Penguins Books in the Beginning

The First Penguins…


Penguin books have been with us now for 80 years. The very name Penguin is synonymous with paperback books for many people, but the truth is that books had been issued in paper or card covers for many centuries before the advent of Penguins. The key differences that made Penguin the iconic publishing success that it has become was due to a concordance of events. The main factors were that the English book trade and reading public were both ready for the advent of cheap reprints of quality books. 
The three brothers who founded Penguin, Allen, Richard and John Lane recognised that they could make money from well-made reprints of quality books at an affordable price, if they …
  • chose the titles well,
  • produced an attractive, quality book, 
  • could establish a recognisable and empathetic brand
  • devise an effective marketing strategy and
  • could print, sell enough of the books at a cheap price.

The Lane Brothers

The three Lane brothers had all been born with the family name Williams, the sons of Samuel Williams and Camilla Lane, who was a cousin of the well known London publisher John Lane senior, the managing partner of The Bodley Head, a famous literary imprint from  the 1880s  until the first world war. 

John Lane senior had married late in life and had no children; in 1919, he therefore invited his eldest ‘nephew’, Allen Williams, then aged 16, to join the Bodley Head, on the proviso that he changed his name to Lane. Consequently, the whole Williams family changed their name to Williams-Lane in April 1919. Allan Lane was invited to join the board of The Bodley Head in 1924, and following the death of John Lane senior in 1925, he gradually took control of the company.The two younger Williams-Lane brothers also eventually joined The Bodley Head,with Allen Lane seeing himself as very much the senior partner.
By 1934, The Bodley Head was clearly failing as a business and was in a decline that the three Lane brothers recognised. They needed to do something to revive its fortunes.In September 1934,Allan Lane attended a conference convened by the renowned bookseller Basil Blackwell and publisher Stanley Unwin on the topic of “The New Reading Public”. All of the book trade present recognised that there was a new reading public in Britain that was looking for quality reading at a cheap price, and that the book trade was failing to serve those new readers. 


Richard Lane was apparently independently of the opinion that the publishing house needed to move to either high end expensive limited edition publishing, or to cheaper mass market publishing, or both; he thought that the middle of the road-middle of the market approach of most publishing houses was unsustainable.

The brothers had been aware of the successful Albatross imprint of paperback books, printed in English, that had been established in Hamburg in Germany in 1932 by an Englishman, John Holroyd-Reece, and two Germans, Kurt Enoch and Max Wegner.





Albatross title #239

The Albatross books were for sale to English language readers in continental Europe, and were designed to be attractive, partly due to their meeting the ‘Golden Mean’ ratio defined by Leonado da Vinci, (they measured  181 x 111 mm), were colour-coded for content (green for travel, red for crime, orange for fiction, etc) and were sold in covers designed with a logo and typography but no lurid pictures. The name Albatross was chosen because it was the same word in several European languages.


After much discussion, the Lane brothers, together with a few of their Bodley Head staff, came up with the idea of Penguin books, learning and borrowing much from the Albatross imprint. They copied the use of colour coding, plain typography and an avian logo on the cover of the books, rather than the American practice of using lurid coloured pictures on the covers; “Breast-sellers” was Allan Lane’s term for them.


They decided that they would choose an appealing bird or animal’s name as their brand and logo. It has been reported that the short list was ‘Dolphin’, ‘Porpoise’ or ‘Penguin’, although as ‘The Dolphin Books‘ already existed as an imprint of Chatto and Windus, this might not be correct.


The Beginnings of Penguin Books

It is also not clear precisely who came up with the choice of ‘Penguin’ as the imprint title; some say that it was Allan Lane’s secretary. It is clear that one of the staff, Edward Young, who was to become the first production manager at Penguin Books, was dispatched to London Zoo in Regents Park to sketch the penguins in their relatively new enclosure and to come up with a logo. On his return, he apparently said the penguins were rather smelly.

Edward Young’s Penguin logo designs

The price per book was able to be held at 6d from 1935 until early 1942, when in the face of vastly increased paper costs due to the war, the price was raised to 9d, despite the offsetting introduction of paid advertisements in the endpapers in 1937. By 1956, the production costs had risen to 10d per book, and the asking retail price was 2/6 (12.5 pence in current British money).

