-fiction in 1938. In the 1950s and 1960s, Leonard went on to negotiate deals with Penguin that allowed them to publish most of her major works of fiction.

Meanwhile, Leonard continued to publish Virginia’s books under their Hogarth Press imprint.

Digging into the correspondence

Vike Plock, a professor at the University of Exeter, analyzed correspondence between Leonard and Penguin’s Alan Lane that  shows Leonard’s priority as the financial health of the Hogarth Press. Thus, sales figures of Virginia’s works were his main concern when dealing with Penguin.

Leonard refused to lease rights of Virginia’s work that were still selling well as Hogarth Press editions. As a result, only Woolf’s lesser-known titles, her essays and non-fiction, were initially signed over to Penguin Books.

The first was Virginia collection of essays, The Common Reader. First published by the Hogarth Press in 1925, it appeared as a Pelican paperback in October of 1938. Penguin Books printed 50,000 copies, sold them for 6d, and paid the Hogarth Press an advance of £150 for the paperback rights, according to a story on the University of Exeter’s website. By the end of 1965, six Woolf novels were available as Penguins.

The arrangement turned out to be mutually beneficial for both Penguin and the Woolfs, particularly since Leonard was interested in making Virginia’s work available to a wide audience.

To come up with her conclusions, Vike Plock used archival resources held at the University of Bristol. Her article takes note of the different stages, key actors, and main considerations that contributed to Virginia’s gradual assimilation into Britain’s paperback industry.

Adding a feminist perspective

However, Vike Plock explores more than the financial considerations of the deals between Penguin and Leonard. She also explores them from a feminist perspective.

The materials in the Penguin archive work in support of critical narratives arguing that Woolf’s works were posthumously seized by a patriarchal, institutional culture she had repeatedly and vociferously criticized,” she states in the abstract for her article.

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