Readers Library wartime paperbacks

The Readers’ Library had been a long-running series of cheap hardback books selling at 6d, often at non-traditional outlets such as Woolworths, and notable for their colourful dustwrappers with wrap-around illustrations. The business together with the associated printing company Greycaine, had been owned by Frank Grey and Ralph Hall Caine, son of the novelist Hall Caine. It was also associated with the Queensway Press, publishers of the Chevron / New Chevron paperback series in the late 1930s.

A typical Readers Library hardback dustwrapper

The main Readers’ Library series ran from about 1924 until the late 1930s when the business ran into financial trouble and went into receivership. After that it’s unclear exactly what happened, although bits of the business were sold off and the printing company certainly continued to operate. Like many publishing businesses at the time, much of it eventually seems to have ended up in the arms of Walter Hutchinson and his Hutchinson Group.

In the run-up to World War II, the Hutchinson Group, a sprawling conglomerate of publishing companies, had applied a scattergun approach to the problem of competing with Penguin in the paperback market. Over a period of just four years, it launched at least seven new series in ‘Penguin format’ – first the Hutchinson Pocket Library, followed in quick succession by the Crime Book Society, the Toucan Novels, the Jackdaw Library, the Hutchinson Popular Pocket Library, the Wild West Pocket Library and John Long Four Square Books.

As if that wasn’t enough, in 1940 three new series appeared from the Leisure Library, another branch of Hutchinson – the Wild West Library, the Crime Novel Library and the Romantic Novel Library. Whether this was a deliberate strategy to try lots of different experiments in the hope that one of them worked, or whether it was simply the result of a lack of coordination with the Group, I have no idea.

As wartime conditions and particularly the effect of paper rationing started to bite, there may have been a realisation that this was becoming unsustainable. Each of the series gradually petered out, serial numbering of the books came to an end and the uniform price of 6d was impossible to maintain. By about 1942 a price rise to 9d was inevitable (quickly followed by 1s and then 1s 3d), and the books were becoming very thin and cramped in accordance with the War Economy Standard.

You might have thought that the last thing this group needed was to bring in another publisher of 6d paperbacks or hardbacks. But that seems to be what happened. The Readers Library Publishing Co. joined Hutchinson, and at least two Chevron paperbacks appeared during the war with advertising for the Hutchinson Book Club, so presumably as part of Hutchinson.

Between about 1943 and 1948 there seem to have been almost no new titles added to any of Hutchinson’s pre-war 6d series. The separate brandings of Toucan, Jackdaw, Crime Book Society and so on were dropped until about 1948 when they came back in a rather different format. Instead the group appears to have temporarily dropped the idea of Penguin-style series branding and gone back to illustrated covers. Many of the early books from this period are shown as published by Hutchinson, others by Skeffington, Jarrolds or other companies within the group.

But then rather surprisingly, a lot of the paperbacks started to appear as published by the Readers Library Publishing Company in association with Hutchinson, or in association with one of the other group companies. I have examples of books published in association with Jarrolds, Stanley Paul, Hutchinson, Hurst & Blackett and The Grout Publishing Co., and there are no doubt others. Many have illustrated covers, but others have non-illustrated designs. There is no obvious series design, or uniformity, although in some ways the books are quite standardised. All have an advert for Hutchinson’s Universal Book Club on the back cover and adverts on the inside covers for ‘Super Shave’ shaving cream and ‘The little chap’ stain remover. They’re in conformity with the War Economy standards for book production, so with very cramped text, thin margins, thin paper covers and generally poor quality paper. In almost every respect except cover design, they look like a series.

A selection of ‘in association with’ titles

The fact that all these are shown as published by the Readers Library Publishing Co. does seem to be an attempt to impose some consistency on the various paperbacks coming out of the Hutchinson Group. It’s strange then that in terms of the front covers, it seems to be such a free-for all. In some respects it represents a complete breakaway from the Penguin style, almost a reversion to what existed pre-Penguin, and maybe not before time. But it’s surprising how little uniformity of style there is, and still some of the covers are non-illustrated, in various formats.

None of the books are dated, but I have one, priced at 1s 3d and with a gift message handwritten in it dated 1944, so I guess this is from 1943 or 1944. Others priced at 1s 6d may be a bit later, but they all look like wartime production, or possibly immediately post-war, so overall they maybe cover the period from about 1943 to 1947. Most of the books are printed by the Anchor Press, but a few are printed by Greycaine, the former Readers Library printing company, by then owned by Taylor Garnett Evans and Co.

It seems to have been a temporary solution, a wartime attempt to shore up an arrangement that had become impossibly unwieldy. After the war the group would go off in different directions. But because thin wartime paperbacks are so fragile and ephemeral, and probably printed in relatively low numbers in the first place, this chapter in paperback history risks being lost.

Posted on February 2, 2021, in Vintage Paperbacks and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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