By Maria Bregman
Books are powerful. They can inform, inspire, entertain, and transform. They can also be expensive, bulky, and scarce. That is, until Penguin Books came along and changed the game. Penguin Books is a British publishing house that pioneered the mass production and distribution of pocket books in soft covers, making literature more accessible and affordable for the masses. Founded in 1935 by Allen Lane, Penguin Books has become one of the most successful and respected publishers in the world, with a catalogue of over 15,000 titles and a global presence in over 100 countries. But how did Penguin Books achieve this remarkable feat? And what challenges and controversies did it face along the way? Here is the story of how Penguin Books revolutionized the world of publishing.
The Birth Of A Penguin
The idea of Penguin Books was born out of frustration. In 1934, Allen Lane, a young publisher who worked for The Bodley Head, a family-owned firm, was returning from a weekend visit to his friend and author Agatha Christie in Devon. At the Exeter railway station, he was looking for a good book to read on the train, but all he could find were cheap and trashy novels or expensive and heavy hardbacks. He thought there must be a better way to provide quality literature to the public at a reasonable price and in a convenient format. He envisioned a series of paperbacks that would sell for sixpence, the same price as a pack of cigarettes, and that would fit in a pocket or a handbag. He also wanted to publish books that were not only popular, but also important and influential, from classics to contemporary fiction, from poetry to politics, from science to history. He wanted to create a brand that would stand for quality, consistency, and diversity.
He pitched his idea to his uncle and boss, John Lane, who was skeptical and reluctant, but eventually agreed to give him a small loan and a warehouse space to start his venture. Allen Lane recruited his brothers Richard and John to join him, and hired a young designer named Edward Young to create the logo and the covers of the new books. Young came up with the idea of using a penguin as the symbol of the brand, inspired by his visit to the London Zoo. He also designed the distinctive horizontal bands of color that would identify the different genres of the books: orange for fiction, blue for biography, green for crime, and so on. He also chose a simple and elegant typeface, called Gill Sans, that would give the books a modern and uniform look.
The first 10 titles of Penguin Books were launched in July 1935, and they were an instant hit. They sold out within days, and soon reached a circulation of over a million copies. The public loved the idea of buying quality books for the price of a pack of cigarettes, and the booksellers loved the idea of selling books that had a high turnover and a low risk. Penguin Books also benefited from the innovative marketing and distribution strategies that Allen Lane devised. He persuaded the Woolworths chain to display and sell his books in their stores, reaching a wider and more diverse audience than the traditional bookshops. He also created the Penguin Book Club, a subscription service that would deliver a selection of books to the members every month. He also established the Penguin Specials, a series of topical and timely books that would address the issues and events of the day, such as the Spanish Civil War, the rise of fascism, or the outbreak of World War II.
The Trials And Triumphs Of A Penguin
Penguin Books was not only a commercial success, but also a cultural and social force. It challenged the status quo and the establishment, and championed the causes of freedom, democracy, and diversity. It also faced various challenges and controversies, both legal and political, that tested its principles and values.
One of the most famous and notorious episodes in the history of Penguin Books was the publication of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960. The novel, which tells the story of an adulterous affair between an aristocratic woman and a working-class man, was considered obscene and banned in several countries, including the UK, for its explicit descriptions of sex and its use of profanity. Penguin Books decided to publish the unexpurgated version of the novel, claiming that it was a masterpiece of literature and a reflection of the changing times. The decision sparked a huge public debate and a legal battle, as Penguin Books was prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act of 1959, which prohibited the publication of any material that tended to “deprave and corrupt” the readers. The trial, which lasted for six days, was a landmark event in the history of censorship and literature. Penguin Books was defended by a team of eminent lawyers, writers, and critics, who argued that the novel had literary merit, artistic value, and social relevance, and that it was not intended to appeal to the prurient interest of the readers. The prosecution, on the other hand, tried to portray the novel as a corrupting and immoral influence, and asked the jury to consider whether they would want their wives or servants to read it. The jury, which consisted of nine men and three women, deliberated for three hours, and returned a verdict of not guilty. The verdict was a victory for Penguin Books, and a victory for freedom of expression and artistic integrity. It also boosted the sales and the popularity of the novel, which sold over two million copies in the first year.
Another controversial episode in the history of Penguin Books was the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in 1988. The novel, which is a complex and imaginative work of fiction that explores the themes of migration, identity, and religion, provoked violent protests and death threats from some Muslims, who considered it blasphemous and offensive to Islam. The novel was banned in several countries, and in 1989, the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, or a religious edict, calling for the death of Rushdie and his publishers. The fatwa put Rushdie and his associates in grave danger, and forced them to go into hiding and live under police protection. Penguin Books, despite the risks and the pressures, refused to withdraw or apologize for the novel, and stood by Rushdie and his right to free speech and artistic expression. The fatwa also sparked a global debate and a solidarity movement, as many writers, artists, and activists came to the defense of Rushdie and Penguin Books, and denounced the threats and the censorship. The fatwa was eventually lifted in 1998, but the controversy and the consequences of the novel still linger to this day.
The Legacy And The Impact Of A Penguin
Penguin Books has come a long way since its humble beginnings in 1935. It has grown and diversified, acquiring and merging with other publishers, such as Viking, Hamish Hamilton, Puffin, and Random House, and creating new imprints, such as Pelican, Penguin Classics, Penguin Modern, and Penguin Black Classics. It has also expanded its reach and its scope, publishing books in different genres, languages, and formats, from fiction to non-fiction, from poetry to comics, from print to digital. It has also continued to innovate and to influence the design, marketing, and distribution of books, creating iconic covers, logos, and series, and reaching new audiences and markets.
But more than that, Penguin Books has made a lasting and profound impact on the world of publishing and on the world of culture. It has made literature more democratic and diverse, more accessible and affordable, more relevant and influential. It has challenged and changed the perceptions and the expectations of the readers, the writers, and the publishers. It has enriched and enlightened the minds and the hearts of millions of people. It has shaped and reflected the history and the society of its time. It has made a difference.
Penguin Books is not just a publishing house. It is a phenomenon. It is a legacy. It is a penguin.