New College of the Humanities

The First Penguin Paperbacks

Richard Cavendish remembers the birth of a publishing institution, on July 30th 1935.

Plaque marking the founding ot Penguin BooksAllen Lane, the man who created Penguin Books, began life as Allen Lane Williams. Lane was his mother’s surname and the family’s one relative of importance was on her side, a cousin called John Lane, the founder of the Bodley Head publishing firm. With no children of his own, John Lane suggested that when young Allen finished his schooling in Bristol he should join the Bodley Head to learn the trade.

Allen was 16 when, in 1919, he joined the firm in London at a salary of a guinea a week, of which ten shillings soon went to pay for boarding with ‘Uncle John’. He learnt every aspect of the business from office boy upwards and it became clear that he combined notable ability with charm (and sometimes ruthlessness). He changed his surname to Lane, became a director of the firm when John Lane died in 1925 and was appointed chairman in 1930 while still in his twenties. He soon proved to be far too adventurous for his older and more staid colleagues.

In 1934 he was returning from a weekend in Devon with Agatha Christie, his favourite Bodley Head author, when he was aggravated to find nothing in the Exeter station bookstall that was worth reading on the journey back to London. Lacking anything to while away the time, he found his mind turning to the possibility of republishing readable high-quality fiction and non-fiction titles in paperback at the astonishingly low price of sixpence each (then the cost of a packet of ten cigarettes). The other Bodley Head directors did not take kindly to this idea. Paperbacks were regarded at the time as ‘dirty rubbish’by respectable publishers, but the Bodley Head board grudgingly agreed to let Allen Lane go ahead with his seemingly dubious new notion, though only in his spare time.

Lane put his plan into action, supported by his younger brothers Dick and John, who were now working for the Bodley Head and had also dropped the Williams surname. After toying with Dolphin Books and Porpoise Books, the team settled on Penguin Books and a young Bodley Head artist called Edward Young was sent off to London Zoo to sketch the birds and came up with the engaging logo. The books were to have no pictures and none of what Lane disparaged as ‘bosoms and bottoms’on the covers. The covers were to be green for crime stories, orange for other fiction and blue for non-fiction, with the title in plain lettering on a broad white band across the middle. The whole design aimed for straightforward clarity.

Ten titles were picked for the launch. They were by Agatha Christie (The Mysterious Affair at Styles), Susan Ertz, Ernest Hemingway (A Farewell to Arms), Eric Linklater, Compton Mackenzie, André Maurois (Ariel), Beverley Nichols, Dorothy L. Sayers (The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club), E.H. Young and Mary Webb (Gone to Earth). A key moment came when the book buyer for Woolworth’s, a man named Prescott, was approached. He did not like the sample he was shown, but his wife’s enthusiastic reaction changed his mind (or so Penguin legend has it) and he ordered 63,500 copies. That meant that at least the first Penguins would not make a loss.

Publication day came and there was no more cause for anxiety. Most of the titles sold out rapidly and had to be hastily reprinted. Lane went ahead with more titles and on New Year’s Day 1936 he created Penguin Books as a separate company with a capital of £100 and three directors, himself and his brothers. He resigned from the Bodley Head a few months later. In 1937 he began publishing Pelicans, which were non-fiction titles, starting with George Bernard Shaw’s The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism. Other early Pelicans included A Short History of the World by H.G. Wells and G.D.H. Cole’s Practical Economics. They too cost sixpence each and sold extremely well. In the 1940s the first King Penguins appeared, with illustrations, and after the war came the Penguin Classics, led by E.V. Rieu’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey.

Allen Lane was knighted in 1952 and died of cancer in 1970, at the age of 67. He always maintained that he read few books himself, but as J.E. Morpurgo pointed out in his splendid biography, Allen Lane: King Penguin, Lane created ‘an institution of national and international importance, like The Times or the BBC’. In 1950 a leader in The Times saluted him for making up for the loss of the British Empire by using the English language and cheap paperbacks to spread British influence over millions of people worldwide; a form that was far less objectionable but just as powerful as the earlier imperialism.

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