Albatross books may just be old paperbacks, published in Continental Europe, but they’re surely some of the most beautifully designed books ever – a delight to hold in your hand. Writing about the Albatross design in the Penrose Annual in 1953, over twenty years after the launch, Hans Schmoller, the Head of Design at Penguin Books, was still able to say ‘To this day it forms perhaps, from the point of view of design, the pinnacle among paper-covered books.’
The selection of authors and titles is equally impressive. Its first list of 10 books in 1932 included titles by James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Aldous Huxley and by 1934 its list of published authors also included D.H. Lawrence, Evelyn Waugh, Katherine Mansfield, Agatha Christie, A.A. Milne, John Masefield and Dorothy L. Sayers. Amongst the titles it published in this first two years were ‘Brave New World’, ‘Ulysses’, ‘The Maltese Falcon’, ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ and ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, new titles at the time, but now almost forming part of the English language.
All of this was in competition to Tauchnitz, the firm that dominated English language publishing in continental Europe, and might have been expected to have a stranglehold on the market and the best new novels. Albatross exposed the weaknesses in editorial policy at Tauchnitz, the complacency in marketing and the inadequacies in design. In comparison to the modern Albatross Books, Tauchnitz Editions looked drab and squat. It was an unequal contest. Within two years Albatross had effectively taken over Tauchnitz, ending its near 100 year dominance of the market.
The series provided the inspiration for the launch of Penguin Books in the UK in 1935. Allen Lane, as a Director of the British publisher, The Bodley Head, had discussed the possibility of a joint venture with Albatross. When that foundered on copyright issues, amongst other things, he went ahead separately with the launch of Penguin. As well as using a seabird as his brand and logo, he imitated the size of the books, the use of colour-coding for genre and the use of dustwrappers in the same design as the books, all innovations introduced by Albatross.
There were around 400 volumes issued in the Albatross Modern Continental Library between 1932 and 1939. This includes around 100 volumes separately branded as the Albatross Crime Club and the Albatross Mystery Club, which were linked to the Collins Crime Club in the UK. The series includes much of the best of English literature from the 1920s and 1930s. Although there were attempts to revive it after the war, the market had by then changed and it was never able to regain the prominence of those heady early days.
It’s a great series for collectors, although I don’t think many collections exist, either in libraries or privately. They’re beautiful books, mostly not particularly rare or expensive, but with some that are certainly now difficult to find, particularly among the crime titles. At one time it would have required a grand tour around the second-hand bookshops of Europe, but the internet has changed all that.