Edward Young also designed the distinctive tri-colour bands that was the emblematic look for Penguin books for their first fifteen years. A colour coding scheme, based on that of Albatross was also adopted (orange for fiction, green for crime, blue for biography, cerise for travel, red for plays, grey for world affairs, yellow for miscellaneous, and violet for essays and ‘belles lettres’. The books were also numbered at the base of the spine and, until the paper rationing of world war two began to bite, they each were issued in a paper dust wrapper.
According to Stuart Kells in his book “Penguin and the Lane Brothers, 2015”, Richard Lane did the arithmetic that made what we would now call the business case. Richard came up with a formula that worked at a royalty of one farthing per copy to the copyright holder. With an initial print run of 20,000 copies, the enterprise could break even at 17,000 copies sold at 6d., assuming the production and distribution costs remained stable at about 2 1/2 d. With the book retailer getting 2d per book, Penguin books would receive just over 1d per book sold. Further impressions (reprints) of each book would yield greater profits, because much of the cost of production had been covered by the first 17,000 copies. 


Jeremy Lewis in his “Penguin Special”, suggested that much the same arithmetic had been presented to Edward Young and Allen Lane in 1933 or 1934 by two Bodley Head employees, Stan Olney and H A W Arnold, both of whom Allen Lane took into Penguin Books.

With a financial plan in place, the enterprise was launched with 200,000 books (20,000 copies each printed of ten titles) for launch at the Bank Holiday weekend that fell on 30th July 1935. Initially, it seemed that they were rather under-sold to the normal book retail trade, with orders for only 70,000 books, until Woolworths stepped in very late with an order for around 63,500 copies. In the event, the launch was a great success, with some of the titles going through several reprints within a few weeks. 


The first ten Penguins were 6 orange novels, two green crime books (a Dorothy Sayers and an Agatha Christie) and 2 blue biographies. The original Agatha Christie title “The Mysterious Affair at Styles“, had to be replaced by “Murder on the Links” due to a misunderstanding over copyright ownership.

Ariel was Penguin #1. The English copyright was already conveniently held by The Bodley Head. The copyright of six of the ten first Penguins was held by the publisher Jonathan Cape, a good friend of Allen Lane. He is famously quoted by his biographer Michael S Howard as saying that he was certain that the Penguin venture would fail, and so thought that he would take 400 pounds from Allan Lane for the copyrights, before Penguin was declared to be  bankrupt.



This is the 1925 Bodley Head illustrated edition of Ariel


The success of the launch of the first 10 Penguins in July 1935 was followed up by the successful publication of a further 10 titles in October 1935; they were 9 orange novels and one green crime book, Dashiel Hammett’s The Thin Man, as Penguin #14.
It wasn’t until 1st January 1936 that Penguin Books Limited was formed, closely followed on 13th January 1936 by the release of Penguins 21-30 (eight orange novels and one two-volume blue autobiography of Margot Asquith as Penguins #29 and #30.)

On the 24th January 1936 it was announced that the millionth Penguin book had been sold, due to the rapid reprinting of the most popular titles. The least popular titles (4,6,7,8,9 &10) from the first ten were cut from the Penguin list on 30th January 1936. As the enterprise grew, this ruthless discipline of managing the in-house stock was not able to be maintained. On the first anniversary of the launching of Penguin books on 30th July 1936, Allan Lane announced that they had sold three million books in 12 months. 


In that same year of 1936, the Lane brothers resigned from The Bodley Head  to ensure that the success of Penguin books was not dragged down by the failure of the old publishing house. Henceforth the words ‘The Bodley Head’ would no longer appear on Penguins. By 1937, the Bodley Head had been placed into receivership, although it was eventually bought out of receivership by a consortium of publishers, led by Sir Stanley Unwin, who opposed the Lane brothers Penguin books venture.



The Growing Success of Penguins

By the end of 1936, there were 70 titles in the Penguin stable. By the end of 1937 this had become 120 titles and by the end of 1938, there were now a total of 180 Penguin titles. 1937 had also seen the first appearance of the Penguin Shakespeare (B series) in April, the Pelican imprint (A series) in May and the and Penguin Special imprint (S series) in November of that year.
The main series of Penguins were still published in groups of 10, the six groups of ten books published in 1938 being released in January, April, July, August, September and November. In most months, a mixture of genres were published, usually with the orange fiction titles predominating, but all the ten Penguins published in August 1938 were green crime books.
The Penguin brand was well established by the beginning of the Second World War in 1939. This allowed the three brothers to expand the business greatly during the war years, partly due to the huge success of the very topical Penguin Specials, first introduced in November 1937, which often were produced in large initial print runs, before rapidly going into further re-printings.


For instance, the first Penguin Special, “Germany Puts the Clock Back” by Edgar Mowrer, had been originally published in hardback in 1933. Penguin commissioned Mowrer to write a new chapter to update the book. They then printed 50,000 copies which were all sold within one week. Multiple reprints quickly followed. Other Specials were equally spectacular in their sales.

