Is Penguin Trying to Rewrite History?

In English Language by Andrew Wilkins

By Andrew Wilkins

The Popular Penguins follow Allen Lane’s ethos of making great writing affordable and available to everybody — now you can own a piece of the Penguin story.
— marketing blurb from Penguin Web site

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.
— Sir Isaac Newton

Popular Penguins

MELBOURNE: You may have heard of it. Last year, in celebration of its 75th anniversary, Penguin launched a series of books dubbed “Popular Penguins” in Australia, New Zealand and India. Priced at just AU$9.95, they are a series of classic titles which are priced cheaper than a pack of cigarettes, the original notion when the very idea of a Penguin paperback was launched in the last century.

Much as I’m full of admiration for Penguin’s campaign, which has seen titles from its “Popular Penguins” series appear seemingly everywhere, dare I suggest there’s some mythologizing going on here?

The Penguin story is a great publishing story but, lest we forget, this latest campaign is less a celebration of a world-changing event and more a part of the ongoing battle for market share among the major publishers. It’s about selling books, and sucking up shelf space that would otherwise be taken up by Penguin’s competitors in the process.

There’s also a danger of history being re-written in two ways:

1. While Penguin itself doesn’t make the claim explicitly, you might be left with the impression that Allen Lane changed the world by inventing the paperback book.

As the editor of Penguin Portrait: Allen Lane and the Penguin Editors 1935-1970, Steve Hare, says at the beginning of that tome:

If the idea behind Penguin Books was so basic and simple, why had no-one ever thought it before? The simple answer is that they had. The idea of a paperback book in itself was nothing new. Both on the Continent and in Britain many publishers, including the Bodley Head, had toyed with the idea … Ernest Benn even predated the Pelican idea with an extensive sixpenny library of diminutive non-fiction works.

Hare goes on to quote from a 1952 letter sent from Allen Lane himself to Ernest Benn, in which he says:

“I have always considered that they [‘Stead’s Books for the Bairns’] really gave me the first idea of Penguins.”

2. The phrase “now you can own a piece of the Penguin story” could be read to suggest that all the titles in the “Popular Penguins” series are Penguin books and have been from the start; that Penguin was responsible for originating the books that are today dressed in its vintage livery.

It’s not the case. By my reckoning, Penguin was the originating publisher of just 20 books in the series.

There’s a risk, therefore, that we might forget that the vast majority of the “Popular Penguins” were first discovered and published by other publishers — that the Penguin empire was initially built on the publishing skills and acumen of others.* Penguin briefly acknowledges (as it should) the books’ originating publishers on the imprint page of each title in its series but, as someone fascinated by the history of publishing, I thought I’d find out more about those publishers whose legacies are now extinguished beneath the Penguin logo.

So, I’ve gone through the list of “Popular Penguins” from the Penguin Australia website — my local one — and indicated those books originated by Penguin itself in bold. As you can see, the series relies heavily on books originated by other publishing houses, many great, many now defunct. Where possible, I’ve included links to information about them.

As they say, credit where credit is due.

