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Paperback revolution that started with Penguin

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The first Penguin paperback book is published in England, kick-starting the paperback revolution on July 30, 1935.

The introduction of steam-powered printing press, pulp mills, automatic typesetting and a good well-connected railway network led to many changes and developments in the printing and publishing business. Taking advantage of the new developments, Simms and Mcintyre of Belfast, Routledge & Sons and Ward & Lock mass-produced cheap yellowback or paperback editions of already available works. They distributed and sold them throughout the British Isles mainly through the newsagent W H Smith & Sons found at almost every railway station. Smaller in format, these paperbacks were sold at a very nominal cost targeting mainly the rail travellers.

The German market also had its share of cheap paperbacks. Bernhard Tauchnitz started selling the works of British and American authors in 1841. Reclam published Shakespeare from the October of 1857 onwards, and he established the mass market paperbound Universal-Bibliothek series in 1867.

The mass market paperback format was revised by the German publisher Albatross Books in 1931. But because of the Second World War, it could not continue.

But in 1935, when Allen Lane, a British publisher, launched the Penguin Books, it proved an instant hit. Three million Penguin books were sold in a year! This spearheaded the paperback revolution in the English language book market.

Allen Lane, the creator of Penguin Books, was one of the directors at Bodley Head publishing firm. The firm was a family business founded by a maternal uncle, who wanted Allen to join it as he had no children. Allen became a part of the firm when he was just sixteen years. He was appointed the chairman in 1930, when his uncle died.

It was during one of his travels when he was returning with his favourite author Agatha Christie, and he didn’t find a single book worth reading, that he thought of the possibility of republishing good quality fiction and non-fiction titles at affordable prices.

His idea did not find much favour amongst the other Bodley and Head directors. But reluctantly they gave in to Allen’s idea.
Allen started working on his idea along with his brothers Dick and John. After intensive brainstorming, they zeroed in on the name Penguin Books. An artist called Edward Young was asked to design an engaging logo, but simple and straight to the point. To keep it simple and dignified, the sketch of a penguin was used. The crime stories would have green covers, fiction orange covers and blue for non-fiction. The broad white band across the middle had the title in plain letters.

Ten titles were taken for the launch. They were by Agatha Christie, Susan Ertz, Ernest Hemingway, Eric Linklater, Compton Mackenzie, Andre Maurois, Beverly Nichols, Dorothy L. Sayers, E. H. Young and Mary Webb. Each book was priced at sixpence. The instant profitability came from Woolworth when they ordered sixty-three thousand five hundred copies!

In 1936, Allen created Penguin Books as a separate entity and resigned from Bodley Head.

With the creation of Penguin paperbacks, Allen made good literature, accessible, easy and democratised it, where everyone from a labourer to an aristocrat could access it.


Text by Tasneem Dhinojwala

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