Monthly Archives: September 2018

Rhombuses are forever

The market for English books published and sold in continental Europe was dominated by Tauchnitz for a long time.  Many competitors came and went, mostly unable to make much of a dent in the position of Tauchnitz.  But the First World War, which separated the German firm from its authors and from many of its customers, provided a rare opportunity for other firms to intervene.    The Nelson’s Continental series that launched in Paris in 1916 and the Standard Collection from Louis Conard in Brussels, were just two of the rival series that sprung up to fill the void.

Even after the end of the war, Tauchnitz continued to be hobbled by its aftermath and by the rampant inflation that took hold in Germany.   It was certainly several years before the company got back to anything like its former market position and arguably it never recovered the vigour and the dominance it had previously had.  The market opportunity for other companies persisted and one firm that decided to dip a toe into the water was the Rhombus publishing company based in Vienna.

Rhombus 25 Masque of Red death

‘Rhombus Editions’ seems to me a spectacularly bad choice of name.   There’s a perfectly good English word for the shape that mathematicians insist on calling a rhombus, and the same is true in German.  The shape is a diamond and if that’s the shape you want for your marketing, then surely ‘Diamond Editions’ is a better name than ‘Rhombus Editions’. But Rhombus Editions it was.

They launched around 1920, with a series of very slim volumes, typically only about 80 pages long.  This may have been the result of paper shortages in post-war Austria, or may have been a recognition that many potential purchasers had limited English and could not tackle a full length novel.  It’s also possible that the books were partly aimed at schools, or more generally at students.  Whatever the reason, Rhombus published mostly short stories and looked more like the Tauchnitz Pocket Library editions that the German publisher had issued during the war, than standard Tauchnitz Editions.

They were also more like the Tauchnitz Pocket Library in including only (?) out-of-copyright works by dead authors.  Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and William Thackeray all feature heavily alongside even earlier poets and playwrights.   Whereas the Tauchnitz list had for many years included more volumes by female than male authors while focusing on contemporary works, this list is almost entirely male as well as entirely dead.

Rhombus 51 The black cat

Working out what books existed is not easy, as relatively few of them remain and it’s not clear that the numbering system was either consistent or comprehensive.  Lists in the books I have seen include titles with a selection of numbers between 2 and 99, accounting for about thirty books in this range, but also many missing numbers.  Those may have been books that quickly went out of print, or they may never have been issued.

Rhombus 549 The purloined letter

After volume 99 in about 1922, the cover design changed and the series numbering moved on to 501.   From here on all numbers seem to be accounted for up to about 560.   But the series started to include some longer works, which were presumably sold at a higher price and were given two numbers, or even three.  These are not numbers for separate volumes, just two or three consecutive numbers given to a single book in a single volume.   So volumes 508/9 is Oliver Goldsmith’s ‘The citizen of the world’ and Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket’ is given numbers 518/19/20.

Rhombus 518 20 Edgar-Allan-Poe+The-narrative-of-Arthur-Gordon-Pym-of-Nantucket

Counting these as a single volume each, I can account for around seventy or so volumes in the series, issued roughly between 1920 and 1925, but there may have been many more.

Rhombus French Un phillosophe

Alongside the series of works in English, the firm published similar series in French and in Spanish as well as some books in German.  The ‘Bibliothèque Rhombus’ and ‘Biblioteca Rhombus’ seem to have been no more successful than the ‘Rhombus Edition’ and after 1925 they all seem to disappear.

Early Tauchnitz catalogues

For the first 30 years or so of the Tauchnitz Editions, the firm listed all of the titles in the series on the wrappers of each book.  For the early volumes in 1843, the list fitted easily onto the back cover in a single column, but as the number of titles grew, it had to become a two column list, then three columns.  The type became smaller and smaller, but by 1859 with the series having grown to over 450 volumes, the struggle became too much.  The list was then extended over both inside wrappers as well as the back, going back to a two column list and a more readable type size.

