Penguin Books is a British publishing house. It was founded in 1935 by Sir Allen Lane as a line of the publishers The Bodley Head, only becoming a separate company the following year. Penguin revolutionised publishing in the 1930s through its inexpensive paperbacks, sold through Woolworths and other high street stores for sixpence, bringing high-quality paperback fiction and non-fiction to the mass market. Penguin’s success demonstrated that large audiences existed for serious books. Penguin also had a significant impact on public debate in Britain, through its books on British culture, politics, the arts, and science.
Penguin Books is now an imprint of the worldwide Penguin Random House, an emerging conglomerate which was formed in 2013 by the merger of the two publishers. Formerly, Penguin Group was wholly owned by Pearson PLC, the global media company which also owned the Financial Times, but it now retains only a minority holding of 47% of the stock against Random House owner Bertelsmann which controls the majority stake. It is one of the largest English-language publishers, formerly known as the „Big Six”, now the „Big Five”.
The plaque marking the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Penguin Books by Allen Lane at 8 Vigo Street.
The first Penguin paperbacks were published in 1935, but at first only as an imprint of The Bodley Head (of Vigo Street) with the books originally distributed from the crypt of Holy Trinity Church Marylebone. Only paperback editions were published until the „King Penguin” series debuted in 1939, and latterly the Pelican History of Art was undertaken: these were unsuitable as paperbacks because of the length and copious illustrations on art paper so cloth bindings were chosen instead. Penguin Books has its registered office in the City of Westminster, London, England.
Anecdotally, Lane recounted how it was his experience with the poor quality of reading material on offer at Exeter train station that inspired him to create cheap, well designed quality books for the mass market. However the question of how publishers could reach a larger public had been the subject of a conference at Rippon Hall, Oxford in 1934 at which Lane had been an attendee. Though the publication of literature in paperback was then associated mainly with poor quality lurid fiction, the Penguin brand owed something to the short-lived Albatross imprint of British and American reprints that briefly traded in 1932. Inexpensive paperbacks did not initially appear viable to Bodley Head, since the deliberately low price of 6d. made profitability seem unlikely. This helped Allen Lane purchase publication rights for some works more cheaply than he otherwise might have done since other publishers were convinced of the short term prospects of the business. In the face of resistance from the traditional book trade it was the purchase of 63,000 books by Woolworth that paid for the project outright, confirmed its worth and allowed Lane to establish Penguin as a separate business in 1936. By March 1936, ten months after the company’s launch on 30 July 1935, one million Penguin books had been printed. This early flush of success brought expansion and the appointment of Eunice Frost, first as a secretary then as editor and ultimately as a director, who was to have a pivotal influence in shaping the company. It was Frost who in 1945 was entrusted with the reconstruction of Penguin Inc after the departure of its first managing director Ian Ballantine. Penguin Inc had been incorporated in 1939 in order to satisfy US copyright law, and had enjoyed some success under its vice president Kurt Enoch with such titles as What Plane Is That and The New Soldier Handbook despite being a late entrant into an already well established paperback market.
From the outset, design was essential to the success of the Penguin brand. Avoiding the illustrated gaudiness of other paperback publishers, Penguin opted for the simple appearance of three horizontal bands, the upper and lower of which were colour-coded according to which series the title belonged to; this is sometimes referred to as the horizontal grid. In the central white panel, the author and title were printed in Gill Sans and in the upper band was a cartouche with the legend „Penguin Books”. The initial design was created by the then 21-year-old office junior Edward Young, who also drew the first version of the Penguin logo. Series such as Penguin Specials and The Penguin Shakespeare had individual designs (by 1937 only S1 and B1-B18 had been published).
The colour schemes included: orange and white for general fiction, green and white for crime fiction, cerise and white for travel and adventure, dark blue and white for biographies, yellow and white for miscellaneous, red and white for drama; and the rarer purple and white for essays and belles lettres and grey and white for world affairs. Lane actively resisted the introduction of cover images for several years. Some recent publications of literature from that time have duplicated the original look.
From 1937 and on, the headquarters of Penguin Books was at Harmondsworth west of London and so it remained until the 1990s when a merge with Viking involved the head office moving to London.