By Britta Guerke, DPA,
London : As Penguin Books tells it, the idea of publishing good quality fiction in low-priced paperbacks arose on a railway platform. Waiting at Exeter station after a visit to English detective story writer Agatha Christie, publisher Allen Lane wanted something to read on the train back to London but found only popular magazines and reprints of Victorian novels.
He thought that good books should be available not only in bookshops but also in railway stations, tobacconists and chain stores. Several months later, Lane chose a penguin as the symbol for his new business, and the first Penguin paperbacks appeared in the summer of 1935.
The idea quickly caught on. Paperback publishing began to spread around the globe and firmly took hold after World War II.
“When Allen Lane founded Penguin in 1935 he had a pretty simple, but pretty radical idea: make great literature available to everyone at an affordable price and for it to appeal not just to the wallet, but to literary taste and the eye, with beautifully designed jackets and style,” John Makinson, current Penguin chief executive and chairman, said in a recent BBC interview.
Although they were not the first paperbacks ever – softcover editions of the classics had come out decades earlier, for example – they were the first to gain mass readership. Penguin sold three million copies the first year, at a time marked by the Great
Depression and an expansion of mass culture.
The books cost just sixpence, the same as a packet of cigarettes. Besides low price and quality content, the distinctive logotype contributed to the company’s huge success. The artist was a 21-year-old office junior dispatched to London Zoo to sketch the penguins.
Penguin’s first covers had a simple, two-tone horizontal grid design. The title and author’s name were written in the middle against a white background, and the top and bottom were of a colour signifying the genre: orange for fiction, blue for biography, green for crime.
Over the decades the covers evolved, and some titles are now considered classics of cover design.
Traditional publishers, and some authors, looked askance at the emergence of paperbacks. English writer George Orwell commented, “The Penguin Books are splendid value for sixpence, so splendid that if other publishers had any sense they would combine against them and suppress them.”
His colleague George Bernard Shaw said, “If a book is any good, the cheaper the better.”
Penguin has published many of the best-known writers in the English language. Its first authors included Ernest Hemingway and Agatha Christie. They were later joined by notables such as D.H. Lawrence and Salman Rushdie. Today the company is among the market
leaders in Britain, the US and several other countries.
Can Penguin survive in the age of the internet and e-books? “There’s nothing cool about owning enormous quantities of e-books,” Makinson said, adding that “the public still has a love affair with books, the physical product”.
While Penguin plans to adopt modern technology, Makinson said, “We’ve got to continue to try to emphasise the desirability of a physical book – the design, quality of printing, inventiveness in children’s books and strong design culture – and we need to keep investing in that.”