Author Archives: jojoal
Allen Lane’s decision to abandon cover art when he launched Penguin Books in July 1935, was a revolutionary move that was followed by almost all of his competitors. Previously lurid cover designs gave way to much more restrained design. So what is happening just two years later, when Lane seems to abandon all restraint with the Penguin Specials series?
It is not yet the return of multi-coloured cover art. It would be many more years before Lane could reconcile himself to such a step. But the screaming headlines, the long prose blurbs and the occasional cartoons and maps on the covers of the Penguin Specials are a long way away from the simple tripartite model of the main Penguin series.
The series of topical political tracts on world affairs, launched in late 1937 was a huge success. The turbulent state of European politics had created an appetite for information on international affairs that Lane was happy to satisfy. The initial print run of 50,000 for the first volume sold out within four days and had to be almost immediately reprinted. Other books sold in their hundreds of thousands and their success gave Penguin a platform for later domination. When paper rationing was introduced later in the war, the allocations were based on paper use in these pre-war years and Penguin were using paper in vast quantities.
But why the lack of restraint in design? Penguin seem to have decided that in the political situation of the time, with the threat of war looming, restraint was simply not appropriate. Every new book in the series, and every new topic, was a matter of screaming urgency and the covers should reflect this.
And the books were after all, despite their lack of restraint, still recognisably Penguins. Enough of the basic Penguin design was retained for that to be clear. They carried the Penguin brand and the values associated with it – a certain vague notion of seriousness, quality and intellectual aspiration. Despite the shoutiness of the covers, these were not to be seen as populist or downmarket. The basic colour was still orange, the colour most associated with Penguin (or Pelican blue for those volumes branded as Pelican specials), the design was still based on horizontal bands, the Penguin logo was still in much the same place at the bottom of the front cover, and the price of course was still 6d.
The style of cover was not really new. The covers remind me particularly of the dustwrapper designs on many hardback books from Gollancz in the 1930s, and no doubt other publishers too. But I don’t think they were normal on paperbacks at this time, and if anybody was going to introduce them, the last person you’d have in mind would be Allen Lane. For the second time in three years, he was revolutionising paperback cover design.
But in the end this one wasn’t really a revolution. Other companies didn’t copy it, although Hutchinson moved some way in the same direction for a while. Perhaps even more significantly, Penguin themselves didn’t persist for too long with the policy. When war was declared in September 1939, the series had reached almost 40 titles, but gradually screaming headlines started to give way to the more sober realities of war. By 1942, as the series passed 100 volumes, a new design was emerging that had no room for long quotations or cartoons and was much more like the classic Penguin design. This looks to me to be a recognition that the technique of shouting can be very effective in the short term, particularly if unexpected, but almost inevitably loses its effectiveness and shows diminishing returns if persisted with. Restraint was back in fashion.
A Penguin special from 1943
The recent news of the death of Charles Aznavour reminded me, like many others, that this most French of singers, was born as Shahnour Vaghinag Aznavourian, the son of Armenian immigrants. To the British at least, he had an impeccably French accent, sang quintessentially French songs about French passions and in an unmistakably French way.
Which reminds me in turn of Michael Arlen, that most English of early twentieth century writers, who was though born as Dikran Kouyoumdjian, the son of Armenian immigrants to Britain. He himself was born in Bulgaria, but came to England with his parents in 1901 at the age of 5. He was sent to Malvern College, which no doubt turned him into the perfect English gentleman, as it no doubt still does for his modern equivalents. He remained a Bulgarian citizen though throughout the First World War (in which Bulgaria was aligned with Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire) becoming a British Citizen only in 1922 and changing his name at this point to Michael Arlen.
My interest in him is focused on the books he had published in Continental Europe by Tauchnitz and Albatross and in the UK by Penguin and Hutchinson. He first appeared as a Tauchnitz author in 1930, one of the new authors introduced by Max Christian Wegner, who had been appointed as General Manager of the company in 1929. The first of his books to appear was ‘Lily Christine’ as volume 4926. As usual Tauchnitz preferred to start by publishing his latest work, rather than going back to the earlier works that had made his name.
‘Lily Christine’, a tangled romance chronicling the lives of upper class society in the 1920s ‘Jazz Age’, had been published in the UK in 1928. It is probably fairly typical of the novels that led to Arlen being described as the English F. Scott Fitzgerald. The first printing in Tauchnitz is dated March 1930 at the top of the rear wrapper, and like all first printings from this era, has a two column list of latest volumes on the back and inside wrappers. Later printings have a single column listing on the back only.
It was followed shortly after by ‘Babes in the Wood’, a collection of short stories that begins with an apparently autobiographical story called ‘Confessions of a naturalised Englishman’ (although a note adds that all characters are fictitious, including the author). It appeared as volume 4943 and the first printing is dated June 1930 at the top of the rear wrapper. In the three months between publication of the two books, Tauchnitz had introduced a modernised design for the front wrappers, so that they look rather different at first.
A final Tauchnitz volume, ‘Men dislike women’ appeared the following year, as volume 5001, dated July 1931 on the rear wrapper. By this time Christian Wegner had been fired by Tauchnitz and was shortly to re-appear as one of the founders of the rival Albatross series. Albatross was hugely successful in persuading leading British and American authors to publish with them rather than Tauchnitz, and Arlen quickly switched allegiance to the new firm, no doubt partly because of his earlier relationship with Wegner.