Penguin also benefited from the establishment of the Forces Book Club, which led to a huge subsidy for the company, and also increased their reach to the reading public. Fortuitously, the standard Penguin book fitted neatly into one of the battledress uniform pockets, which was now being worn by millions of British people. By the end of the war in 1945, Penguin was synonymous with paperback publishing in the UK and the commonwealth. Sadly, the three Lane brothers were reduced to two by the war, following the loss of Lt. Commander John Lane, RNVR, with the sinking of HMS Avenger off North Africa in November 1942.


Penguin 1000

Within ten years of the end of the war, the 1000th Penguin title was published. Fittingly, this was the account of the war experiences of the designer of the first Penguin covers and logo, Edward Young, who had been a RNVR submarine commander in the war. He did not rejoin Penguin after the war; instead he became the production manager for the very prestigious but much less commercial publisher, Rupert Hart-Davis.

This is Penguin 1000, published on 30 July 1954, and written by Edward Young. In nearly 20 years, the price of Penguins has risen from the initial 6d to 2/6 (two shillings and six pence). Note the laurel leaf wreath emblems and the replacement of the words “Penguin Books” by “1000” in the upper cartouche to celebrate Penguin 1000. The cover is Jan Tschichold’s re-vamped version of Edward Young’s original design.

Refreshment of the Brand

There were several revisions of the look of Penguin books. In 1947, Jan Tschichold, a highly respected Swiss typographer and designer was asked to review and refresh the  Penguin look across its whole range of books.  The revised Tschichold styles gradually appeared through the different series of books from about 1950 onwards.

Tschichold’s Penguin logo designs


Tschichold spent less than three years at Penguin books, before he returned to Switzerland. His successor at Penguin was Hans Schmoller, who stayed for more than 30 years, becoming a director of Penguin books. His main design innovation was the replacement of the three horizontal bands design of Edward Young with the ‘Vertical grid’ bounded by two vertical coloured bars. This was a refinement of an experimental design of Tschichold. The first Penguins appeared in the Vertical grid cover in  1953.


Penguin 873 front                                                   Penguin 873 back
These are the front and rear covers of T S Eliot’s ‘Selected Prose’, which was published as Penguin 873 in March 1953. It is one of the earliest uses of the new vertical grid design that had been perfected by Schmoller. It is also an early appearance of the Penguin logo that had been redrawn by Tschichold, and was to be used for most of the next thirty years.
Note that the cover is still entirely typographical in design, with the only images being the Penguin logo on the front and the back, and the author’s photograph on the back. 



Penguin 1010 1954

This is another early example of the Schmoller design change for Penguin covers. The Vertical grid design allowed for the easy placement of illustrations or comments on the front central white panel. In this case it is an elegant and amusing self-portrait by the author. The colour coding was retained in the new vertical grid, so this example is orange for the fiction series and the Eliot above is purple for “Essays and Belles Lettres”

This book was Penguin 1010, published in 1954, the same year as Penguin 1000 shown above.

Penguins were published in both the Tschichold-modified Young design and in the Schmoller vertical grid covers throughout most of the 1950s. By mid-1958, almost all of the Main Series penguins were published in the Schmoller vertical grid covers, with the exception of the green crime novels, which after a brief flirtation in 1955 with the vertical grid, remained in the Tschichold-modified Young design covers throughout the 1950s.

In 1956, Penguin flirted with pictorial covers for the first time, by commissioning Abram Games to create a redesigned Penguin grid which allowed the placement of a pictorial element. Some thirty or so books were designed under this scheme, which were published in 1957-1958. Allen Lane ended the experiment in 1958, declaring that he greatly preferred typographic book covers over pictorial ones.

October 1956 also saw the appearance of the first Penguin with a photographic cover, Penguin 1121 ‘The Cruel Sea‘. It was generally viewed as an unsuccessful experiment.

In the early 1960s, the Penguin look was upgraded again by the new Penguin Art director, Germano Facetti, who worked at Penguin from 1961 to 1972. He introduced a new approach using boldly and dramatically illustrated covers, incorporating photographic images and montages.

Penguin Books was floated on the stock market in 1961,in one of the most successful capital raising that had been seen since the war. Throughout the sixties, a range of younger editors were brought in to revitalise the company, but the over-arching outcome was one of confusion and tension.

On 30 July 2015, Penguin Books celebrated the 80th anniversary of the publication of the first Penguin.


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