How The Paperback Novel Changed Popular Literature
The story about the first Penguin paperbacks may be apocryphal, but it is a good one. In 1935, Allen Lane, chairman of the eminent British publishing house Bodley Head, spent a weekend in the country with Agatha Christie. Bodley Head, like many other publishers, was faring poorly during the Depression, and Lane was worrying about how to keep the business afloat. While he was in Exeter station waiting for his train back to London, he browsed shops looking for something good to read. He struck out. All he could find were trendy magazines and junky pulp fiction. And then he had a “Eureka!” moment: What if quality books were available at places like train stations and sold for reasonable prices—the price of a pack of cigarettes, say?
Lane went back to Bodley Head and proposed a new imprint to do just that. Bodley Head did not want to finance his endeavor, so Lane used his own capital. He called his new house Penguin, apparently upon the suggestion of a secretary, and sent a young colleague to the zoo to sketch the bird. He then acquired the rights to ten reprints of serious literary titles and went knocking on non-bookstore doors. When Woolworth’s placed an order for 63,500 copies, Lane realized he had a viable financial model.
Lane’s paperbacks were cheap. They cost two and a half pence, the same as ten cigarettes, the publisher touted. Volume was key to profitability; Penguin had to sell 17,000 copies of each book to break even.
The first ten Penguin titles, including The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie, A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway and The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy Sayers, were wildly successful, and after just one year in existence, Penguin had sold over three million copies.