How Agatha Christie became a paperback writer

The Mysterious Affair at Styles was one of ten titles in the 1935 launch catalogue for Allen Lane’s new paperback imprint, Phoenix Books.* Phoenix was a proverbial no-brainer of a name for a paperback imprint that aimed to breathe new life into once popular hardback titles – especially in light of the fact that the world’s first paperback imprint, Albatross Books, had just failed in the UK. Hitting on Phoenix as a name was a stroke of genius – a signal that this bird was going to fly.

And The Mysterious Affair at Styles was a perfect catch for Lane. Populist yet stylish, it was written by one of a handful of authors acquiring celebrity status in the new media age.

And it was a time of unprecedented development. Talking pictures had just arrived: and they offered not just song and dance but reels of news too. The BBC’s wireless service celebrated its tenth anniversary in 1932 and the medium was now developing sophisticated ideas about target audiences and programming strands. The first regular television service was gearing up to begin broadcasting from Alexandra Palace; while the Daily Express was pioneering a radical new approach to newspaper design, with big, bold multi-deck headlines, lavish use of photographs and stories laid out in patchwork field patterns.

Faster, cleaner, sharper printing presses were creating a revolution in other quarters of the print market too. There was the emergence of glossy colour magazines, for instance; and (in theory at least) a new hybrid form of publishing, midway between the hardback book and the magazine – the paperback.

The economic model was by no means settled, however: as indeed the demise of Albatross proved. The breakthrough came when Lane persuaded publishers and agents to persuade their authors to expect next-to-nothing when it came to payment. In fact, so Allen’s argument ran, authors should be grateful that he was helping them to prolong the life of worn-out assets.

For instance, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (Poirot’s debut as it happens), was originally published in 1920 in a hardback edition priced at 7/6; and though it was reprinted in several additional editions, its hardback shelf-life was relatively limited.

Paperbacks, the trade now believed, could not only offer a way for authors to earn a little extra pin money from railway station bookstalls, but the_mysterious_affair_at_styleswould also ensure that their names were kept before the general public. Paperbacks, in other words, could help sales of an author’s next hardback. During this era, authors would typically expect royalties of 1/6 (one shilling and sixpence) on each hardback copy sold at 7/6; now Lane was offering a 2 per cent royalty on every sixpenny paperback. Crudely put, you’d have to sell 2,000 copies to earn £1.

And of course Lane had another ace up his sleeve. In 1935, he stunned the business world by signing a deal with Woolworth – and by the outbreak of the Second World War, he had shifted 17 million units, becoming, in the process, one of the richest men in British publishing.

* Just prior to launch, Lane decided he didn’t like the Phoenix name after all. Too dry and dusty. He plumped instead for a dolphin, equally ancient as a beastly symbol, but somehow more mystical. Thus was born the legendary Dolphin Books brand. Except… Except for the fact that, when it came to branding, birds seemed somehow better. More appropriate. So he then began to consider the penguin. Penguin Books. It might work. Penguins, stated Lane, were “dignified but flippant.”

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