In 1935, Allen Lane, who was working at U.K. publisher The Bodley Head, published the first Penguin paperbacks. There were 10 of them, including A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway and The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie. They cost sixpence each. "I think that when he started, people thought he was pretty bonkers," said Penguin Books president and publisher Kathryn Court of Lane, who died in 1970. Selling affordable, quality paperbacks in venues such as railway stations and newsstands was unheard of in the 1930s. "But," Court said, "it was hugely successful almost from the very beginning." Within a year, Penguin had sold three million paperbacks. And 75 years later, Penguin Books—which publishes more than 300 books a year in the U.S. and has more than 3,600 Penguin Books and 1,500 Penguin Classics in print—is celebrating.
This summer, an orange Mini Cooper car with the Penguin logo, which the company has dubbed the Penguin Anniversary-mobile, will tour the U.S. It will appear at bookstores across the country, serving as transportation for 10 Penguin authors, who will be attending anniversary parties at a mix of independent and chain bookstores in their hometowns. The tour starts with Garrison Keillor at Barnes & Noble in Edina, Minn., on June 13, and ends with Melissa Bank at Bookhampton on Long Island on August 7. It also includes events with Sue Monk Kidd, Jan Karon, Michael Pollan, Nathaniel Philbrick, and other authors.
At each event, Penguin will donate a set of 75 iconic Penguin titles to a local library or literacy group. Each author will sign the Penguin-mobile as it travels across the country, and the summer's events will end with a party at the New York Public Library in September. After that, Penguin will auction the car and donate the proceeds to a literary nonprofit. Penguin will also donate sets of 75 books to U.S. military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan in honor of the anniversary, and is supporting the Nature Conservancy's Plant a Billion Trees campaign. And today, Penguin launched www.penguinbooks75.com, which features event information, anniversary book features, a time line, and an anniversary video.
Court, who has been with the company 33 years, said the company has "tried to be innovative" over the decades, "not just keep doing the same old things." She cited changes in the way Penguin books look as well as new directions in of the type of literature it publishes as examples of that innovation. Penguin also just might be the first publisher to buy a car and paint it to match its books' signature look. "It's both modern and old-fashioned," Court noted. "It's an iconic little car and I think we felt it would be a good representation of Penguin on wheels." V-p, director of marketing John Fagan, who spearheaded the Penguin-mobile promotion, also noted the Mini Cooper's English origin and American presence, which aligns nicely with Penguin's Anglo roots.
For now, the Penguin-mobile is in the company garage at 375 Hudson Street in New York, but Fagan thinks there will be interest in driving it (and its contents: Penguin books, of course) off the lot, as it were, by September.