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In 1935, if you wanted to read a good book, you needed either a lot of money or a library card. Cheap paperbacks were available, but their production (and content) were at best poor.

The story goes that Allen Lane, then a director of the publishing house The Bodley Head, was waiting for a train at Exeter station following a weekend visit to the nearby home of Agatha Christie. Looking for something to read on the journey back to London he was appalled at the selection on offer at the station bookstall and resolved there and then to find a way to make good quality contemporary fiction available at an attractive price in bookshops, railway stations, tobacconists and chain stores.

Lane’s secretary suggested the name Penguin and this fitted well with the desire for a flippant but dignified logo. Nowadays Penguin is one of the most recognisable brands in the world so it was a good suggestion.

The first titles included works by Ernest Hemingway, André Maurois and Agatha Christie. They were colour coded (orange for fiction, blue for biography, green for crime) and cost just sixpence, the same price as a packet of cigarettes. The way the public thought about books changed forever – the paperback revolution had begun.

Initially the Penguin books were an imprint of the Bodley Head and Penguin did not become a separate company until 1936 when it set up in the crypt of the Holy Trinity Church on Marylebone Road, London. Such was the success of the venture than within a year Penguin moved to offices and a warehouse at Harmondsworth, near the future Heathrow Airport, and began to expand it publishing activities.

Speaking in The Bookseller shortly before the first titles were issued Lane said:

“I would be the first to admit that there is no fortune in this series for anyone concerned, but if my premises are correct and these Penguins are the means of converting book-borrowers into book-buyers, I shall feel that I have perhaps added some small quota to the sum of those who during the last few years have worked for the popularization of the book-shop and the increased sale of books”.
 

Well he got the bit about there being no fortune in the series a bit wrong! Today Penguin Books is a division of the world-wide Viking-Penguin Group and is owned by Pearson PLC. It is the major publisher in Britain, Australia and India and one of the largest in the USA/Canadian market.

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