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Poet's Perspective

A billion-dollar corporate battle that has been raging in the book world looks to have reached its final chapter. But its beginnings are rooted in a very pragmatic and simple decision that began with a train journey from Exeter in 1934.

Bristol-born Allen Lane had been visiting Agatha Christie and found himself at Exeter station with nothing to read for his journey back to London where he was then living. He came up with the idea of producing books which would be cheap enough to be sold from a vending machine.

He is quoted as saying: “I have never been able to understand why cheap books should not also be well designed, for good design is no more expensive than bad.” Edward Young produced a design of broad coloured bands across the cover and Gill Sans Bold for the title’s lettering. He was also sent to Regents Park to sketch penguins, for Allen Lane wanted a motif and cover that was consistent and easily recognizable. And from this, Penguin paperbacks emerged – the first paperbacks to hit the book world. They began hitting the press in 1935.

The penguin motif has changed subtly over the years, but the publication number has always sat below the image on the spine. No1 was Ariel written by Andres Maurois – originally published in Paris in 1923 – and is about the colourful life of poet Shelley. The oldest original Penguin I have managed to get my hands on is No38 – published with the first batch of Penguins in that first year – and is The Return by Walter De La Mare.

At the time Allen, along with his brothers Richard and John, were running the successful and highly regard publishers Bodley Head. But it was Penguin that revolutionised the book world. The first vending machine was set up in Charing Cross Road and dubbed the ‘Penguincubator’ and they were also sold through Woolworths for sixpence (that’s two and a half pence in today’s currency!).

As a publishing house Penguin has a complex history having come under the wing of several bigger houses, but it is such an icon, has such a fascinating history, that the name has never been lost. Penguin Books is now part of the worldwide Penguin Random House, a conglomerate formed by its merger with the American publisher Random House in 2013 and together are now a subsidiary of the German media giant Bertelsmann.

Penguin Random House has been battling to merge with US rival Simon & Schuster in a $2.2bn dollar bid. Not surprisingly this was referred to the US courts because of concerns about monopoly issues and this week Bertelsmann announced that the deal had now been scrapped.

I wonder what Allen Lane would make of his cheap books idea now having been involved 87 years later in a billion-dollar battle. It’s the stuff of novels!

Born in North Wales, poet & writer Paul Mortimer has lived in Tiverton for 13 years. His first poetry collection, Fault Line, was published by Lapwing in 2015, followed by Wind Voices from the same publishing house in 2019. He has appeared at several literary festivals and headlined at a number of poetry events in recent years.

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