The Penguin Effect

Monday January 14, 2019 Written by Luke Ryan

The following slice of literary history is brought to you by our friends at Penguin Books Australia. They love books so much they are currently giving away mountains of Popular Penguins. To go in the draw to win, head here. (Competition closes Sunday, February 10.)

SJ x penguin


The Lane brothers – Allen, Richard and John – were always close types. Living together in a tiny flat in London's Talbot Square, they shared blood, ambition and lengthy brainstorming sessions on the topic of how they were going to make their millions. It was during one of these late night sessions back in 1935 that Allen came up with an idea that would literally change the world: what if they sold great works of literature at prices that even commoners could afford?

It's hard to overstate how revolutionary a concept this was at the time. Literature was an expensive hobby, both for publishers and customers, defined by impractical leather-bound books that were the exclusive preserve of society's upper echelons. While the Lane brothers didn't quite invent the paperback itself, the form, at the time, was associated with cheap, pulpy ‘dime novels’ filled with historical revisionism and gaudy melodrama. With their newly formed Penguin Paperbacks outfit, Allen, Richard and John added a veneer of literary respectability (and design genius) that helped popularise the novel like never before. In 1936, Penguin made its publishing debut with a run of 10 modern classics, taking in works by luminaries such as Ernest Hemingway, Eric Linklater and Agatha Christie. Within four days, more than 150,000 copies had been sold. A year later, the figure had surpassed three million.

To say the company's growth was explosive would be an understatement. To keep things moving while also keeping costs low, they hired a small army of publishing assistants and installed them in the crypt beneath Holy Trinity church, filling the sacred space above with ghostly murmurs and occasional swear words. Penguin opened an American office in 1939, positioning them perfectly for the subsequent wartime reading boom. (Bored soldiers, unsurprisingly, much preferred carrying around small, lightweight paperbacks to weighty tomes.) In 1961, around the time that Penguin sold their 250 millionth book, the company went public, causing one of the biggest investing frenzies in London's history. A year later, Allen was knighted for his services to literature.

The company’s runaway expansion was driven in no small part by Allen’s restless ambition. He began ruminating in train stations, where he asked himself a simple question: why can't I buy something good to read from the railway kiosk? The answer he stumbled on – because Penguin wasn’t yet selling them there – is credited with securing the company’s future as the publisher of the people. (People, after all, need to commute, and in the pre-internet age, required easily available reading material to pass the time.) But this ambition also caused him to see enemies on all sides. While John died during World War II, Richard remained a pivotal figure in the company, and the one with the greatest feel for the written word. (Allen, despite his reputation, was not a reader). Worried about Richard taking his mantle, Allen even went so far as to dispatch him to Australia to start a local branch of the company, where Richard would remain for the rest of his days.

It's an appropriately strange, almost fiction-like footnote to the success of the Penguin Paperback itself. Not since the invention of the printing press had a single innovation done more to democratise the written word. Penguin Paperbacks brought Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen and Aristotle to mass audiences (along with a fair amount of Jack London, Ian Fleming and Hunter S. Thompson). When they fought – and won – obscenity charges over the publication of Lady Chatterley's Lover in 1960, they changed the very nature of what could be expressed in print. More than that, in the sheer broadness of their appeal, the Penguin Paperback essentially birthed the modern publishing industry, and with it, the modern author. And while that industry today is very different from the one the three Lane brothers kickstarted in 1935, you can still be certain that no matter what bookshelf you inspect, there'll be a well-thumbed Penguin Paperback or three sitting there, waiting to be rediscovered.