Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Allen Lane and the founding of Penguin.

An absorbing book has proved to be Penguin Special (2005), by Jeremy Lewis, about Allen Lane and the evolution of Penguin Books. Lane, a distant cousin of The Bodley Head cofounder John Lane, went to work at The Bodley Head at age sixteen, eventually running the firm after the elder Lane's death. The firm went into receivership after Allen Lane founded Penguin.

It's hard to grasp, in this age of $1 Dover Thrift editions and ebooks, that Lane's idea for inexpensive paperbacks for the masses would be so controversial, but his fellow publishers, such as Jonathan Cape and Stanley Unwin, were convinced that Lane would go down in flames. Lewis well captures Lane's maverick, somewhat enigmatic personality, both in terms of his choices about what to publish and his refusal to back causes that more activist colleagues advocated, although he stood firm when prosecuted for publishing the unexpurgated Lady Chatterley's Lover. Bonuses in the book are portraits of the colorful publishers of the time (such as the leftist Victor Gollancz and the "lunatic" Walter Hutchinson) and early supporters (such as George Bernard Shaw).

Among the fascinating facts:
  • Penguin's first warehouse was a church crypt, and church services were known to be interrupted by swearing in the fulfillment department below.
  • Lane became a lifelong friend of Agatha Christie (who began her publishing career with The Bodley Head), despite the firm's notoriously dilatory payment of royalties.
  • The first ten Penguin paperbacks included Christie's Murder on the Links and Sayers's The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. The second group included Hammett's The Thin Man. (Christie's The Mysterious Affair at Styles was originally included in the first group—by mistake, due to a contractual misunderstanding, so it was hurriedly pulled.)
  • Penguin sent books to British prisoners of war during World War II. Authors published under this program included Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, and L. A. G. Strong (POWs complained when Penguin sent Pelicans, which were titles in its nonfiction line. They wanted adventure and crime novels).
  • A key player in the launching of Puffin, the children's book imprint of Penguin, was Noel Carrington, the younger brother of painter Dora Carrington.
  • Early managers of Penguin's U.S. operations went on to distinguished publishing careers: Ian Ballantine (founder of his eponymous firm), and Kurt Enoch and Victor Weybright (founders of NAL/Signet).

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