The Design

Penguin paperbacks were the brainchild of Allen Lane, a director with publishing house, The Bodley Head who distributed the first Penguin titles against considerable opposition from the other publishers. Lane's secretary, Joan Coles came up with the name Penguin after he had suggested a 'dignified but flippant' name, either an animal or bird. Edward Young from the Production department designed the first penguin logo. The first Penguins launched in 1935 were a selection of relatively 'safe' titles. There were a couple of detective novels of merit: one by Agatha Christie, the other by Dorothy L. Sayers. There was Gone to Earth by Mary Webb and Beverley Nichols's excursion into autobiography, Twenty-five; the evergreen William by E H. Young; Compton Mackenzie's Carnival; Eric Linklater's Poet's Pub; and Madame Claire by Susan Ertz. The two highlights of this first ten were Ernest Hemingway's vivid war novel, A Farewell to Arms, and Ariel, the biography of Shelley by Andre Maurois.


This choice was evidently nothing of a gamble so far as the titles were concerned. They were all books which had done well in hard covers, and could reasonably be expected to command further large sales at a lower price. It was the price which struck many people in the book trade as a very definite gamble. A retail figure of sixpence a copy assumed expectations, because the volume of sales to cover such a low price would need to be so great. By 1935 books had become so accessible to the public through libraries that the old incentive to individual book collecting on a modest income had diminished. Paper covers were rapidly perishable. The people who spent sixpences at bookstalls were given to magazine buying; while people who bought books did not want soft sixpenny substitutes. Moreover, continued the critics, if they were proved wrong in these predictions, then publishers would assuredly not allow Penguins to undercut the hard cover sales of successful titles. This indictment of Penguin's prospects did indeed seem formidable, and it was further strengthened by the fact that Penguin Books Ltd was a private firm with a nominal capital of £100, incapable of sustaining a long siege if things went less than well. A preliminary reconnaissance of the bookshops before publication of the first ten appeared to justify these melancholy predictions, for the advance orders came to only 7000 a title, less than half of what was needed for the series to earn its expenses.
However the first ten Penguins were an immediate success, not only in the bookshops and on the bookstalls, but also in such mass-outlets as department and chain stores. In the next 18 months the list grew steadily on the basis of providing books for a variety of reading tastes and moods.

The minimalist look of the first Penguin books have become an icon of 20th century design. The highly functional, simple design and colours for the books were produced relatively ad hoc compared to the market research and budgets associated with today's consumer products.



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