The Guild finds a purpose
Guild Books may have failed miserably in their initial attack in 1941 on the core market of Penguin Books, and they were to fail again in a later post-war attempt, but there was one area in which they completely outshone Penguin. Their series of 230 Services Editions set the standard for these historic paperbacks distributed to UK forces around the world, and succeeded in an area where Penguin had been badly wounded and had withdrawn from the fray.
The failure of Penguin’s Forces Book Club is a topic for another day, but by early 1943 when the Armed Services were looking for publishers to provide them with cheap paperbacks, Penguin were not really in the market. Collins instead stepped in with their White Circle books, and the other main series came from the British Publishers Guild. They had launched Guild Books to compete with Penguin with little success, but now in the hour of their country’s need, they finally found a real purpose.
The report of the officer in charge of the Services Central Book Depot for the period up to June 1943, refers to an arrangement to provide 70 books in a print run of 50,000 copies each and at a cost of 5½ pence a book. The books were to be mostly up-to-date books, which had not before been printed in a cheap edition, and to be delivered by the end of June 1943. The books, he reports, ‘were most favourably commented upon and received a great reception’.
However, as only the first 65 books are dated 1943, it seems unlikely that 70 different books were in practice provided by June 1943. It may be that 65 were delivered and there was then a gap before the series was extended in 1944, or it may be that a steady supply of new titles was provided rather than a one-off delivery. The first 70 books came from a total of 15 different publishers, so it would hardly be surprising if there were some difficulties in co-ordination.
The design of the books followed the same format as the original Guild series, with a white diagonal stripe across the front cover for the title and author, but now with the words ‘Services Edition’ printed above and below it. On the back cover the stripe was used for a standard wording about the Services Central Book Depot and the purpose of the series. Instead of colour coding being used to denote the price, it was now used for genre, with red for crime and thrillers, blue for general fiction and light brown for non-fiction. A rough balance between the three categories was maintained throughout the series.
First printing (left) and wider reprint (right)
70 books at 50,000 copies each amounts to three and a half million books. But if you look today for copies of them on the major internet sites for second-hand books, you’ll be lucky to find a single one. There will be copies of later reprints (often described by booksellers as first printings, but distinguishable by being rather wider and being printed by The Amalgamated Press in a stapled format) but almost no first printings from 1943. Three and a half million books have essentially disappeared, and the same is true of the similar number of Collins Services Editions printed at the same time. There are no copies of them in the British Library or any other major library that I’m aware of, and not even a list of the titles. I’ve now tracked down at least the titles of 60 of those first 70 books, and actual copies of rather fewer of them, but there are still lots of gaps in my knowledge about them. I’d love help that anybody else can provide, before the knowledge and any remaining copies of the books themselves, finally disappear. I’ll go on to look at the continuation of the series in my next post.