Hit or myth: the inspiration for Penguin Books

Every successful and long-lasting venture needs a creation myth. In the case of Penguin Books, the story goes that Allen Lane was on his way home from visiting Agatha Christie in Devon and browsed the station bookstall on the platform of Exeter Station. He was struck by the absence of any serious contemporary fiction at reasonable prices, and came up with the idea that led shortly after to the launch of Penguins.

Station Bookstall at Horsted Keynes

Station Bookstall at Horsted Keynes

How much the story represents the real genesis of Penguin Books, and how much is a myth created later, we can never really know. It has an attractive plausibility. Se non è vero è ben trovato. It would gain considerably in credibility though if we knew that Lane had visited other station platforms in continental Europe in the preceding months. There he would have found a very different position, and the contrast could have been quite striking. Paperback copies of the English-language Tauchnitz Editions had been sold in station bookstalls on the continent for almost a hundred years before Lane’s trip to Devon, and had more recently been joined by the brightly coloured Albatross Books.

Certainly as a publisher Lane would have been familiar with both Tauchnitz and Albatross, and it seems clear that the Albatross Books provided much of the subsequent inspiration for Penguin Books. Similarities between the two series include, amongst other things:

• The use of a seabird as name and logo
• Brightly coloured covers, with different colours to indicate genre of book
• The size of the books (broadly 181 x 112 cm, corresponding to the ‘golden ratio’)
• The use of dustwrappers in basically the same design as the cover underneath
• Return postcards slipped into the books inviting readers to join a mailing list / suggest titles

Albatross-7-web Penguin-002-web

Some of these things may seem like coincidental similarities, shared by many other series, but they were all essentially new practices introduced by Albatross (in 1932/33), then taken up by Penguin (in 1935), and only subsequently spreading to other series. By the start of the Second World War in 1939 the ornithological theme had spread to Jackdaw Books, Toucan Books and Wren Books, as well as Penguin and Pelican, and the book format introduced by Albatross had been widely copied in the UK market. Albatross itself did not long survive the end of the war, so it was Penguin which became identified in the public mind with good contemporary fiction in brightly coloured paperbacks. But when the story is told of how Penguin Books was born, it should be remembered that an Albatross was there at the birth.

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Posted on May 11, 2014, in Travel, Vintage Paperbacks and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Thank you for a nice recap of the early days of paperbacks. North Americans tend to think the paperback world began in September, 1939 in Manhattan with the birth of Pocket Books, and it’s always nice for us to remember that Britain was there first. I wonder if the metaphor would extend to suggesting that an albatross and a penguin gave birth to — a kangaroo? 😉

    • The comparison of how paperbacks developed in the UK and the US is interesting and I’ll come back to it in a later blog. I’m sure Pocket Books would have been aware of the development of Penguin and other UK series, but they went off in a rather different direction. The attempt to sell UK style Penguins in the US was not really a success, nor was the attempt to sell US style Pocket Books in the UK a few years later.

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