  Tauchnitz 381 rear wrapper    Tauchnitz 1218 back wrapper

An early issue (1857) with all titles listed on the back and a later one (1872) with the list extending over inner wrappers as well

That format kept them going for quite a while longer, but by 1872 the number of volumes had grown to over 1200 and this too was becoming impossible to manage.  The decision was taken to start printing separate monthly catalogues of all the titles published so far.  A copy would be tipped in at the end of each volume, or for books published in two or three volumes, at the end of the final volume only.

Tauchnitz 1230 Catalogue June 1872

It was not an entirely new idea – the firm had earlier experimented with catalogues inside their books.  Even as early as 1845 a single sheet had appeared in volume 76 listing the volumes issued to date and in 1854 a 4-sided catalogue was included in at least one volume.

  Tauchnitz 76 advertisement page    Tauchnitz 310 Bound-in catalogue

Early one-off examples of catalogues from 1845 and 1854

But by 1872 catalogues began to appear in all volumes, with a new version being printed every month.  To start with they had sixteen sides, which gave a lot more room than the three sides of wrappers previously available.   The layout could be improved, and titles included from other series as well as from the main ‘Collection of British Authors’.  The layout of the rear wrapper of the book could also be improved, now showing only a small number of recently published or forthcoming volumes, with the inside wrappers left blank.

Tauchnitz catalogue sample page

A sample page from an early catalogue

How effective the catalogues were as advertising is difficult to tell.  They were rarely bound into volumes taken to a bookbinder, but some copies may have been detached and kept for reference.  Catalogues survive in many of the paperback copies, but often the pages are uncut, so presumably were not even looked at.  They were printed on a single sheet and then folded into a sixteen page booklet, but as with the books themselves, cutting and separating the pages was a task left to the buyers.

Advertising can sometimes be effective though, even if only a small proportion of people take any notice of it and given that the catalogues continued for roughly the next 60 years, they must have been judged a success.  The Todd & Bowden bibliography records copies dated for almost every month from May 1872 to the end of 1899.  I can fill in several of the gaps as well from my own collection, so I think it’s likely that copies were updated every month over that period.   After 1900 it became more complicated, although they did continue for more than another thirty years.  I’ll come back to those later issues another time.

In most cases the catalogue date is the same as, or very close to, the date on the back wrapper of the book it’s tipped into.  But not always.   It’s not uncommon for the dates to differ by a few months and sometimes the difference can be several years, in either direction.  The catalogue date may be earlier than the wrapper date or vice versa.

I’ve never quite understood how this worked.  Were books in some cases prepared and bound into a wrapper, but then held in the warehouse, perhaps for several years?  Then perhaps an up to date catalogue was added in when they were ordered by booksellers?  That might explain catalogues later than the wrappers, but how to explain wrappers later than the catalogues?

  Tauchnitz 2828 rear wrapper  Tauchnitz 2828 catalogue

This copy of volume 2828, first published in May 1892 has a catalogue for May 1892, but wrappers dated October 1895

Was there at some stage a change of practice so that copies were stored in the warehouse with pages and catalogue bound together, but no wrappers?   If catalogues were being sewn in with the pages, rather than just tipped in with glue, that might make sense.  I can’t easily tell the difference, but looking at copies I have, I think it’s possible that at some stage, catalogues started to be sewn in rather than glued in.

In practice the rule I use for my own collection is that for a paperback copy to be considered a first printing, it should have wrappers with the first printing date on, whatever the date of the catalogue.  In practice though, many copies with later dated wrappers may also be first printings in terms of the pages, and a catalogue with the first printing date may be a good indication of this.   On the other hand copies with the first printing wrappers, seem likely to be first printings even if they contain later catalogues.  It’s hard to imagine earlier dated wrappers being added to a later printed book.  Much easier to imagine later dated wrappers being added to an earlier printed book.