  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain), Charles L Webster & Company, 1885
  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle), George Newnes, 1892
  • The Age of Reason (Jean-Paul Sartre), Gallimard, 1945
  • And the Ass Saw the Angel Cave (Nick Cave), Black Spring Press, 1989
  • The Art of War (Sun Tzu), 6th century BC
  • The Beach (Alex Garland), Penguin, 1996
  • The Big Sleep (Raymond Chandler), Alfred A Knopf, 1939
  • The Bodysurfers (Robert Drewe), James Fraser Publishing, 1983
  • Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Truman Capote), Random House, 1958
  • Brideshead Revisited (Evelyn Waugh), Chapman & Hall, 1945
  • Cannery Row (John Steinbeck, The Viking Press, 1945
  • Casino Royale (Ian Fleming), Jonathan Cape, 1953 (John S Howard’s Jonathan Cape, Publisher is an interesting source of information on Ian Fleming’s relations with that publishing house)
  • Cat’s Cradle (Kurt Vonnegut), Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963
  • The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy (Barbara Vine), Viking, 1998
  • The Chrysalids (John Wyndham), Michael Joseph, 1955
  • The Classical World, Robin Lane Fox, Allen Lane, 2005
  • A Clockwork Orange (Anthony Burgess), William Heinemann, 1962
  • Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons), Longmans, 1932
  • A Confederacy of Dunces (John Kennedy Toole), Louisiana State University Press, 1980
  • Congo Journey (Redmond O’Hanlon), Hamish Hamilton, 1996
  • The Consolations of Philosophy (Alain De Botton), Hamish Hamilton, 2000
  • Crimes Against Humanity (Geoffrey Robertson), Allen Lane, 1999
  • Dark Star Safari (Paul Theroux), Hamish Hamilton, 2002
  • Delta of Venus (Anais Nin), Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, 1977
  • Dracula (Bram Stoker), Archibald Constable and Company, 1897
  • Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (Niall Ferguson), Allen Lane, 2003
  • Eva Luna (Isabel Allende), Alfred A Knopf, 1988
  • Everything is Illuminated (Jonathan Safran Foer), Houghton Mifflin, 2002 (288 pages, ISBN: 9780141037325)
  • The Fabric of the Cosmos (Brian Greene), Alfred A Knopf, 2005
  • Farewell My Lovely (Raymond Chandler), Alfred A Knopf, 1940
  • Fever Pitch (Nick Hornby), Gollancz, 1992
  • For the Term of His Natural Life (Marcus Clarke), George Robertson, 1874
  • Frankenstein (Mary Shelley), Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones, 1818
  • The Getting of Wisdom (Henry Handel Richardson), Heinemann, 1910
  • Going Solo (Roald Dahl), Jonathan Cape, 1986
  • Goodbye To All That (Robert Graves), Jonathan Cape, 1929
  • The Great Gatsby (F Scott Fitzgerald), Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925
  • A Handful of Dust (Evelyn Waugh), Chapman and Hall, 1934
  • The Harp in the South (Ruth Park), Angus and Robertson, 1948
  • The Haunted Hotel (Wilkie Collins), Chatto & Windus, 1878
  • Hell’s Angels (Hunter S. Thompson), Random House, 1966
  • High Fidelity (Nick Hornby), Gollancz, 1995
  • The History of Sexuality: Volume 1 (Michel Foucault), Gallimard, 1976
  • Holding the Man (Timothy Conigrave), McPhee Gribble, 1995
  • How I Live Now (Meg Rosoff), Puffin Books, 2004
  • How Language Works (David Crystal), Penguin, 2006
  • In Cold Blood (Truman Capote), Random House, 1966
  • Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte), Smith, Elder & Co, 1847
  • Journey from Venice (Ruth Cracknell), Viking, 2000
  • Junky (William S Burroughs), Ace Books, 1953
  • Kingdom of Fear (Hunter S Thompson), Simon & Schuster, 2003
  • Lady Chatterley’s Lover (D H Lawrence), Self-published, 1928 (while Lawrence himself published the first editions of his novel, it took up a key position in the history of Penguin Books in 1960, as detailed in C H Rolph’s entertaining The Trial of Lady Chatterley)
  • The Language Instinct (Steven Pinker), Allen Lane, 1994
  • Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov), The Olympia Press, 1955
  • Love in a Cold Climate (Nancy Mitford), Hamish Hamilton, 1949
  • Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel Garcia Marquez), Editorial Oveja Negra, 1985
  • The Lucky Country (Donald Horne), Penguin, 1964
  • Madame Bovary (Gustave Flaubert), Michel Lévy Frères, 1857
  • The Mayor of Casterbridge (Thomas Hardy), Smith, Elder & Co, 1886
  • The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea (Randolph Stow), Macdonald, 1965 Randolph (408 pages, ISBN: 9780143202745)
  • The Mind of God (Paul Davies), Simon & Schuster, 1992
  • Monkey Grip (Helen Garner), McPhee Gribble, 1977
  • Mother Tongue (Bill Bryson), William Morrow & Co, 1990
  • My Family and Other Animals (Gerald Durrell), Rupert Hart-Davis Ltd, 1956
  • Of a Boy (Sonya Hartnett), Viking, 2002
  • Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck), Covici Friede, 1937
  • On The Road (Jack Kerouac), Viking Press, 1957
  • One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn), Novy Mir, 1962
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Ken Kesey), Viking Press, 1962
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez), Editorial Sudamerica, 1967
  • Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (Patrick Suskind), Diogenes, 1985
  • Persuasion (Jane Austen), John Murray, 1818
  • Picnic at Hanging Rock (Joan Lindsay), F W Cheshire, 1967
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde), Ward Lock and Co, 1891
  • The Pigeon (Patrick Suskind), Diogenes, 1987
  • The Plague (Albert Camus), Gallimard, 1947
  • Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen), T Egerton, 1813
  • Rabbit, Run (John Updike), Alfred A Knopf, 1960
  • Regeneration (Pat Barker), Viking, 1991
  • First edition cover of A Room of One's Own

  • A Room of One’s Own (Virginia Woolf), The Hogarth Press, 1929
  • Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders (John Mortimer), Viking 2004
  • The Secret History (Donna Tartt), Alfred A. Knopf, 1992
  • The Shadow of the Sun (Ryszard Kapuscinski), Czytelnik, 1999
  • Shakespeare’s Sonnets (William Shakespeare)
  • Six Easy Pieces (Richard P Feynman), Perseus Books, 1994
  • Six Thinking Hats (Edward De Bono), Little, Brown, & Company, 1986
  • South: The Endurance Expedition (Ernest Shackleton), Heinemann, 1919
  • Steppenwolf (Hermann Hesse), G Fischer Verlag, 1927
  • Summer Crossing (Truman Capote), Random House, 2005
  • The Surgeon of Crowthorne (Simon Winchester), Viking, 1998
  • Tales of the Unexpected (Roald Dahl), Michael Joseph, 1979 (the founder of the firm was dead by 1979, and Thomson’s sale of the firm to Penguin was six years away, but you can read about Joseph in Richard Joseph’s Michael Joseph: Master of Words and in his own The Adventure of Publishing
  • Tender is the Night (F Scott Fitzgerald), Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1934
  • Usage and Abusage (Eric Partridge), Harper and Brothers, 1942
  • The War of the Worlds (H G Wells), William Heinemann, 1898
  • The Well (Elizabeth Jolley), Viking Press, 1986
  • What is History? (E H Carr), Macmillan and Co, 1961
  • The Witches of Eastwick (John Updike), Knopf, 1984
  • Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte), Thomas Cautley Newby, 1847
  • A Year in Provence (Peter Mayle), Hamish Hamilton, 1989

* Of course, while it started as a reprint house, today Penguin is an originator of a vast number of new books.

DISCUSS: In the age of e-books, does the cheap paperback have a future?

About the Author

Andrew Wilkins

Andrew Wilkins is the director of Wilkins Farago, an independent, Melbourne-based book publisher. Until 2008, he was publisher of Australia's book industry magazine, Bookseller+Publisher. He travels regularly throughout the Asia-Pacific region.