Heroes of British Business: Allen Lane

What you can learn from the man who persuaded us to p-p-pick up a Penguin Book.

by Paul Simpson
Last Updated: 16 Aug 2019

Legend has it that, in 1934, after visiting Agatha Christie, Allen Lane was stuck at Exeter station with nothing to read. To rectify that, he decided to publish cheap paperback editions of literary works that could be sold in vending machines. The first – dubbed the Penguincubator – was located in London’s Charing Cross Road.

By 1936, Penguin had sold more than one million books and separated from its parent company, The Bodley Head. Knighted in 1952, Lane retired in the late 1960s and died, aged 67, in 1970.

Why did Penguin succeed?

Traditional publishers didn’t think there was enough margin in selling paperback books for six old pence (£1.27 in today’s money) but Lane acquired rights cheaply and, early on, persuaded Woolworths to order 63,000 books. The simplicity of Penguin’s design helped its titles stand out on shelves.

The colour-coded covers – orange for general fiction, green for crime novels and blue for biography – looked upmarket and intelligent yet accessible. Joan Coles, one of Lane’s secretaries, suggested the penguin after he requested a "dignified but flippant" symbol for his new company.

Who is the best-selling Penguin author in the UK?

Probably Jamie Oliver, who has five titles in the all-time top 100 best-sellers list.  Jamie’s 30-Minute Meals has sold more than 1.7 million copies.

Surely not what Lane had in mind when he wanted a good book?

Actually, Lane was a pragmatist. During the second world war, Penguin published titles such as Keeping Poultry and Rabbits on Scraps. But he was also a visionary. In 1936, at Lane’s behest, Bodley Head became the first mainstream publisher to risk publishing James Joyce’s Ulysses in the UK.

In 1960, Penguin was charged – and acquitted – of obscenity after publishing an unexpurgated edition of DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. It sold two million copies in six weeks.

Does Penguin mean anything as a brand outside the UK?

Definitely. The only book pre-loaded on to the launch edition of Apple’s iPad was Penguin’s edition of Winnie the Pooh. Former CEO John Makinson said once: "In China, people literally stroke the business card."

Was there one personality trait that made Lane so successful?

His appetite for risk. He challenged obscenity laws, gave his 21-year-old secretary Eunice Frost prime responsibility for finding new titles and bet his career – and reputation – on a new venture that looked risky in the middle of the Great Depression.

Lane wasn’t the first man to publish paperbacks but he proved the business case and changed our reading habits forever.


Image credit: Photo by Artem Beliaikin from Pexels


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