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The launch of Penguin Books

According to the founder of Penguin Books, Allen Lane, he was inspired to start publishing cheap paperbacks when he had time to kill on Exeter station (he was returning to London after paying a visit to Agatha Christie) and was hard-pressed to find anything suitable in the station bookstall. All that was on offer were reprinted classics and pulp novels.

There was clearly a gap in the market for contemporary writing aimed at a mass audience. What was needed were books that were easy to read, convenient to take around with one, readily available and very reasonably priced. The Penguin imprint, which began in July 1935, would concentrate on popular fiction, particularly crime, and biography.

Allen Lane’s genius was to make his Penguin books easily recognizable, which he did by sticking to a consistent cover design that was colour-coded to show the type of content – dark blue for biography, orange for general fiction, green for crime fiction, etc. 

The first ten titles, all published at the same time, were reprints of books that Allen Lane thought would sell well, and he was correct with some of his guesses, but not all. They included crime novels by Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers, fiction by Ernest Hemingway, Compton Mackenzie and Eric Linklater, and a biography of Shelley. 

However, some of his first batch of authors are little known today. That is a risk that publishers always take – but by printing in volume and getting good marketing deals from outlets such as Woolworths, the gains easily outweighed the losses and Penguin Books sold a million volumes in its first ten months, each one priced at sixpence.

Penguin Books soon expanded into other fields, such as the Pelican imprint for non-fiction titles and the Puffin children’s book imprint.

The success of Penguin Books showed that it was possible to get people reading good books if the product was attractive and properly marketed. Literary writing was now a mass-market commodity.

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