The Penguin Story

There was a time when publishers were modest, yet proud of their literary accomplishments. In July 1956, UK based Penguin Books published this small paperback, The Penguin Story, to commemorate their 21st anniversary in the publishing field.

As with all inspired entrepreneurs, Penguin founder Allen Lane, a director at The Bodley Head, recognized a need that was not being met in 1935. According to the Penguin company history web site this is how Lane came up with the idea for Penguin Books:

“After a weekend visiting Agatha Christie in Devon, he found himself on a platform at Exeter station searching its bookstall for something to read on his journey back to London, but discovered only popular magazines and reprints of Victorian novels. Appalled by the selection on offer, Lane decided that good quality contemporary fiction should be made available at an attractive price and sold not just in traditional bookshops, but also in railway stations, tobacconists and chain stores.

The first Penguin paperbacks appeared in the summer of 1935 and included works by Ernest Hemingway, André Maurois and Agatha Christie.”

The front and back covers of this Penguin company history book show some very typical English customers perusing a bookstore stocked heavily with Penguin titles.  A couple of things to note; none of the Penguin book covers shown in the photographs have illustrated covers – the merits of the title is what sells the book. The second is the smoking of a pipe inside a bookstore. Oh, how times have changed.

The Penguin Story goes over the history of the firm from reprints to originals; marketing books and the relations with publishers among other things. In 1955 Penguin sold over 5.5 million books abroad, including just over one million in the United States.

One interesting illustration in the book is a pie chart showing the cost of production and overhead of a Penguin book.

Broken down by percentage this is what costs amounted to in 1955:

Retailer and Wholesaler: 35.44
Printing and Binding: 24.17
Paper: 12.5
Rents, Rates, Carriage, Publicity: 8.53
Staff, Pension, Wages, Salaries and Director’s fees: 7.96  
Authors Royalty: 7.5
Taxation: 1.97
Net Profit: 1.93

Also note that what would be considered a small profit today, was acceptable fifty-seven years ago. The average cost of a Penguin book in the United Kingdom was 2 shillings, six pence (or one half crown), about the equivalent of 50 cents in contemporary U.S. currency. In the US in the 1950’s Penguin sold their books for 25 – 35 cents, which was the standard rate for most paperbacks.

After Lane’s death on July 7, 1970 Penguin was sold later in the year to Pearson, the global media company who continue to run Penguin today.

And they run it quite successfully. In 2010 Penguin had sales of just over 1 billion pounds and operating profits of 108 million pounds.

By Paul Schwartz, Senior Vice President Publicity

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