Friday, July 30, 2010

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, PENGUIN

by Sheila Connolly

We're giving away several Penguin books, classics and new mysteries, to a few lucky readers today. To enter the drawing, leave a comment and give us an e-mail address where you can be reached.

Today marks the 75th anniversary of Penguin Books, launched in London in 1935. Since I’m published by a current imprint of Penguin (Berkley Prime Crime), I was happy to volunteer to join in the national celebration of the publisher. I’ll admit that it was Penguin Books who suggested this, but they’re sweetening the pot by giving away one of their books.

Penguin’s start is a great lesson in identifying a niche and marketing a product wisely. The firm was founded by Allen Lane, who already had some publishing experience. He invited Edward Young to join him, and it was Young who came up with the signature penguin logo. Penguin isn’t ashamed to tell us that it was Lane’s secretary who came up with the name, and then Lane sent Young off to the London Zoo to sketch penguins. Young is said to have been less than pleased, finding the penguins rather smelly.

However, the logo stuck, and was used on all Penguin books until 1949. But Young’s contribution went beyond a drawing: he was responsible for using easily recognizable and consistent color schemes for all the firm’s book covers; crime and detective novels were green.

We who are surrounded by books these days will be hard-pressed to appreciate the impact that the Penguin imprint had when it was introduced. In the 1930s, the global economy was a mess, and Hitler was gearing up for war. In addition, paperback books in those days were usually trashy novels with lurid covers. Lane chose to offer quality paperbacks with tasteful covers, and in a shrewd move, made them available at railway stations and news stands as well as bookstores. His strategy worked: in the first ten months, Penguin printed one million books, and within a year, the firm had sold three million paperbacks. Penguin offered good books at affordable prices, at a time when reading could have been seen as a luxury, and the company thrived.

While not all of the early books published by Penguin have enjoyed lasting popularity, among the first ten published were Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club and Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles—both still in print. Among books 11 through 20 was Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man. Lane had a good eye.

Penguin was responsible for a lot more notable publishing achievements. In 1941 they established Puffin, a children’s imprint; in 1946, Penguin Classics (and its launch book, The Odyssey, became Penguin’s best selling book).

And there are American connections as well, as you will see as I lay out the “genealogy” of modern-day Penguin:

--1996: The Penguin Group acquired the Putnam Berkley Group, forming Penguin Putnam Inc.
--1965: G. P. Putnam’s Sons acquired Berkley Books, a mass market paperback house
--1866: G. P. Putnam & Sons was created when George Palmer Putnam’s three sons joined him in the business
--1848: Putnam founded G. Putnam Broadway, after dissolving a partnership with John Wiley
--1838: Putnam and Wiley formed the publishing firm of Wiley & Putnam in New York

And why, you ask, have I outlined this (skipping over a whole lot of other mergers and acquisitions)? Because in 1845, Wiley & Putnam published Edgar A. Poe’s Tales, including, among other stories, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Purloined Letter,” and “The Gold Bug,” for which Poe’s Deadly Daughters salute this Penguin progenitor.

I am honored to share a publisher with the likes of Poe, Christie and Sayers, and one which continues to turn out quality books in an increasingly difficult publishing climate. Penguin authors have won 25 Nobel Prizes, 18 National Book Awards, and 12 Pulitzer Prizes. They publish more than 300 books each year in the United States, and they have more than 3,600 Penguin Books and 1,500 Penguin classics in print.

I hope I’m doing as well at 75. Happy birthday, Penguin!

36 comments:

Kari Wainwright said...

It's cool that Penguin started selling books at transportation sites. Like airports today. We readers need good books when we're traveling.

Lisa Haselton said...

Definitely a good group of writers to be a part of. :)

Natalie said...

Very interesting stuff. I read a lot of Penguin books, so enjoyed learning more about the company.

Sandra Parshall said...

Leave a comment and give us an e-mail address and we'll enter you in a drawing for a free Penguin book, either a new edition of a classic or a brand-new mystery.

Leslie said...

Smelly penguins! It's true!

lpbirdwell@gmail.com

Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday Penguin!! They certainly publish some of the best mysteries around today.
Marilyn Levinson

Patg said...

