Penguin Publishes First Paperbacks, Democratizes Literacy

Penguin Publishes First Paperbacks, Democratizes Literacy

On this day in 1935, Penguin published the first paperback book of substance, bringing popular fiction to the masses.

Pickings were slim for bibliophiles in the 1930s. If you were wealthy, you could afford a good book, or have access to an elite library. If not, you might use your precious income on an inexpensive book with cheap binding and yellowed paper was as worthless as its content.

Allen Lane, then director of English publishing house The Bodley Head, was lamenting this fact when he found himself on a platform at Exeter station after a weekend visiting Agatha Christie in Devon. He was searching a bookstall for something to read on his return journey, but found only popular magazines and reprints of Victorian novels. Appalled by his options, Lane determined then and there to make good quality, contemporary fiction available at an accessible price for the masses. He would sell these books not only at traditional bookshops, but also in railway stations, tobacconists, and chain stores. Lane wanted a “dignified but flippant” symbol for his new business and when his secretary suggested a penguin, Lane sent an employee out to the London Zoo to make sketches. Thus the Penguin paperback was born.

The first Penguin paperbacks were published on 30 July 1935 and included works by Ernest Hemingway, Andre Maurois, and Agatha Christie. They sold for only sixpence, the cost of a pack of cigarettes, and were colour-coded for ease: orange for fiction, blue for biography, green for crime. Penguin’s first ten paperbacks were a sensation, selling 3 million the first year in a country of 38 million. Decades later, when D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was published in 1960, Penguin sold 2 million books in just six weeks.

The first Penguin paperbacks represented ease, accessibility, and democratization of good literature—a paperback revolution. His bold move democratized literacy, making good reading as accessible as a newspaper, available for everyone from the aristocracy to the common labourer, soldier, student, or housewife. Historically, Penguin’s paperback revolution was as seminal in the world of literature as the digital revolution is today.

Credit: © Contemporary Collection / Alamy
Caption: The first Penguin paperbacks democratized literacy, making good reading more affordable.