21st September 1908
Born on this day, 21st September 1908 – Allen Lane, co-founder of Penguin Books and populariser of the paperback book.
After working for his uncle’s publishing house Bodley Head for a number of years, the legend goes that Lane was returning from a visit to Agatha Christie and waiting at Exeter station where, frustrated by the lack of books on sale (or perhaps just realising a market opportunity), he hit upon the idea of cheap paperback books ‘the price of a pack of cigarettes’ and just as easy to get hold of. We now have to imagine a world dominated by expensive hardbacks with no good-quality writing available in paperback form. Lane’s Penguin Books (plus his often-overlooked co-founding brothers) created the world we live in, where paperback editions of high-quality literature are the norm rather than the exception.
Lane was also behind the distinctive and clever design of the early Penguin books, that both stood out on the shelves and helped readers see at a glance whether something was – for example – general fiction (orange), or crime fiction (green).
He was a risk-taker. In 1936 while at Bodley Head, Lane was behind the controversial decision to publish Ulysses by James Joyce. Another supposedly ‘obscene’ work, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, was published in full by Penguin in 1960 – they were charged under the Obscene Publications Act as a result.
And when Lane launched Penguin, many people thought that the venture would fail due to the cheap units not generating enough profit – instead Penguin sold three million paperbacks in its first year.
He also gave his secretary Eunice Frost a large amount of editorial responsibility, and she would eventually become a director of the company.
In later years he fought off an attempt to oust him, but soon retired, and then died shortly afterwards of bowel cancer aged 67.