Tuesday, July 27, 2010: Dedicated Issue: Penguin Books

Penguin Books Celebrates 75 Years

Penguin: World-renowned tattoo artists reinvent the book cover

Penguin: Penguin 75 edited by Paul Buckley, foreword by Chris Ware

Penguin: 75 Books for 75 Years

Penguin: The Breaking of Eggs by Jim Powell

Penguin: Classic Reads

Editors' Note

Dedicated Issue: Penguin Books' 75th Anniversary

In this issue, with the support of the publisher, Shelf Awareness celebrates the 75th anniversary of Penguin Books, the iconic imprint that keeps growing and educating and entertaining. John Mutter and Shannon McKenna Schmidt wrote the stories.


Follow the Penguin car

Books & Authors

Diamond Anniversary: 'Who Doesn't Love Penguins?'

It's one of the best stories in publishing: how Penguin Books began 75 years ago and became what is arguably the most recognized imprint and colophon in the world.

In 1935, Allen Lane was 32 and worked for The Bodley Head, which had been founded by his uncle. Returning from a weekend visiting Agatha Christie and her husband in the country, he had nothing to read and perused a railway bookstall. While looking at the dime novels, pulp fiction and expensive hardcovers, his little grey cells went to work, as Christie's Hercule Poirot might put it, and he thought: Why not offer literature inexpensively?

Back at The Bodley Head, he proposed publishing high-quality books for six pence each, the equivalent of a pack of cigarettes. Many publishers thought such an approach would ruin the business, but The Bodley Head approved the plan.

The first major hurdle was finding a name. Because the Albatross imprint had done well in Germany also selling paperbacks, the team wanted to come up with the name of a bird or animal. They considered and rejected Phoenix Books and Dolphin Books. While the group was deliberating, a secretary on the other side of a partition chimed in, "What about penguins?"

As Howard Wall, director of national field marketing for Penguin Group and unofficial in-house Penguin Books historian put it: "This comment stopped everyone. Allen Lane loved it because he felt penguins have a certain dignified flippancy that seemed entirely appropriate. Besides, who doesn't love penguins?" Immediately someone was dispatched to the London Zoo to draw penguins.

The first Penguin list consisted of 10 titles, all reprints, which included A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie and The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy L. Sayers. Penguin Books calculated it needed orders of 17,500 copies of each to break even. After reps presented the list, orders totalled only about 7,000 copies each. At that point, Allen Lane himself went to Woolworths, a very important book account in the U.K. at the time, and presented the list to the book buyer, who also bought hats and gloves. The buyer thought the price and format were good but didn't want to buy the titles because he doubted Woolworths customers would care to buy them. At that point, the buyer's wife, who was meeting him for lunch, walked in and saw what Lane was selling and liked them. Woolworths then ordered 6,000 copies of each title, and other booksellers followed suit.

The rest is Penguin history: in the first four days on sale, that initial list of 10 sold some 150,000 copies. In the first year, three million copies sold. At the end of three years, 17 million Penguin Books titles had been sold. By 1937, there were 100 Penguin Books titles in print, and every new title had a first printing of at least 50,000 copies.

With those first 10 titles, Penguin hit upon its successful style: the Penguin logo that quickly became iconic, simple design, distinctive typography and color-coded covers (blue for biography, green for detective fiction and orange for novels). And while the author remains key, the brand is like no other in publishing and suggests to readers that a Penguin book is worth checking out.

Just one example of the power of the Penguin: when Terry Waite was held as a hostage in Lebanon between 1987 and 1991, his captors, with whom he did not share a common language, gave him a few trashy English-language books. To show he wanted something substantial to read, he drew the image of a penguin. Eventually they brought a box of Penguin Books titles.

And the legacy continues.

In the U.S., many millions of Penguin Books are sold every year, and four Penguin paperbacks--The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards, Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert and Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson--have sold more than 21 million copies.

Again and again Penguin staff and Penguin fans note that the company is a master at making backlist vibrant. As Howard Wall put it: "Penguin is able to take books that are important, and make sure they are continually featured, displayed and reordered. It would be easy to move onto the next season's list, but especially with the paperback division on every sales call we continue to talk and make sure they're out front and seen."

Howard Wall is such a fan that he collects Penguin memorabilia, including boxed sets of classic crime titles and banned books, and introduces them to groups at bookstores, libraries, schools and shows--and during the 75th anniversary celebrations (see articles below). "It's almost like a religious experience for some people," he commented. "I think we all have some connection with Penguin. Maybe we read Penguins in school. Maybe a Penguin helped you figure out what to do in life. Maybe your parents read Puffins to you."

