It’s a story you may have heard before but the tale surrounding the birth of Penguin is always worth retelling. Step back to 1935 and the publication of the first 10 Penguin books. Each one cost just six pence at a time when hardcovers were priced at seven or eight shillings – those 10 books revolutionized publishing.
Allen Lane was the genius behind Penguin. At the time, he worked for a publisher called Bodley Head but was frustrated by the lack of affordable contemporary fiction. He wanted to offer cheap, quality books through outlets like railway stations and newsagents as well as traditional bookshops. Lane wanted to make good books accessible.
The first 10 Penguin books were published by Bodley Head and their success persuaded Lane to launch Penguin as a standalone publisher in 1936. Within a year, Penguin had sold 3 million paperbacks and the skeptics, and there were many, had been proved wrong.
Penguin’s success was not totally based on price but also design. Edward Young was responsible for the first 10 covers and those thick bands of colour, and the use of the Gill Sans-Serif Bold font have become part of design history. The book Penguin by Design: A Cover Story 1935-2005 by graphic designer, Phil Baines examines seventy years of Penguin paperback covers.
The 10 books included several writers who are still well known today - Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy L Sayers and Agatha Christie – and others who have faded away. Sadly, the likes of Beverley Nichols, Mary Webb, E.H. Young, and Susan Ertz receive little attention today. The original Penguins are an eclectic mix – a biography of Shelley, a classic from Papa Hemingway, a novel set in a pub, a novel about an old lady, two mysteries, an autobiography and three more rather romantic novels. The original first editions of those famous 10 Penguins are extremely difficult to find and exceptionally tough to locate in good condition. In 1985, Penguin reprinted its 10 original trendsetting books as a set to mark their 50th anniversary - those sets are extremely affordable.
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1. Ariel: a Shelley Romance
First published in 1924, this biography of Shelley damaged the writer’s reputation. André Maurois was the pen-name of French writer Emile Herzog, who was well known for The Silence of Colonel Bramble.
2. A Farewell to Arms
First published in 1929, this is Papa Hemingway’s famous semi-autobiographical novel. It tells the story of American ambulance driver Lieutenant Frederic Henry during World War I.
3. Poet's Pub
First published in 1929, this is the story of poet who becomes the manager of The Pelican pub in Downish. Linklater wrote novels, short stories, travel writing, autobiographies, and military history.
4. Madame Claire
First published in 1923, Madame Claire is an old lady arranging the affairs of her nearest and dearest from her Kensington hotel suite. Ertz wrote books about the genteel life.
6. The Mysterious Affair at Styles
First published in 1920, this was Christie’s debut novel and includes Hercule Poirot, a rural country house, a handful of possible killers, lots of red herrings and everything you’d expect from Agatha.
First published in 1926, this was the first of six autobiographical books from the versatile Nichols, who is also known for his gardening books, particularly Down the Garden Path.
First published in 1925, William was just one of several bestselling novels from Emily Young set in Upper Radstowe – based upon Bristol’s Clifton suburb. She died in 1949. Her work is largely forgotten today.
9. Gone to Earth
First published in 1917, Gone to Earth became a Michael Powell movie. Webb, a romantic, wrote about her beloved Shropshire. Gone to Earth was parodied in Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons.