Back to basics – Collins White Circle paperbacks

This blog was supposed to be mostly about books, particularly vintage paperbacks.  It’s been rather taken over by theatre reviews and travel writing, but it’s time to get back to basics.

And what could be more basic than Collins White Circle paperbacks?   Although they followed in the footsteps of Penguin Books, launching less than a year later, in 1936, they had little of Penguin’s high-minded idealism.  At heart they were a publisher of genre fiction – crime, mystery, westerns and romance.   But they still followed the basic Penguin formula – standard size, standard price of sixpence, standard covers with colour and design indicating genre, but otherwise un-illustrated, dustwrappers in the same design as the cover.

White Circle 107 low   White Circle 045 low

Standard cover designs for the Wild West and Crime Club sub-series

On the face of it this is a bit odd.  There were plenty of paperbacks for sale before Penguin, and many of them were precisely in this market sector of genre fiction.   The one thing that they had in common was illustrated covers, often very gaudily illustrated.   Penguin’s innovation was to bring in soberly designed covers, aimed at a different audience, cultivating an image of seriousness, if not intellectual snobbery.   Even if Penguin’s actual output didn’t always match this image, there was at least a consistency in their branding.   But why would a publisher of genre fiction use such similar branding?

White Circle 226 low   White Circle 318 low

Mystery and romance cover designs

The answer presumably is that in reality the market sectors the two publishers were aiming at were not so different.   This was the golden age of detective fiction and the Collins Crime Club hardbacks had achieved a level of intellectual credibility and middle class acceptance.   Many of them had already been published as up-market paperbacks on the continent in the Albatross series that was Penguin’s inspiration.   Illustrated covers would have signalled a move down market.  Collins were probably aiming rather more up market than usual for genre fiction, and Penguin were aiming a bit more down market than they’d have liked to admit.   After all, Penguin’s own output included a significant number of crime titles.

White Circle 502 low

The few general fiction titles had more individual cover designs.

The White Circle series seems anyway to have been successful, and by the outbreak of war in 1939 it ran to almost 200 books.   Penguin by that point had reached about 220 in their main series, although they had also diversified in various other directions, notably into non-fiction through Pelicans and Penguin Specials.  With production in the UK hampered by war-time restrictions, Collins too had to diversify, launching a long series of White Circle Services Editions and exporting the White Circle brand to Canada, India and Australia.   All that’s a story for another day though, as is the renaissance of the series after the end of the war, when it continued to challenge Penguin for another 15 years through to the end of the 1950s.

Posted on August 21, 2014, in Vintage Paperbacks and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

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