The end of Albatross: not with a bang but a whimper

The attempt to revive Albatross after the Second World War lasted only 3 or 4 years, from 1947 to 1950.  In fact most of the new works published in this period, at least in English, came in 1947.  After that only a handful of new books were added to the main Albatross series, although it continued to re-issue books published before the war, and it also diversified into books in other languages.

Albatross had been very successful as a publisher before the war, both in economic terms, and in literary terms, offering the first European publication to a succession of major novels by writers such as James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Aldous Huxley, Robert Graves and Evelyn Waugh as well as crime writers like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers.  For much of that period it had been led by John Holroyd-Reece, who was also responsible for the post-war revival.  Why could he not continue the record of success?

Albatross 514 Grandma called it carnal  Albatross 516 The legacy (post-war)

Volume 514 (pre-war) and volume 516 (post-war)

The business re-started more or less where it had stopped eight years previously at the outbreak of war.   The last books to be published had been numbered up to volume 514 and then volume 518, with 515 to 517 not appearing.   After the war, the numbering re-started from 550, but three volumes with earlier numbers also appeared (516, 517 and 521), presumably because they were about to be published with those numbers when war intervened.   It’s almost as if somebody just dusted off the old files and went back to where they were.

In that first year of the re-launch, a total of 27 books were added to the series – not quite up to the rate at which books were being published before the war, but respectable enough.  A significant number of volumes from the pre-war Albatross series were also reprinted, as well as a selection of pre-war Tauchnitz volumes in Albatross branding.  It seems clear though that sales were not up to expectations and a high proportion of the books languished in warehouses.

Albatross 559 Brideshead Revisited

Albatross 559 published in 1947

In literary terms, the highlight of the publishing programme was ‘Brideshead revisited’, newly published in the UK in 1945.   Virginia Woolf’s pre-war novel ‘The years’ was also included, and there are books by Rosamond Lehmann, Agatha Christie, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves, but the list lacks some of the sparkle of the pre-war years.  Despite the backing of Collins, there was no return for the Albatross Crime Club, and only a small number of crime titles were added to the main series.

With sales disappointing, the new publishing programme had to be cut back drastically, and I can only track down about three new titles published in 1948, another three in 1949 and then six in 1950 before the series finally expired.

Quite why it failed, is hard to say with confidence, 65 years later.   But conditions in the market had changed irreversibly.   The massive success of Penguin, with their print runs of 100,000 copies, may have made it all but impossible for a small scale publisher specialising only in the Continental European market, to compete.  Obtaining the agreement of authors, their agents or their UK publishers, to sell European paperback rights separately, may also have been increasingly difficult, when the market could be adequately covered by Penguin or other UK paperback publishers.

The business did have some success with foreign language translations of English novels, and bound editions of the Albatross titles (possibly unsold stock re-bound?) continued to be sold in Europe, possibly for several more years after 1950, although it’s hard to be sure.  But for the most part, by 1950 the game was up.  The Albatross brand was about to disappear, followed not long after by that of Tauchnitz, the business it had first vanquished and then revived.

Portuguese Albatross P3 O caso dos suicidos  Spanish Albatross 6 Jim se va a su casa

Portuguese and Spanish Albatross editions from around 1948

Posted on March 8, 2015, in Vintage Paperbacks and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

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