In our case, all three!


Penguin supports The Nature Conservancy's Plant a Billion Trees campaign

Penguin Books Celebrates

Penguin Books is celebrating its 75th anniversary online, in the real world, through books, in person, with new books and series. Perhaps the most immediately recognizable way is on the road.

Michael Pollan, Sue Monk Kidd, Jan Karon and other Penguin Books authors have drawn crowds to anniversary events at bookstores across the country this summer. But they aren't acting on their own. The bestselling scribes are sharing the spotlight with a show-stopper: a bright orange Mini Cooper adorned with the publisher's iconic logo.

"One hasn't lived until they are driving down I-110 with [associate publisher] Stephen Morrison in the Penguin-mobile," said Laura Dave, author of The Divorce Party, who caught a ride to an event at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena, Calif.  "The best was that we were in terrible traffic, and people in the cars around us all looked miserable. Then they would turn and see the orange Mini Cooper and smile."

Penguin employees are taking turns behind the wheel and so far have logged more than 12,500 miles. "I'm impressed with how much of the country we've covered in such a short time, and we're not done yet," said marketing director John Fagan. He has ventured to Charleston, S.C., Lexington, Ky., and Charlottesville, Va., and on August 2 he'll join Geraldine Brooks at Bunch of Grapes Bookstore on Martha's Vineyard.

Morrison, Fagan and other staffers like editor Alexis Washam and sales rep Brian A. Wilson are blogging about their experiences at PenguinBooks75.com, the company's website devoted to all things diamond anniversary. The Follow the Car blog is part travelogue, with tips on roller coasters and barbecue joints; part chronicle of the car's adventures, a flat tire among them; and part recap of the bookstore festivities.

The stories are similar from store to store: Passersby outside the Penguin Bookshop in Sewickley, Pa., stopped for photo-ops with the car. "It created excitement in the village and was a fun experience for people," said general manager Maryanne Eichorn. In honor of the car, at the store's Penguin Books anniversary soirée, mini bottles of Coca-Cola, mini quiches, mini hotdogs and other bite-size food and drink were served.

When the Mini arrived at Anderson's Bookshop in Naperville, Ill., the bookstore toasted the 75th anniversary with Little Penguin chardonnay and awarded a prize to the attendee who brought in the oldest Penguin book, which was a 1982 edition of James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The winner received a brand-new Penguin title of her choice and left with The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K. Lee. One book submitted for the contest was a competitor's version of Joyce's Dubliners with a 1992 note urging a student to buy the Penguin edition: "Get Penguin--good for footnotes."

Upcoming events are taking place at the Nantucket Atheneum, co-hosted by Mitchell's Book Corner, with Nathaniel Philbrick on August 5, in Nantucket, Mass., and at BookHampton in East Hampton, N.Y., with Melissa Bank on August 7. Another opportunity for sighting the Penguin-mobile: at the Antique and Classic Car Show in Stowe, Vt., August 14 and 15.

Some have been curious about the car's fate after its anniversary duty is done (it will be auctioned off with proceeds going to the New York Public Library) and the signatures scrawled on the vehicle (the handiwork of Penguin Books authors). "A highlight was getting to sign the car alongside so many literary luminaries," said Kim Edwards, author of The Memory Keeper's Daughter, who headlined the Lexington event at Joseph-Beth Booksellers. "I'm there in silver ink on the black dashboard, just behind the steering wheel, opposite Garrison Keillor."


Viewers of the Bravo TV reality show Work of Art: The Next Great Artist recently saw 12 contestants each create a book cover for a different Penguin Classics title, a task that had been suggested to the network by the publisher. The winner of that competition was John Parot for his cover for H.G. Wells's The Time Machine. That book is now on sale, and Parot, a Los Angeles resident, was a guest at a Penguin Books anniversary event at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena, Calif., last month. (Parot may have had an advantage over the other possible next great artists: his father is a librarian.) Nearly 100 people attended the event, which featured an appearance by the Penguin-mobile Mini Cooper (see above); a reading by Laura Dave, author of The Divorce Party and London Is the Best City in America; and Penguin Books' Howard Wall spoke about the history of the company.


