Penguin at 75
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.
—Allen Lane, All About the Penguin Books
Penguin Books turns 75 today. The company began as an imprint of the Bodley Head. Legend has it that Allen Lane was returning from a visit with Agatha Christie and couldn’t find any decent books to read while waiting at the train station. Lane had taken over as head of the Head, but he was unable to convince the moneymen to take a gamble on cheap paperbacks. So convinced was he that the idea would work, he loaned the company his own money to finance the idea.
Lane struggled to secure options on the books he had in mind to launch the series. Most of his colleagues were skeptical of his hare-brained plan.
Your suggestion of the sixpenny series has led to long discussions among us here, but I am sorry to tell you that we have decided not to co-operate. To give you in full our various reasons for this decision would call for a long and boring thesis, but in general we feel that the scheme would create a bit of a rumpus in the trade if you tried to confine the series to Woolworth’s. If on the other hand you offered it o the book trade as well, and they took it up, the sale of the other editions of the titles in the series would suffer severely. Also there is the other point I mentioned when you were here. The steady cheapening of books is in my opinion a great danger in the trade at present, and I sometimes think that the booksellers have to be saved from themselves in this respect. It is they who have so constantly clamoured for us publishers to ‘meet depression with depression prices’. Yet it is this lowering of prices which is one of the chief reasons why our trade is finding it so hard to recover from the slump. And the bookseller thinks that the secret lies in his low rate of discount!
Possibly these arguments might have been over-ruled in our minds if our hopes of the possible profit accruing from the series were greater. But unless we are considerably under-estimating the sales, I can’t see that the amount available for us could be even reasonably substantial once we paid the author for his fair ratio and you yours for the inauguration and handling of the scheme.
I am so sorry to be saying no, but I can assure you that we have given the idea a very full consideration and we shall remain very grateful to you for giving us this chance of considering it.
—Harold Raymond (Chatto & Windus) to Allen Lane, November 1, 1934
I went to Jonathan, and said, ‘I want ten to start and ten to follow, and I want ten of them from yours.’ I told him which. I was offering twenty-five pounds advance on account of a royalty of a farthing a copy, payable on publication. He wrote back after a while saying, ‘You can have them for an advance of forty ponds, all payable on signature, on account of a royalty of three eighths of a penny.’ So I got them.
Years later, when the trade was not very good, I was talking to Jonathan and he said, ‘You’re the b…that has ruined the trade with your ruddy Penguins.’ I replied, ‘Well, I wouldn’t have got off to such a good start if you hadn’t helped me.’ He said, ‘I knew damn well you wouldn’t, but like everybody else in the trade I thought you were bound to go bust, and I thought I’d take four hundred quid off you before you did.’
—Quoted in Michael S. Howard, Jonathan Cape, Publisher, 1971
I know you’re curious, so here are the original ten titles.
Allen Lane championed a radical idea in 1935 and the publishing world was all the better for his pigheadedness. No doubt if he were alive today, he would be at the forefront of the next battle in publishing – eBooks. But that’s a discussion for another day.