Penguin Develops a Line of Paperback Books

The public’s acceptance of paperback books that began with Penguin Books Limited’s introduction of a series of ten reprinted titles established a new market for publishing.

Summary of Event

The first ten titles of Penguin paperback books reached the booksellers of England in 1935. The softcover editions were reprints of works already available in hardback, and Penguin’s approach mystified skeptics. The initial selection consisted of books that had already done well in hardcover sales, including works by Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Beverly Nichols. Highlights of the series included Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929) and Andre Maurois’s Ariel: Ou, La Vie de Shelley (1923; Ariel: Or, The Life of Shelley, 1924). [kw]Penguin Develops a Line of Paperback Books (1935)
[kw]Paperback Books, Penguin Develops a Line of (1935)
[kw]Books, Penguin Develops a Line of Paperback (1935)
Penguin Books
Books, paperback
Paperback books
[g]England;1935: Penguin Develops a Line of Paperback Books[08800]
[c]Publishing and journalism;1935: Penguin Develops a Line of Paperback Books[08800]
[c]Literature;1935: Penguin Develops a Line of Paperback Books[08800]
[c]Trade and commerce;1935: Penguin Develops a Line of Paperback Books[08800]
Lane, Allen
Williams, Sir William Emrys

The books went on sale for sixpence, one-fifteenth of the price of a hardback novel. Allen Lane, who had started Penguin after a short career with publisher Bodley Head, saw his mission as providing mass access to affordable books of good taste. He was determined to offer nothing that was trite, salacious, or sadistic. For one of these books to break even at the low price, fifteen to twenty thousand copies—a huge number at the time—of each book had to be sold. Critics were puzzled. They thought that people who already bought books would spurn the softcovers, which would quickly perish, and people who were accustomed to using public libraries would not start buying their own copies. Moreover, the existing hardback market would be undercut by the success of paperbacks; surely, critics argued, publishers would not grant reprint rights. Advance orders of seven thousand per volume did not dispel the doubts.

The first ten Penguin releases were an instant success, and over a period of eighteen months other titles were added. A total of nearly one hundred titles consisted primarily of fiction but also included some biography and travel. The first Penguins were given a distinctive look: Each had the Penguin emblem and bands of white and color—orange for general fiction, green for detective novels, and blue for biographies. The covers were plain but instantly recognizable. Lane eschewed using pictorial covers as an allure. The interior of each book was, however, carefully planned by the Penguin typographical department, which worked in the company’s makeshift headquarters in an old church crypt in North London. Outside commercial printers were in charge of production.

Marketing the books to booksellers was a challenge, as it took twelve softcover sales to make the same profit as one hardback sale. Booksellers could not devote that much extra shelf space, and so they had to depend on rapid turnaround. Many booksellers believed that people who loved books would not buy the Penguin editions, especially because the first issues (unlike later ones) were flimsy, would not stay straight on a shelf, and were easily marred.

The booksellers were soon convinced, however, by Penguin’s early success. Other outlets, such as department stores and chain stores, also sold Penguins. Lane devoted his personal attention to both large and small sellers. Because the first Penguin paperbacks were reprints, relations with other publishing houses were crucial. Hardback publishers feared that softcover sales would erode hardback sales, but it soon became apparent that the paperbacks created a new market, and before long every major publisher in Great Britain had granted reprint rights for one of its works to Penguin. Publishers were quickly won over, as were authors. The extra sales from paperback editions gave authors exposure to a wider market, and the attention increased the prospects of selling future works. If hardback sales were dropping and further printings could not be justified, a Penguin edition offered hope of a second lease on life. The success of the original ten Penguin books disproved the skeptics and began a project of bringing good books to the masses at low prices. In eighteen months, the gathering successes of a hundred reprint titles whose sales did not damage existing trade in hardbacks had established a whole new market of readers.


The significance of the first Penguins was not immediately evident. Cheap reprints were not without precedent: Several series of reading matter for travelers had been offered at railway stations beginning in the nineteenth century. These books were usually fiction of nonenduring interest. Modestly priced hardback reprints of major works had also been offered as parts of various series, including the Everyman’s Library, which began in London in 1906.

Allen Lane’s initial vision was based on his understanding that there might be a market for softcover books for serious readers who liked to read but were not concerned with collecting books. The railway-stall works, in comparison, were essentially an appendage to the magazine market. Eighteen months after the first Penguin titles were released, Lane clarified Penguin’s niche: The group would focus on inexpensive editions of nonfiction works. Publication of these books reflected an idea more akin to the Everyman concept and established the position of Penguin as a popular educator. Penguin offered not only good fiction but also a range of nonfiction written by experts for nonspecialists.

In 1937, when a hundred novels already had been issued as Penguin reprints, the publisher made its educational purpose explicit by publishing its first nonfiction titles, called Pelicans. The first title was The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism (1928), by George Bernard Shaw, who added some new material for the reprint. Other early Pelicans were works by Julian Huxley, Roger Fry, Arnold Bennett, and Sigmund Freud. These works, like the novels, cost sixpence, and all were unabridged.

