The birth of Penguin
Penguin and Random House officially united on 1st July 2013 to create Penguin Random House, the world’s first truly global trade book publisher… but when did it all start? And how did books become available to the masses – something we take for granted nowadays?
Before July 30th 1935, the majority of good books were highly expensive and low in number while bookshops were few and far between. Readers’ other option was to buy cheap texts, poorly bound, fragile and generally of no literary note.
But, on the way home after spending the weekend at Agatha Christie’s country estate, Allen Lane came up with a simple, yet powerful idea: That good quality contemporary fiction should be made available at an affordable price and sold in as many places as possible, including in railway stations, tobacconists and chain stores.
Lane never thought that he would make a huge business out of the concept, believing the margins too low to run a highly profitable business, but it soon proved to be a huge success. In its first year, Penguin sold 3 million paperbacks in a country of 38 million.
During WWII, Penguin produced vital titles like ‘Keeping Poultry and Rabbits on Scraps’ and ‘Aircraft Recognition’, which helped those at home survive through such a tough time.
Paper rationing, however, made it difficult for most publishers, although Penguin managed to score a deal with the Canadian Government to publish books for their soldiers, for which they were paid with paper.
They were then able to monopolise much of the British Armed Forces market, securing crucial paper supplies in deals with the government that gave it a huge audience.
When the war finally drew to a close, the now-beloved Penguin Classics line was launched with ‘Homer’s Odyssey’. Then the 1960s saw the uncensored release of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’, which sold millions and created a huge amount of publicity for the publisher.
But by the end of the decade, Penguin was struggling to remain in business and started to look for a corporate buy-out. On the 7th of July 1970, Sir Allen Lane passed away and, a month and a half later, Pearson PLC bought the company.
Despite new management and several ups and downs, Lane’s idea of affordable books has grown and grown, with Penguin still one of the largest book publishers in the world.
Written by Sebastian Moss. This post was edited from that on Listening Books Medium.