A Crash Course in the History of Penguin Publishing

You’d be forgiven if you didn’t know today was Penguin Awareness Day. But let’s be honest, you should be aware of these cuddly flightless birds every day. But…

Book Culture Publishing

You’d be forgiven if you didn’t know that today was Penguin Awareness Day. But let’s be honest, you should be aware of these cuddly flightless birds every day. But, any bookworm is aware of another kind of Penguin: the famous British publishing house Penguin Books.



Founded in 1935 by Sir Allen Lane, with his brothers Richard and John, Penguin Books was originally part of The Bodley Head publishers, only to break from them the same year. Lane was inspired to create Penguin after using the poor quality and high priced reading materials offered at Exeter Train Station. As for the name, Lane was inspired by The Albatross Library and wanted to name his company after an animal. A secretary, Joan Coles, suggested a penguin. Lane agreed, seeing the penguin as “dignified but flippant.”

Penguin revolutionized the publishing industry by selling inexpensive paperbacks through stores like Woolworths for only a sixpence ($10.00 in American money), which brought high-quality books (both fiction and non-fiction) to the British masses. Originally, they distributed books from the crypt of the Holy Trinity Church in London!


Sir Allen Lane Image  courtesy of Wikipedia


The brand became known for the designs of its book covers. To avoid gaudy art covers that other publishing companies opted for, Penguin book covers instead had three horizontal stripes. The top and bottom stripes would be the color corresponding to the genre, with a white stripe in the middle for the title and the Penguin logo. The colors included: orange for general fiction, green for crime, cerise for travel and adventure, dark blue for biographies, yellow for miscellaneous writings, red for drama, and purple for essays.


Image courtesy of Penguin Books


Penguin Books, although it had no formal role, was an important part of the war effort during World War II. They published different manuals such as Aircraft Recognition and Keeping Poultry and Rabbits on Scraps. They also provided books for service members and British prisoners of war. Demand for books also increased during the war, and Penguin published over 600 titles and nineteen new series during the six years of war. In 1942, new rules had been imposed by the Book Production War Economy Agreement, determining paper quality, type size, and margins.

Penguin eliminated dust jackets, trimmed their margins, and replaced their binding from sewing to metal staples. The quality had detiorated, and it had made it impossible to publish books over 256 pages. This caused a few titles to fall out of print. Penguin secured a deal with the Canadian government in which they were paid in tons of paper, and through their connections with Arts Council and the Bureau of Current Affairs to form a soldier’s book club. This allowed Penguin to improve their quality. During the war, every paperback was printed with a message encouraging readers to leave the book at the post office once they were done with it so it could be sent to the troops. However, the demand for books at home exceeded the supply, and this caused Lane to attempt to create a monopoly on books for overseas distribution. After the war, they continued to dominate the paper supply while paper rationing continued, causing many competitors to give up reprinting rights with to Penguin. This caused the company to grow.



Just after the war, Penguin began the Penguin classics, one of its most well known branches, beginning with a translation of Homer’s Odyssey. German typographer Jan Tschichold redesigned 500 books, leaving Penguin with an influential set of rules and design principles that are still used to this day. After financial troubles in the 1960s and the death of Sir Allen Lane, Penguin was bought by Pearson Publishing. Since then, they have published different series such as Penguin Classics, Pelican Books (their nonfiction series), Penguin Education, and Puffin Books (their children series). Penguin Publishing has been around for a long time, and they don’t seem to be going anywhere.

So, on this Penguin Awareness Day, be aware of penguins, but also be aware of one of the most influential publishing companies that share a name with them.

Featured image via Stuff.co.nz