A waddling, surprised-looking bird probably wouldn’t make most people’s list of working-class heroes. But maybe it should. We are, of course, talking about the penguin – or rather, the penguin that still stares out blankly from the covers of Penguin books published today.
Before Penguin caused a flap in the book trade, if you wanted to buy a book, you had to go to a stuffy bookshop. The less well-off had to make do with borrowing one from the public library. All that changed in the summer of 1935.
Allen Lane found himself at Exeter railway station, having spent the weekend in the company of Agatha Christie. He nosed around for something inexpensive to read on the train home, but couldn’t find anything – just reprints of Victorian novels, and magazines.
Back in London, Lane decided to set up a company selling contemporary fiction cheaply. He wanted a logo that was “dignified but flippant”. Why not a penguin, his secretary suggested. An employee was dispatched forthwith to London Zoo, clutching a sketch pad.
On 30 July 1935, the first books bearing the ubiquitous penguin were published – orange for fiction, blue for biography and green for crime. Each book cost sixpence. Ernest Hemmingway, André Marois and Agatha Christie led the rollout.
It’s not too surprising the traditional publishers turned up their noses at the popular ‘paperback revolution’. But that didn’t stop Penguin selling millions of books to avid readers of A Farewell to Arms and The Mysterious Affair at Styles in its first years.
Nor has Penguin ever been afraid of courting controversy. In 1960, it successfully overturned a ban and published Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Investors were presumably still hot under their collars when Penguin listed on the London Stock Exchange a year later. The shares were 150 times oversubscribed – a record for the exchange.