Books · Publishing

Penguin Books

July 30th marks the 80th anniversary of Penguin Books, probably the most recognisable publisher in England.


In the 1930’s, paperback books were all thought to be ‘pulp fiction’: poor quality genre fiction that was often too gruesome or racy to be considered literary! English publisher Allen Lane and his friend V. K. Krishna Menon, the Indian High Commissioner to the UK, reportedly founded penguin after they could find nothing worth reading at an Exeter train station. Despite protests from traditional bookshops, Penguin began to sell paperback classics in Woolworth’s department stores for just sixpence (around 2p in today’s money) Simple colour-coding helped set Penguin apart from the luridly illustrated pulp titles: orange for general fiction, green for crime, pink for travel, dark blue for biography, grey for politics, purple for philosophy and yellow for “Everything else”!

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The system seemed to work, and Penguin sold their millionth book after just ten months! The Penguin logo was designed by a 21-year old office junior called Edward Young, and it hasn’t changed since. You can buy stylish Penguin gifts, from mugs and notebooks to board games and deck chairs, in most book shops.

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Compare the pulp cover on the left to the Penguin cover on the right! 

During World War Two, Penguin published books like ‘Keeping Poultry and Rabbits on Scraps’ to help British people cope with strict rationing laws. In return for supplying British forces and POWs with books, the government made sure Penguin was supplied with paper. One of their most popular titles at this time was Pride and Prejudice, a bit of traditional English escapism! Each book sold on the high street contained a message: “Leave this book at the Post Office when you have read it, so that men and women in the forces may enjoy it too”

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A well-worn copy of a wartime household guide by Penguin 

In 1960, Penguin published Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which gained enough notoriety to sell 3.5 million copies. Relatively tame by today’s standards, the book was placed on trial for its use of swearing and sexual scenes. The prosecution famously asked “Is this the sort of book you want your wife and servants to read?” which wasn’t well-received by the women of 1960! Other controversial Penguin titles include The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, who was sentenced to death by the ruler of Iran.


David Tennant reads from a Penguin edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the BBC dramatisation of the obscenity trial

Penguin classics were redesigned in 2002 to feature colourful paintings that could represent a setting, theme or character from the novel. The Penguin Clothbound Classics series have hardback covers designed to beautify your bookshelf (and perhaps turn you away from eBooks and back to print!) View the gallery here. Penguin wouldn’t be complete without Puffin, the children’s imprint which has featured authors from Roald Dahl to Ursula Le Guin. Since 1980 one in every three Penguins sold has been a Puffin! Visit their website and take a sneaky look inside some illustrator’s studios or find out where to send a letter to your favourite children’s author.

penguin 5The Penguin Classics edition of this book by H. P. Lovecraft features a painting called The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli

If you would like to work for Penguin or Puffin as a designer, writer or illustrator, check out these books:

Making Books: Design in British Publishing since 1945 by Alan Bartram, BOOK ZONE 686.0941 BAR

How to get a job in publishing: a really practical guide to careers in books and magazines by Alison Baverstock, CAREERS PD

Play Pen: New children’s book illustration by Martin Salisbury BOOK ZONE 741.642 SAL

Wannabe a writer we’ve heard of? by Jane Wenham-Jones, BOOK ZONE 808.027 WEN


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