Celebrating 75 years of Paperbacks: Penguin Books History

Few events have had a greater impact on the democratisation of Western societies than the mass-production of cheap paperback editions of quality books. Although Allen Lane did not invent the idea, he was certainly responsible for its initial success. For while in 1935 much of the rest of the world was preparing for war in the name of various lethal ideologies, this Anglo-Welsh publishing genius invented Penguin Books, which brought literature and education to millions of previously disenfranchised readers in Britain and throughout the world.

Initially devoted to licensed paperback editions of hardback novels from rival publishers, the imprint quickly expanded into original non-fiction Pelicans followed by Penguin Specials on current affairs, Penguin Classics, and Puffin paperbacks for children. Discounting the publishing trade’s widespread conviction of its inevitable failure, Penguin had sold seventeen million paperbacks within its first three years and discovered a whole new readership from the middle and working classes. By 1960, a staggering 3,500 titles had been published and a total of 250 million books had been sold. Not surprisingly, the imprint became a national institution as dearly-loved as the BBC and the idea quickly caught on in America, where domestic publishers followed Penguin Inc. in promoting paperbacks to college and university students.

Allen Lane’s motives for this reading revolution were both missionary and mercenary, according to the writer of this excellent book. Having left school at sixteen to join, The Bodley Head publishing house in London, owned by a distant cousin of his mother, he would always identify himself as a typical target buyer of Penguins. Indeed, the story goes that it was while returning from a visit to Agatha Christie in Devon–The Bodley Head had published her first novel and she and Lane became lifelong friends–that he conceived the idea of quality paperbacks when he failed to find anything worth reading at the railway station’s bookstall.

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