Start Small End Big

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Today is the birthday of British publisher Allen Lane, born in London (1902), who founded Penguin Books with his brothers in 1936. At the time, the only books you could find in paperback were genre fiction. One day, he was in a train station looking for something to read, but all he could find in the stores were magazines and pulp fiction novels. Then it occurred to him that he could publish serious novels in paperback — his idea was to publish a book for the price of a pack of cigarettes.

The business model only worked if he could sell a lot of books; each book had to sell 17,000 copies just to break even. But since they published major writers that people wanted to read, like Ernest Hemingway and Agatha Christie, Penguin sold 3 million books within its first year of business. Penguin was also one of the first presses to publish books with a consistent graphic design. The cover drew attention not to that specific book, but to the Penguin brand. Lane sent a co-worker to the zoo to draw a penguin, which became the famous penguin logo.

Although Allen Lane’s innovations changed the publishing industry, of his own admission, he rarely read books.