They have provided some great mysteries. Hacky Boekay to them!
Patg
pgulley87@gmail.com

Stephen D. Rogers said...

Some of the things I most love about Penguin are their paper and bindings. Even their longest books are light and durable.

Stephen
sdr633@hotmail.com

J D Webb said...

Happy birthday Penguin.

Marlyn said...

You had me at "free books". ;-)

L.M. Quinn... said...

Happy birthday, Penguin! I've been a big fan of yours for years, and will continue to be one well into the future.

Sandra Parshall said...

What I love about Penguin is their program of publishing beautiful new trade paperback editions of older books. They've brought out all of Donna Leon's books in new trade pb, and we'll include one of them in the giveaway.

Remember to let us know how we can contact you if you win a book!

Jessie Crockett said...

Happy Birthday Penguin! P.G. Wodehouse novels are amongst my favorite penguins.

Laura Hinds said...

I absolutely love Penguin Books. It was very interesting to read about the evolution of the company. Thanks for blogging Sheila!

ElaineCharton said...

Happy Birthday Penguin!
Interesting blog-you learn something new every day. :)
Definitely one of my favorite mystery publishers.

Michelle Henninger said...

Great post!! A eccentric teacher in 6th grade taught us Poe, and I was hooked ever since!

henninger_ainscough@yahoo.com

Kulot said...

I don’t own a single Penguin book, unfortunately, but when I saw the recent covers they did, I was floored. They were all so pretty, especially the ones with postmodern designs. I’m especially happy they included Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina on the list – it’s one of my favorite classics. :)

akosikulot at gmail dot com

Leathers said...

I think it was a risky but worthwhile and smart chance to take on recreating the paperback book in the 1930s. Congratulations and happy birthday penguin.

brittany.leathers@aya.yale.edu

Susan said...

Finally, something older than I am :) I'm really glad Penguin is still around, and with such great authors, too. As an avid reader, I really appreciate publishers bring us great books.

susan.meek@aaaok.org

Nithin R S said...

Happy Birthday penguin :) Wish that you keep promoting good upcoming writers. :)

Annette said...

Thanks Sheila for posting such an interesting blog.

agavigan@cox.net

lil Gluckstern said...

I remember when Penguin was considered a class imprint, and I still feel that when I see the orange. I've been reading them for a long time. Congratulations on being part of a very esteemed group.

lilhmb@sbcglobal.net

(Is it okay to try again?)

Meaghan said...

Greatly enjoying all of the Penguin birthday giveaway!

Mom2MandJ said...

Congratulations on this milestone!

Sue Ellen said...

Happy 75th, Penguin. Keep those good writers coming!

Sue Ellen Snape
ses@snapenh.com

Grace Topping said...

It's comforting to have publishers like Penguin around. If I had a choice in who would publish my manuscript, it would definitely be Penguin. Hello, Penguin, it's yours for the asking.
Grace
gtopping703@hotmail.com

Wheels said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Melissa Palmer said...

Love Penguin books--they're a great company. Happy Birthday! Many more!

melissaenglish72@yahoo.com
http://melissasbookpicks.blogspot.com/

Natalie said...

Forgot my email(the mind is the first thing to go right?): couthy1@msn.com

Jane said...

Happy Birthday, Penguin! I've enjoyed many books you've published, both Penguins and Puffins! Here's to another 75 years!

Jane
jane.irish.nelson@gmail.com

Susan Fleet said...

Roses are red, Penguins are not.
Their books, however, are read a whole lot.

Susan Fleet
susan@susanfleet.com

Julie Godfrey Miller said...

Happy Birthday, Penguin.

I hope they stay around for a very long time.

Fiona said...

When I was young I loved chocolate Penguins. When I was a teenager I loved feathered penguins. All my life I have loved paperback Penguins. Happy Birthday!

Fiona
fionabirchall@ntlworld.com

Winifred said...

Happy Birthday Penguin! Ah yes I remember them well growing up in post war Britain. My Jane Austen Penguin Classics are sill on the bookshelves.

winifred.waite@talktalk.net

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