In the same year, the Penguin company made the natural extension of commissioning its own works. Against a background of crisis in Europe, the new works, called Penguin Specials, focused on current affairs. These included Searchlight on Spain (1938), by the Duchess of Atholl; The Jewish Problem (1938), by Louis Golding; Europe and the Czechs (1938), by Sheila Grant Duff; and Mussolini’s Roman Empire (1938), by G. T. Garratt. These works helped Penguin transition from being solely a reprint house to being a publisher of new works. Remarkably, this was achieved without any competitive response from other publishers, whose own sales had so far not been affected by the arrival of Penguin. The publishing of new works put Penguin in direct competition with other houses, but the others did not respond by issuing their own softcover series or by becoming alarmed about losing authors to Penguin.

The Penguin Specials had an enormous impact. Some of these books sold a quarter of a million copies, and the unprecedented achievement of selling a large volume of serious books gave a mass of people a deep understanding of the questions of the day. In an era of immense turmoil, when fascist, communist, and democratic philosophies actively challenged each other, Penguin books were vitally important resources for promoting and informing widespread discussion. The Penguin Specials’ success permitted Penguin to continue its mission during World War II. Paper was rationed on the basis of sales in the years prior to the war, so Penguin was allowed a far greater ration than it would have had without them.

During the war, Penguin introduced several other series, largely fulfilling its mission to publish more works of literature than any other company. King Penguins were a series of illustrated books. Puffin Picture Books were produced especially for children, and their treatments of various subjects found approval with educators. Penguin Modern Painters, a series edited by Sir Kenneth Clark, was also issued during the war. The series of Penguin Classics, with translations of Homer and other illustrious ancient writers, cemented Penguin’s reputation as the publisher most concerned with educating the public. No other company had a comparable range of subjects in print.

Booksellers who were originally doubtful about the desirability of stocking paperbacks were soon persuaded. Company salespeople from Penguin maintained regular contact through personal visits, sometimes taking orders at the shops, and developed a sensitive awareness of the kinds of works that sold well in different districts. Every month, Penguin prepared a list of books in production, and this list was sent out each month with an order form. The full catalogue was sent with it, and an in-house magazine was occasionally issued.

From the start, the company was run on modest means. Unlike most other publishers, Penguin put out virtually no advertisements in the press for its books; such advertisements were simply too expensive. The press was important to the company, however, in that it often reviewed Penguin’s publications. Meanwhile, Penguin pioneered its own kind of promotional initiative, called the Penguin Exhibitions. The first exhibitions were parts of other events, such as conferences of educators, but they became events in their own right. Other publishers were welcome to exhibit at these events, which were held in several British cities.

Penguin’s mission to publish only books of merit and good taste was safeguarded by the long-serving editor Sir William Emrys Williams. Williams was a literary scholar and a good complement to founder Allen Lane, who was passionately interested in publishing but was not a reader. As chief editor and director, Williams brought distinguished people to the company as series editors and advisers in specific fields. Penguin was careful to place a higher priority on taste than on popular appeal, and this tendency was evidenced in the widespread adoption of Penguins in adult education courses.

Penguins changed both the publishing industry and the reading habits of entire sections of the population, but their competitors were slow to respond. In Great Britain, it was not until the late 1950’s that other companies, such as Hutchinson and Methuen, started series of books with features similar to Penguin’s. In the 1960’s, the Open University began producing all of its printed curriculum materials in paperback. Gradually, publishers in many countries began to routinely issue softcover editions of academic books, and they sometimes did so at the same time as the hardback edition was released. Penguin Books
Books, paperback
Paperback books

Further Reading

  • Baines, Phil. Penguin by Design. New York: Allen Lane, 2005. A retrospective look at Penguin’s covers and the general development of the British publishing industry. Heavily illustrated.
  • Barnes, James. “British and American Booktrade, 1819-1939.” In Economics of the British Booktrade 1605-1939, edited by Robin Myers and Michael Harris. Alexandria, Va.: Chadwyck-Healey, 1985. A study in economic history. The author charts changes and trends in the book trade, with particular reference to mass markets. Includes American developments such as the dime novels and the impact of Book-of-the-Month Club and the Literary Guild.
  • Hoggart, Richard. An English Temper: Essays on Education, Culture, and Communications. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. Written by a distinguished scholar of literacy who worked in adult education, this volume includes “Allen Lane and Penguin,” which explains the educational significance of the Penguin nonfiction books in offering to the layperson specialized subject matter that is readable but not pedantic.
  • Lupoff, Richard A. The Great American Paperback: An Illustrated Tribute to the Legends of the Book. Portland, Oreg.: Collectors Press, 2001. A more general history of paperback books that focuses more on their seamy side. Valuable for understanding the degree to which Penguin broadened the notion of the paperback book and its readership.
  • Schmoller, H. “The Paperback Revolution.” In Essays in the History of Publishing in Celebration of the 250th Anniversary of the House of Longman, 1724-1974, edited by Asa Briggs. London: Longmans, 1974. A short account of paperbacks in the publishing industry.
  • Williams, William E. Allen Lane: A Personal Portrait. London: Bodley Head, 1973. A work by a literary critic who worked for many years in association with the Penguin company as editor and adviser. Offers insights from a personal acquaintance of Penguin founder Sir Allen Lane.
  • _______. The Penguin Story. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1956. An anniversary book for Penguin’s twenty-first year. A well-written but terse account of the success of Penguin not only in fiction but in specialized nonfiction in various fields of knowledge. Much of the information is incorporated in Williams’s 1973 book cited above.

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