THE HISTORY OF PENGUIN BOOKS
THIS PAGE: No. 2
4. THE GROWTH OF PENGUIN BOOKS
Allen Lane was sure there was demand from a reading public. As Penguins became well known, a best seller might reach 250-350,000 copies. He had taken a gamble, and with his vision to create a brand and produce good books cheaply, he was set to do well. But fiction was not enough. He had a voracious appetite for ideas, questioned others assiduously, and gathered advisors and potential editors around him.
Early on he decided he would publish the works of Shakespeare. He recruited G. B. Harrison as editor and on 23rd April 1937, (Shakespeare's birthday) launched his new series with six titles, the first being 'Twelfth Night'. Again the books were designed by Edward Young, with red covers and dust jackets, and a woodcut by Robert Gibbings. Young changed the typeface to Times Roman, harder wearing and more amenable to moving print, and setting standards for other Penguin books. Harrison wrote the introduction, detailed notes and glossary for each book, publishing 18 titles in the first year. The series, with the prefix letter 'B', sold over 1½ million copies in 20 years. Allen Lane had created a market, producing standard texts for the classroom.
However, he had been planning the hatching of Series 'A', perhaps the most prestigious and influential publication Penguins would ever create. He was already in discussions with his advisers when, late in 1936, he was waiting at a bookstall in St Pancras station. He overhead a woman asking "Have you got any Pelican Books?" Allen knew there wasn't such a series, she actually meant 'Penguin'. He realized if somebody else used the name 'Pelican' it would destroy an opportunity. He consulted his lawyers, and they told him that the only way to protect a name was to use it.
He went back to his advisers who suggested a parallel series of books on a wide range of intellectual interests. Allen immediately supported the idea. He and they shared reforming ideals - providing education to, and opportunity for, the working classes, and to provide good reading for this mass market. Maybe, until this point his primary aim had been more mercenary - but now, with the confidence from success, he showed a different side.
Allen Lane was astute and knew he needed a publicity coup to launch the series. Bernard Shaw was invited to be Pelican's first author. He offered to write two new chapters on Sovietism and Fascism for his existing work The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism. Up to that point, Penguins had only published reprints. Gradually, Pelican would commission many 'Originals'
Pelicans were launched a month later, on 21 May 1937. Allen Lane said:
"The really amazing thing, the extraordinary eye-opener that surprised the most optimistic of us, was the immediate and overwhelming success of the Pelicans. Who would have imagined that, even at 6d., there was a thirsty public anxious to buy thousands of copies of books on science, sociology, economics, archaeology, astronomy, and other equally serious subjects. There was no pandering to an imagined 'popular taste' in the selection of Pelican books; it was all very serious stuff, much of it heavy going."
Margaret Cole, a Fabian, writing in the Times Literary Supplement said that Penguins had created new readers, and that book-buying had been blighted by poverty and snobbery. Book owning should cease to be the preserve of a small class. What Allen Lane had hit upon was a new market of the disenfranchised.
The Spectator described Pelicans as "of enormous importance in the struggle to overcome economic restrictions to knowledge". Pelicans as an institution had arrived, supporting the widespread growth of adult education by, for example, the Workers Education Association and Women's Institutes.
Allen developed relationships with many well known authors, printing their books - later sometimes in batches of 10 volumes, each with 100,000 copies - thus Penguin might issue a million books for one author. Penguin did this with Agatha Christie, G. B. Shaw, D.H. Lawrence, H.G. Wells and others. There were well know authors who had their books published in Pelican. Élie Halévy, Julian Huxley, James Jeans, Clive Bell and Arnold Bennett.
5. GROWING THE BUSINESS - PENGUIN SPECIALS
If Pelican was Allen's most missionary of enterprises, he still had energy in 1937 for another spectacular creation. Politics in the world was hotting up, and dictators were becoming ever more powerful and threatening. Lane believed that publications on current affairs would serve the public well as they clamoured for explanations. The 'Specials' were launched in November 1937.
Lane certainly had the knack of knowing what was required and what would sell. But he also wanted to improve the world. The paperback revolution came not only from innovation but his skill in aligning profit with public interest.
The Specials covered international affairs - the first entitled "Germany Puts the Clock Back" sold out its 50,000 print run in the first week. There were titles on Hitler and Germany, Mussolini, Spain and Czechoslovakia. Specials caught on and many sold a quarter of a million within a few weeks. He could also produce a book from receiving copy to being on shelves within 2 weeks!
By the time war was declared in September 1939, Penguin had been in business for just over 4 years. In that time they published 350 titles, with sales of over 28½ million books.
The massive sales of Penguins, Pelicans and Specials had another benefit. When wartime paper rationing was introduced it was based on current consumption. This enabled Penguin not only to carry on, but launch new ventures.
Soon after Allen Lane and his brothers started up their own business space became a problem. While Allen still worked from his own office at The Bodley Head in Vigo Street, they needed somewhere to receive the printed books from the printers and package them up for transport to the retailers. In 1936 they acquired the crypt of the Holy Trinity Church in Marylebone Road, and ran their operation from underneath the church. This functioned as the warehouse for Penguin Books for the next 18 months and was their warehouse, distribution centre and accounts department for the first 10 million books. Eventually even that space became insufficient. Additionally, conditions amongst the vaults were difficult, unsafe and noise had to be kept down during services. When conditions were condemned by the local council Allen Lane seized the opportunity to bring together his office staff with those from the Crypt and improve conditions.
