The First Years of Pan

colourful book cover
Pan no 1, 1947

The vivid covers of Penguin’s biggest competitor

What was Penguin’s main competition in the British paperback market during the so-called paperback revolution? Pan Books was founded in 1944 by Alan Bott, writer, editor and dashing World War 1 flying ace. His new company became part of a consortium and quickly established itself as the leading publisher in the market for popular paperbacks. These first years of Pan are a case study in marketing that contrasts dramatically with Penguin’s sober approach.

Pan’s first ten titles were reprints by established authors, including Rudyard Kipling who whose Ten Stories was the first Pan, number 1, above. Another was Agatha Christie who was also on Penguin’s first ten list. Each Pan title had a print run of 47,000 to 100,000 copies, similar in quantity to Penguin, and this indicates the commercial ambition of the new company.

You will have noticed the offensive title of the Agatha Christie, below. It was first published with that title in the UK, where the word was somewhat less loaded. But in the US the “N-word” was controversial even then, and the book appeared as And Then There Were None, using the last words of the childrens’ ditty both titles came from. Whatever the name it is apparently the best-selling mystery novel ever published, with 100 million copies sold.

Pans 4 and 5, from 1947

Due to the wartime paper shortage the first Pans were printed in France at three printers located near Paris. The books were ferried up the river Seine and across the Channel to London in an old Royal Navy motor launch. Gordon Young, who crewed the boat, described the first shipment,

“Two customs officers boarded us at Tilbury” on the Thames and asked, ‘Where are these dirty books from Paris?’ Paris was known for producing pornography at the time, but we laid out for inspection a copy of each of the 10 titles we were carrying—books by Rudyard Kipling, Agatha Christie, JB Priestley. “Their faces quickly turned to smiles and it was handshakes all ’round.”

Pans 7 and 8, from 1947

The spines were numbered 1 to 10, following the Penguin system and it’s obvious that Pan was following the highly successful Penguin formula of 1935 from only twelve years before. Here is the list:

  1. Ten Stories by Rudyard Kipling
  2. Lost Horizon by James Hilton
  3. The Nutmeg Tree by Margery Sharp
  4. Ten Little Niggers by Agatha Christie
  5. Haven’s End by John P Marquand
  6. Trilby by Gerald du Maurier
  7. Three Time Plays by JB Priestley
  8. Some People by Harold Nicholson
  9. Above the Dark Circus by Hugh Walpole
  10. Fire Over England by AEW Mason

Pan’s marketing advantage was its illustrated covers, a novelty in the refined world of British publishing. Penguin and its rivals stuck to anonymous typographic layouts and resisted what Allen Lane famously described as “bosoms and bottoms” covers. But Pan’s illustrations initially were genteel, using line drawings of a recognisable English style, keeping a fairly dignified, literary tone.

The 1947 grid had a two-part division of the cover with equal areas for illustration and type. The background colour was carried into the artwork. This effect is top heavy, with the centred type given more space than is needed. This forced the title and author text to be oversized for the small book format and it squeezes the space for the illustration. Despite that, the new Pans must have looked very attractive in the grey world of postwar Britain.

The first redesign

In 1948, Pan’s marketing approach became more populist. There were more “popular” writers on the now expanded list including thriller writers such as Edgar Wallace and Eric Ambler. The new cover design gave more space to the illustrations which tend to be brighter and more more modern. The top panel, now in black, has been reduced to help project the more colourful artwork. This new grid was surprisingly similar in proportion to Penguin’s legendary Marber grid which only appeared on bookshelves much later, in 1962.

Epitaph for a Spy_Ambler_Pan_1948

Pan hired some of the best commercial artists to design their covers. The book illustrator Bip Pares (1904-77) designed the covers for Epitaph for a Spy and Poor Caroline, above. She was a prolific artist working for a range of publishers, including Pan. Her style often had an Art Deco inflection as can be seen in these examples from 1948. You can see more of her book covers here.

Penguin’s response

And what was Penguin doing as these new Pans were appearing in bookshops? For comparison, this title above was published in 1948, the same year as the Pans in this article. It has the 1935 typographic grid showing that Penguin’s brand was resolutely non-visual, sticking to the simple three-part grid first put together by Edward Young thirteen years before. This was the exact time that Jan Tschichold was busy refining Penguin’s typographic culture, and this cover is a good example of his efforts. It demonstrates the contrast between Penguin’s “pin-striped” refinement and Pan’s populist thrust in the marketplace, the way of the future.


  1. Fascinating article, thank you – I worked in bookshops for 30 years from the late 60s when Pan were moving away from painted to photographic covers which didn’t quite have the same charm,


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