Highlighted in conjunction with the 75th anniversary is Penguin Books' support of the Nature Conservancy and its Plant a Billion Trees campaign, an initiative to revitalize Brazil's Atlantic Forest. The publisher has been an ardent supporter of the campaign since it launched in 2006, and the campaign is being featured at anniversary events and on promotional materials and giveaways--including a bookmark embedded with wildflower seeds that can be planted after serving its literary purpose. The Nature Conservancy is alerting its members about the anniversary gatherings via Twitter (@nature_org).


Penguin and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Ore., are celebrating their respective 75th anniversaries by holding a joint two-day celebration at the Festival's Tudor Guild Gift Shop on Festival grounds. The event will be held on Friday, August 6 (5-8 p.m.), which coincides with the Friday Night Art Walk, and on Saturday, August 7 (10 a.m.-8 p.m.). Penguin Shakespeare-related books will be given prime display space throughout the gift shop. Likewise, the latest edition of Penguin Books' What the World Is Reading sampler (and all 10 books excerpted in the sampler) will be available.

In addition, all Bard lovers attending the Festival those days will be treated to cake and wine, posters, balloons, tattoos, postcards and magnets, and Penguin 75th anniversary versions of the classic Penguin Classics tote bags will be given with purchases. Penguin Gear will also be for sale--T-shirts, caps, mugs, iPod covers, book lights and a baby's onesie that says "future reader" under the logo. Last but not least, a person in Penguin costume will be strutting the company's stuff.

Allen Lane would be proud.


Penguin Ink: Tat-Worthy Titles

A tattoo on executive creative director Paul Buckley's right forearm helped inspire a new series, Penguin Ink, launched in conjunction with the anniversary and featuring works repackaged with covers designed by tattoo artists. During an extensive search for an artist to ink his tattoo, "I was amazed at how talented they are and what a different vision they have from a lot of people I work with," said Buckley. He suggested using tattoo artists to Penguin publisher Kathryn Court, believing the proposal "would fall on its face and meet a horrible end." But it turns out that wasn't the case. "I thought it was a really wonderful and fresh idea," Court said.

The six titles in the Penguin Ink series are Money by Martin Amis, Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee, Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding, From Russia with Love by Ian Fleming, The Bone People by Keri Hulme and The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace.

"We wanted to take some of the modern classics on our list and refresh them and bring them to a new audience," said associate publisher Stephen Morrison. "A fantastically well-designed cover is always an excuse for all of us booksellers and book buyers to take another look at a book." One example of this: after being put on display at Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee, Wis., Wallace's The Broom of the System sold out in a day.

Four more Penguin Ink titles are planned for early 2011: Moon Palace by Paul Auster, The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle, The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter and On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin.

By the way, the tattoo on Buckley's arm that launched the Penguin Ink series? It's a rendition of an 18th-century natural history print of a common grass snake taking a swipe at a songbird called a red-headed tyrant.




Penguin 75: Uncovering Covers

Speaking in Penguin 75: Designers, Authors, Commentary (the Good, the Bad...) about the cover of his novel Love Me, Garrison Keillor said, "Maybe it was designed for the Penguin edition of The Trial by Franz Kafka, and Kafka didn't like it so they stuck me with it."

This is just one of many amusing, insightful, explanatory comments made in Penguin 75 by authors, agents, editors, designers and artists about 75 Penguin Books covers created during the past decade.

"Garrison's comments are hands down my favorite," said Paul Buckley, executive creative director, Penguin Art Group, and editor of Penguin 75. He also contributed an introduction and was the book's originator. "I'm as fascinated by the story of how a cover comes to be as by the cover itself." Penguin 75 includes a foreword by graphic novelist and designer Chris Ware.

The book discusses, for example, the challenge of incorporating a dozen quotations on the front of Ron Currie Jr.'s novel Everything Matters! and why Moustafa Bayoumi overcame his initial reluctance about the packaging of How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America.

"I don't know if it's the zeitgeist we're in right now where everybody seems to want to know everything behind the scenes, whether it's because of reality shows or bloggers, but I think people are curious about the creative process and how it happens," said associate publisher and editor-in-chief Stephen Morrison.

Some 15 different cover designs were created for Zhu Wen's I Love Dollars: And Other Stories of China. The one that made it into print--featuring black-and-white images of a man's face, one of which is covered with a bright red lipstick print--was the favorite among the 10 people Buckley consulted: family members and friends who are Chinese Americans. "Everyone picked 'the cover with that old guy.' Field research!" he wrote in Penguin 75.

