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PENGUIN BOOKS is celebrating its eightieth anniversary, thus reminding me of the pleasure I’ve derived from these pocket-size, color-coded, modestly priced editions of literature. A Penguin celebration also appeared in The New York Times Style Magazine, September 27, 2015, its By the Numbers feature titled “Eighty Years of Penguin Books.”
I like the magazine’s By the Numbers format, a one-page montage of tidbits, many of them numerical, concerning aspects of the topic. Here are several of my favorites from the article, along with Penguiniana I’ve gleaned from other sources.
Britisher Allen Lane started Penguin in 1935, his idea being to counter any elitist idea of book ownership. He started by buying rights to 10 already popular titles, including Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and Agatha Christies’ The Mysterious Affair at the Styles.” Each paperback sold for 6 pence in 1935 (around 13¢ at the time, $2.22 today). The business thrived in 1936 when the British Woolworth’s retail chain bought 63,000 of its books.
The standard Penguin paperback is 178 mm x 110 mm, 7.01 in. x 4.33 in. This is not only a handy pocket size, but aesthetically ideal: Its ratio 178:110 is 1.618:1, precisely the Golden Rectangle.
Penguin books have been numbered in the order of their release, Penguin No. 1 being Andre Maurois’ Ariel. The editors seemed to have had fun with it too: Penguin No. 666 is John Collier’s Defy the Foul Fiend. No. 1001 is N.J. Dawood’s translation of The Thousand and One Nights.
Penguin editions are sans cover art, with two horizontal color-coded bands and the Penguin logo their only embellishment. The Penguin First Editions website adds to the color codes cited By the Numbers with World Affairs in grey, Essays and Belle Lettres in light purple and Miscellaneous in yellow.
Edward Preston “Teddy” Young, a 21-year-old production manager in 1935, designed the iconic cover and also the original Penguin logo. During WWII, Young became the first Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve officer to command a submarine. In 1954, the Penguin series reached No. 1000—with One of Our Submarines by Edward Young.
WW II complicated the supply of esparto, a coarse grass used for wickerwork and high-quality paper. The latter became only one of British commodities rationed during the war and into peacetime. Timing, though, played a role in Penguin’s continued business. In 1940, the British Ministry of Supply set a quota for each publisher based on its production between August 1938 and August 1939, which happened to have been a banner period for Penguin.
Deals were also struck wherein the Forces Book Club of the British War Office would get books in exchange for increases in paper allotments. Also, many paperbacks of the era carried the message “FOR THE FORCES. Leave this book at a Post Office when you have read it, so that men and women in the Services may enjoy it too.”
Penguin has always published more than classics. During WWII, titles included Keeping Poultry and Rabbits on Scraps as well as aircraft recognition guides.
Despite their mass marketing and modest prices, Penguin books are popular with collectors. By the Numbers cites the late Steve Hare, longtime trustee of the Penguin Collectors Society, as having amassed 20,000 of them. A prize in my own collection is R.A. Saville-Sneath’s British Aircraft, Volume One, 1944.
As with other publishing houses, Penguin’s corporate life was anything but straightforward. Since 2013, it has been part of Penguin Random House, the world’s largest consumer book publisher, with German multinational Bertelsmann as a controlling partner.
By the numbers (not to coin a phrase), the 2013 merger of Penguin and Random House subtracted 1 from the Big Six, leaving Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillian, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster as the Big Five. May they all thrive. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015