Classic Pacesetters: How Minimalist Book Covers Sold the Masses on Kenyan Market

The first novel I read in the Pacesetters series was Mark of The Cobra by Valentine Ally. It featured a young Nigerian secret service agent. Set obviously against a western template but with African characters in an African locale, it just blew my mind.

It was a welcome change from reading about Nick Carter and James Bond, white characters who used weapons with names like Wilhelmina and who wore tuxedos and drank martinis that were shaken not stirred. It was great to see a Commander Jack Ebony aka Jack Abani who was a Nigerian secret service agent battling bad guys in a sports car with a sultry female sidekick.

Launched in 1977,  by Macmillan[1]  aimed to bring serious softcovers to the masses at an affordable price, but to do that they needed to differentiate themselves through design. At the time, paperbacks were largely associated with lurid pulp fiction, and their covers showed it.

The Pacesetters series was conceived by Macmillan Publishers for young adults and teenage readers.

Agbo Areo who was then an editor with Macmillan Nigeria somewhat convinced his bosses in Britain that there was a vast market for thrillers, romances and adventure stories.

This was the beginning of the African Penguin’s

This simple approach helped make Pacesetter books look uniform while also being cheap to produce and easy to distinguish from other volumes. Initially, conventional booksellers were wary of this new approach. Within a year, the company had printed a million copies and began to expand into various subseries.

I was a taciturn and introverted young man with a stutter; so books were my refuge and anchor in a turbulent world. With books I could escape, daydream, travel, be as adventurous as the characters I read about in those small books that you could run through in hours and which fit snugly in the back pocket of my corduroy or jeans trousers.

I was in love and not just with the stories of young Africans navigating various issues in mostly urban settings from Nairobi to Lagos to Soweto, but with the cover images of young handsome and pretty African looking people. It was fresh and real and different, far different from books in the African Writers series, books whose covers were partial towards sketches and line drawings and abstract representative images.

The Pacesetters series was launched by Macmillan. I began noticing them as I turned ten. The stories, the cover images, the size, the language and subject matter all seemed to suggest that Macmillan was targeting a younger, more cosmopolitan audience different from the academic audience which read novels in the African Writers Series. Longmans also reached out to younger and more urban readers with their Drumbeat series.

Keeping with tradition, they kept coding by colour, but this time to indicate the original language of a given work.

Subsequent spinoffs included Pelican Books (an imprint aimed to educate rather than entertain) as well as Puffin Books (non-fiction picture volumes aimed at children). Many of these borrowed heavily from the original cover and logo design work of Edward Young as well as subsequent refinements by  Jan Tschichold.

Over the years, Pacesetters stayed ahead of the game, in the Kenyan market adapting to the times.

To this day, Pacesetters more consistent imprints still stand out on the shelves, and some series (like the “Orange Collection” above) recalls this historic look. Such covers may not be as exciting, but they have become iconic, and provide a ready canvas for endless adaptations, too.

For those interested in reading (and seeing) more about the design evolution of these classic covers, subscribe to our newsletter and get a complete uncut edition of A Throwback to Pacesetter

Another reference literaryeverything.com

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Nairobi-based poet, writer, avid coffee drinker, and music lover.
Author, designer, and all-around creative rover for Fellout Afrikana

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