In 1934, on his way to London after visiting his friend Agatha Christie, the young publisher Allen Lane stopped at the station bookstall at Exeter St Davids and saw that the books on sale were of a poor quality and overpriced. What was needed, he realised, were good books at a price everyone could afford. Within a year he had founded Penguin Books, creating a paperback revolution that would sweep the world.
Today at Penguin Random House, Sir Allen Lane’s founding principles remain as important as ever. We connect the world with the stories, ideas and writing that matter, putting books into the hands of as many readers as possible.
Today, a commerative plaque for Sir Allen Lane is being unveiled at Exeter St Davids station, in the very spot where he was inspired to create the sixpenny paperback. To celebrate, we are exploring his life and legacy, as well as his contribution to British publishing and influence on Penguin Random House today.
“We believed in the existence in this country of a vast reading public for intelligent books at a low price, and staked everything on it.”
A spark of inspiration
Sir Allen Lane’s experience at Exeter St. Davids in 1934 inspired him to create the sixpenny paperback and launch a global paperback movement. At the time, this was revolutionary. On a mission to make good quality books affordable and accessible to all, Sir Allen Lane arguably propelled the profile of reading and made it a pastime that everyone, regardless of their background, could enjoy.
A “dignified but flippant” icon
Sir Allen Lane was set on producing a new range of affordable, good quality paperbacks, now all he needed was a name for his new venture.
It was in fact Sir Allen’s secretary, Joan Coles, who suggested the penguin when he expressed his desire for a “dignified but flippant” symbol for his new publishing endeavour. Along with his brothers, Dick and John, Sir Allen decided it would be called Penguin Books. 21 year old Edward Young was then sent to London Zoo to draw the bird that would become one of the most recognised brands in the world.
The start of Penguin Books
Sir Allen Lane’s first Penguin books were colour-coded: orange for fiction, blue for biography and green for crime. The first batch he published included books by Ernest Hemingway and Agatha Christie.
Within 10 months of launching Penguin Books in 1935, 1 million books were published. To complement the inclusive pricing of his Penguin books, Sir Allen Lane dreamt up the Penguincubator in 1937, a vending machine that offered a selection of Penguin books on Charing Cross Road, London. Sir Allen Lane’s innovative streak is evident here, as he identified the demand for books to be available outside of bookshops.
A design legacy
As well as being known for its iconic penguin logo, Penguin Books became renowned for its distinctive cover designs, something we’re still known for at Penguin Random House. What we now identify as a classic Penguin cover was designed by Jan Tschichold in 1946. Tschichold personally designed over 500 books in three years at Penguin Books, creating the uniform cover design that remains iconic today.
Penguin Random House continues to be inspired by Sir Allen Lane’s iconic design. Today, we cultivate a love of book cover design and invest in the next generation of book designers through our Student Design Award.
1n 1946, the impact of Penguin Books broadened, as he launched Penguin Classics. The first book that was published was Homer’s The Odyssey, translated by E.V. Rieu, who became the first editor of the Penguin Classics list. 1 million copies were sold. Since then, the series has grown to include nearly 3,000 of the most significant works written, spanning two-and-a-half millennia. Today, one in every 64 books sold in the UK is a Penguin Classic.
Sir Allen Lane’s lasting legacy at Penguin Random House
At Penguin Random House today, Sir Allen Lane’s principles remain as important as ever. We connect the world with the stories, ideas and writing that matter, putting books into the hands of as many readers as possible.
We are thrilled to celebrate Sir Allen Lane and continue his mission today, to make quality literature affordable and accessible to all.
Take a look at our gallery below to see exclusive Penguin Random House archive materials and discover the story of Sir Allen Lane and join the conversation using #SirAllenLane.