Art director Roseanne Serra reminisced about finding someone from the fashion world to create covers for Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions. Her initial idea of working with fashion designers didn't pan out. "That became a horror," she said. "They envision things in 3D, not print, they promise the world, and then they don't return calls." She had a much better experience when she turned to fashion illustrators. "What a pleasure it was to work with Ruben Toledo and get his fun and crazed e-mails," she continued. Toledo's illustrations adorn the covers of The Scarlet Letter and Pride and Prejudice, but Wuthering Heights was his personal favorite to give a couture-inspired twist. "I believe that places do shape us as much as our DNA," noted Toledo in reference to Emily Brontë's haunting tale. "The GLOOM and DOOM of the atmosphere is like an IMPOSSIBLE ROMANTIC GHOST STORY."

In addition to illuminating how a book cover comes to be, Penguin 75 emphasizes the diversity of Penguin Books. "We publish very widely and sometimes that surprises people," said president and publisher Kathryn Court. "It's really an unusual book. Even though it's about design and covers, there is quite a lot about the publishing process--how we decide to put a cover on a book, how it changes, and what the authors really think of their covers."


True Originals: Penguin Makes Paperbacks

One of many ways Penguin Books is celebrating its 75th anniversary is with "Penguin Makes Paperbacks," a program that gives extra attention to certain fiction titles on the publisher's list. The initial four books are by authors from the U.S., the U.K. and Australia, and include two debut novels.

"One of the challenges publishers have is to bring in new literary writers, new voices, from Europe and elsewhere in the world," said president and publisher Kathryn Court. "We've been doing this for a while, but with the anniversary we thought it was a part of our history that we should focus on."

Published in April, The Slap by Australian novelist, playwright and screenwriter Christos Tsiolkas literally starts with a slap: the novel is set in motion when a man slaps another couple's child at a neighborhood barbecue in suburban Melbourne. The Los Angeles Times called The Slap "a layered, briskly paced story about complex people. Think Tom Wolfe meets Philip Roth. Or The Sopranos meets The Real Housewives of Orange County."

Light Boxes is American writer Shane Jones's first novel, set in a town where the inhabitants are experiencing a perpetual February. A god-like spirit is punishing the town for flying hot-air balloons and kites, and bans flight of all kind. As snow continues to blanket the ground and rivers remain frozen, children go missing and adults become nearly catatonic with depression. But others find the strength to fight back, waging war on February. Film rights to the fable have been acquired by director Spike Jonze.

British novelist and playwright Adam Fould's The Quickening Maze, published in June, won a laudatory review in the New Yorker, "a complete rave to start the ball rolling," said associate publisher and editor-in-chief Stephen Morrison. Based on real events, the novel--shortlisted for last year's Booker Prize--is set in 1837, in the Epping Forest outside London. Nature poet John Clare, struggling with alcoholism and depression, is ensconced at the mental asylum High Beach. Soon, another famed writer, the young Alfred Tennyson, moves nearby and becomes entwined in the schemes of the hospital's peculiar owner, his lonely adolescent daughter and a cast of mysterious local characters.

Linda Ramsdell, owner of the Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick, Vt., is a fan of British writer Jim Powell's "quietly profound and robustly witty" debut novel, The Breaking of Eggs, published this month. In it, 61-year-old Feliks, who is a naturalized Frenchman originally from Poland and a former Communist, has made his living writing an annual travel guide to the countries of the Soviet bloc. In 1991, after the Iron Curtain falls, he returns to the place he has long despised and embarks on a journey of self-discovery. "This is the bookseller's favorite kind of novel, a book to put in the hands of men and women of all ages, knowing that they will be back as soon as they have read it for copies to give to others who take great pleasure in reading," remarked Ramsdell.

[We liked The Breaking of Eggs, too, calling it "a moving and satisfyingly complex novel about coming to terms with personal history and identity in a post-World War II Europe." (Shelf Awareness, July 17, 2010)]

Morrison called the initial foursome "on the more literary end of the spectrum. Titles like this can be challenging to publish, and yet if you get them to the right audience, you can introduce a career to people who ideally love the book and start to feel passionate about the author." Especially in tough economic times, Court noted, consumers are more likely to spend $15 but not $25 or more on an unknown author. "In a way it goes back to what Allen Lane wanted to do when he started the company, which is to make really good books available at a price people can afford," she said. "That has always been Penguin's mission."

The "Penguin Makes Paperbacks" campaign will continue with Hector and the Search for Happiness, a first novel by French writer and psychiatrist François Lelord that will be published in September, and My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales, an October title edited by Kate Bernheimer and collecting stories by Michael Cunningham, Francine Prose and other contemporary fiction authors.



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