It all started on Exeter railway station and a need for a good read © AFP/Getty
It all started on Exeter railway station and a need for a good read © AFP/Getty

Supply audit: Penguin Books

Will Green is news editor of Supply Management
7 September 2018

With determination and a funky design, they’ve survived both a scandal and the introduction of ebooks. It seems you still can’t beat a good old-fashioned paperback.

Ah, everyone loves a Penguin book, right?

Well, yes. They were an attempt to bring quality books to the UK masses. The story goes that Allen Lane, who inherited his uncle’s cash-strapped publishing business, was at Exeter railway station in the 1930s and wanted something to read on his journey, but didn’t like what was on offer: magazines, trashy novels or expensive hardbacks. The idea of quality paperback books at an affordable price was born.

How much did they cost back then?

Lane was determined Penguin books should cost 6d, the price of a pack of cigarettes. The perceived unlikelihood of turning a profit enabled Lane to purchase the rights to books more cheaply, as the industry did not expect his venture to last. But it was an order for 63,000 books from Woolworths that made the business viable. Paper rationing during wartime hit publishers but Penguin was able to secure deals, including printing books for servicemen and women, that gave it dominance over paper supply, putting it in a strong position in the post-war years.

What’s with the funky design?

Lane wanted the books to be a quality product with a distinctive style. A brainstorming session produced the name Penguin and a junior member of staff came up with the logo and the cover design of three horizontal bands. The colour schemes corresponded to genres, including orange and white for general fiction, green and white for crime and dark blue and white for biographies. Cover illustrations and pictures were only added much later.

I detect a whiff of scandal…

You detect right. In 1960 Penguin published DH Lawrence’s risqué classic Lady Chatterley’s Lover, at the time unpublished in the UK, leading to obscenity charges and a trial at the Old Bailey. Penguin’s victory heralded the end of book censorship in Great Britain. Other controversial publications included Spycatcher by Peter Wright and Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses.

Do people still read hard copy books?

Apparently so. Sales of ebooks fell 10% in 2017 to 162m units, making up 19% of digital and print books sales. This is down on 21% in 2016, according to PubTrack Digital. Penguin, now Penguin Random House following a merger in 2013, launched its first ebooks in 2008 but in 2016 admitted it wrongly lost confidence in print and had invested “unwisely” in ebook products. Ebooks are now released alongside print copies.

Can’t see the wood…

Penguin Random House UK gets 80% of its paper from Swedish forests through its biggest supplier, Holmen. Currently 92% of its paper is sustainably sourced, as verified by the Forest Stewardship Council, but the aim is to reach 100% by 2020.

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