Magazine article History Today

The First Penguin Paperbacks: July 30th, 1935

Magazine article History Today

The First Penguin Paperbacks: July 30th, 1935

Article excerpt

Allen 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. …

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