As the business grew it was decided to move out of London and to build the offices they needed and the warehouse space all on one site. He found a 3½ acre site at Harmondsworth (close to what would become Heathrow Airport), 15 miles west of London. Allen bought it from the farmer for £2,000 (for the land) and a further £200 for the farmer's crop of cabbages on it, which also had to be sold, and work began in August 1937. The new site had to handle 140,000 books a week.
In 1937 he also launched Penguin Parade with literature from contemporary authors, in 1938 Penguin Illustrated Classics and in 1939 Penguin Guides (though the war prevented further publication of these).
Another of his prestigious publications, aimed at the general liking for illustrated keepsakes, was his King Penguin series, launched in 1939. With its designed hardcovers, monograph and illustrated plates, it was directly inspired by and emulated the Insel-Verlag series published in Germany. These 'illustrated keepsakes' are still collected today
In addition to introducing colour prints, a series on Modern Painters; 6 books of Hansards; an influential series of Penguin New Writing, edited by John Lehmann; Allen began the Puffin Picture Book series in 1940 to educate and entertain children, and started the Puffin Story Book series in 1941 with Worzel Gummidge. That series continues today.
As costs rose, Lane strove to keep the basic price at 6d. By 1937 the cost of paper had risen 50%. Eventually dust covers went, the paper became thinner, the print size reduced, the margins cut, stapling was used in binding, and he also turned to advertising to supplement income. He began in 1937, and in 1944 generated over £19,000. Despite this, in 1942 he had to increase the basic price to 9d.
Allen Lane also wanted to support the war effort by making books available to servicemen and women wherever they served and also to prisoners of war through two schemes - the Forces Book Club and the Prisoner of War Book Service - for obvious reasons few of these books remain.
During the war years, another series was being planned, which would prove as popular and prestigious as the Pelicans and Specials. Allen Lane had met E.V. Rieu, who translated Homer's Odyssey for his family during the blitz. Allen Lane liked it and asked him to edit a series. In January 1946 the Classics were born.
The series was an immediate hit, and Rieu's own first translation, The Odyssey became Penguin's best selling book with over 3 million copies sold before it was eclipsed by Lady Chatterley. The Classics' traditional covers were finally replaced by what became known as the 'Black Classics', because of their black background. (Nowadays 20,000 Classics are sold world-wide each day. And Penguin produced a special edition of 'Little Black Classics' to mark the company's 80th Birthday.)
Penguin have produced many series: Reference Books, Handbooks, Music Scores, Buildings of England, Poets, Plays - the list seems endless. A success story!
7. LADY CHATTERLEY
But in November 1959 Allen Lane risked the reputation of his company and gambled on what he had spent 25 years making. He decided to publish an unexpurgated edition of Lady Chatterley's Lover as part of a number of Lawrence's books to mark the 30th Anniversary of the author's death. Penguin had already published a set of ten novels by D. H. Lawrence in March 1950, one of its famous 'million books', and 13 altogether, and wanted to mark this anniversary with a further seven, including Lady Chatterley's Lover. Although Lane was aware that he was taking a risk, the new Obscene Publications Act of 1959 had changed the balance in terms of judging the whole book instead of individual parts, and he noted that prosecution had been dropped in the US.
The initial print order was placed with Hazell, Watson and Viney but they wrote back on 1st April 1960 that they could not proceed with printing the unexpurgated version. Allen eventually found Western Printing Services willing to produce the book, providing they were indemnified, and 200,000 copies were ordered. However the change of printers caused delays and Penguin had to inform the trade press. This caught the attention of the Director of Public Prosecutions who, supplied with a copy of an unexpurgated version printed abroad, instructed the police to investigate.
On 4th August, Lane was visited by a Detective Inspector, with a marked-up proof copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover printed by Hazells. It was agreed that Penguin would hand over to the Police 12 proof copies, which they did from their offices in Holborn on 16th August 1960.
A Summons was issued on the 19th of August charging Penguin with publishing an Obscene Book. The Trial at the Old Bailey began on 20 October, and on Wednesday 2nd November a verdict of 'Not Guilty' was brought in. With 35 eminent witnesses for the defence, none for the prosecution, and the jury asked whether this was "a book you would wish your servants to read?" the outcome was not a complete surprise.
Hazells and Cox and Wyman produced additional copies. Penguin Books sold 2 million copies by Christmas, and a further 1.3 million in 1961. Lane was willing to stake his company on a point of principle rather than profit and, without him, the unexpurgated version would not have been published in Britain. As a consequence of the trial, what we are allowed to publish today may be different from what might have been, had Allen Lane backed off in 1960.
Allen enjoyed his victory by commissioning an account of the trial which he published as a Penguin Special on 2nd February 1961. He had sometimes sent his friends a private edition book at Christmas. Some of them must have felt they were off his list when a book did not drop on their mats at the end of 1960. After the account of the trial was published, he ordered a limited edition in hardback, to which an account of the debate in the House of Lords was added, and he signed each copy.
Because the requirement for capital and liquidity due to the company's growth, Allen took the decision to float his company and in 1961 Penguin Books became a public company. The share offer was oversubscribed 150 times. Because of the trial, the shares were known as 'Chatterleys'. It made Lane a millionaire.
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