‘Young men in love’, an earlier novel by Arlen, first published in 1927, appeared as volume 40 of the Albatross series in late 1932, in the blue covers used to identify love stories. Then in 1934, ‘Man’s mortality’, a rather different type of novel from his usual romances, was published as volume 211. This is more like science fiction, set 50 years in the future and often compared (almost always unfavourably) with Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’, published the previous year. Albatross gave it the yellow covers representing ‘psychological novels, essays etc.’, although perhaps slightly oddly ‘Brave New World’ had been given the orange covers of ‘tales and short stories, humorous and satirical works’.
Arlen’s third and final book in Albatross, was a book of short stories though, and so was given orange covers, making him one of only a handful of writers to have books published in Albatross in three different categories / colours (Evelyn Waugh, Aldous Huxley and Katherine Mansfield were others, and D.H. Lawrence managed four). ‘The Crooked Coronet’ was published in March 1938 as volume 362.
This was long after Albatross had taken over editorial control of Tauchnitz in 1934, with the two series being managed jointly from then on. Arlen could presumably have been published in either series, and the criteria for determining which series was used, are not entirely clear. Most authors stayed with the series they were published in before the two came together, generally with more of the edgier modern authors in Albatross and more of the longer established or more conservative authors in Tauchnitz. That fitted the harsh reality that authors banned by the Nazis could not be published by the German-based Tauchnitz. I don’t think that Michael Arlen was ever banned (or could ever be described as edgy and modern), so presumably he stayed in Albatross just because that was where he was at the time of the coming together.
Meanwhile in the UK, Penguin had been launched in 1935 and was buying up paperback rights where it could, mostly for books published several years earlier, rather than the latest novels. They obtained the rights to Michael Arlen’s ‘These charming people’, another collection of short stories that had been first published by Collins in 1923, and this appeared as volume 86 of the Penguin series in 1937. It includes a story called ‘When the nightingale sang in Berkeley Square’, a title that was later appropriated for a song that became one of the most popular songs of the second world war.
I think ‘These charming people’ was the only one of Michael Arlen’s works to appear in Penguin, but at least two others appeared in Hutchinson’s Pocket Library. Hutchinson was the original UK publisher for several of Arlen’s books, so they were in a stronger position to publish paperback editions in their series competing against Penguin. ‘Young men in love’ appeared as volume 50 of the series in May 1938 and ‘Lily Christine as volume 59 in October of the same year.
There may have been other paperback editions in other series, but by this time Arlen’s style was going out of fashion. He wrote mainly about an era and a society that had vanished, at least from public sympathy, with the depression of the 1930s and that was totally out of tune with the conditions of the second world war. For a few short years though he had been one of the most popular writers in Britain. His most successful novel, ‘The green hat’, first published in 1924, doesn’t seem to have ever appeared in paperback.
Arlen himself had left Britain in 1927, first joining D.H. Lawrence in Florence and then moving to Cannes, where he married a Greek Countess, Atalanta Mercati. He returned to Britain during the war, but then moved to the US for the last years of his life. His son, Michael J. Arlen, an American with Armenian / British / Greek / French / Bulgarian heritage, has written ‘Exiles’, a memoir of his parents and his childhood, itself published many years later in Penguin.
Believe it or not, there were paperbacks in the UK before Penguin. There were even sixpenny paperbacks. There had been for a very long time and they were particularly plentiful in the first thirty years or so of the twentieth century, before Allen Lane came along to transform the market. Lane’s paperback revolution changed many things, perhaps most notably in getting rid of cover art, but also in changing the size of paperbacks. Before 1935, the standard size for a paperback was roughly 15 cm by 22 cm, or 6 inches by about 8.5 inches, considerably larger than the standard size ushered in by Penguin. What Penguin didn’t change was the price.
Typical large format 6d novels from the early 20th century
There were several long running series of these ‘large format’ paperbacks from publishers such as Hodder & Stoughton, George Newnes and Collins, as well as the series I want to look at here, from Hutchinson. They all looked fairly similar, all of course with cover art, mostly with advertising on the back and on other pages at the front and back as well, all on fairly cheap paper, usually priced at sixpence and often with the text arranged in two columns. That was probably a hangover from the story magazines that came before them that had a long history going back to Charles Dickens and ‘Household Words’ among others.
A sample page with two column format
Frustratingly, another thing most of these books had in common was that they carried no printing dates and as a result there is a lot of confusion about when they were published. In some cases I have seen the same book described by dealers as being from ‘around 1900’ or from ‘the 1930s’, while having little idea which of them is more nearly correct.
Most of the series and most of the books have pretty much disappeared without trace. So far as I know almost nobody collects them or studies them and no libraries have significant holdings of them. There is far more interest in the Penguins and other similar books that replaced them. I can’t complain. That’s where most of my interest has been too.
The replacement happened incredibly quickly. The Hutchinson series of ‘Famous Copyright Novels’ had been running for many years and had reached over 300 titles when Penguin burst onto the scene in July 1935. By October of the same year, the series was dead and Hutchinson had launched a new series that copied Penguin in almost all material respects.
It’s hard to be sure when the Famous Copyright Novels series started, but my best guess is possibly 1924 or 1925. Volume number 2 in the series is ‘Life – and Erica’ by Gilbert Frankau, a book first published in 1924, so the series can’t be earlier than that. Most of the other titles were first published much earlier than this, as might be expected in a paperback reprint series, but I can’t identify any other early titles with a first printing date later than 1924.
If that’s the case, the series ran for around 10 years, from say 1925 to 1935. It had, for most of its life, a quite distinctive and striking appearance with primarily red covers, the title in yellow script and a cut-out style cover illustration with a white margin. Towards the end of the series that seems to have been altered, first to introduce a blue upper panel and then to move to fully illustrated covers with a much weaker series identity.
In other words, just as Penguin were about to launch one of the strongest and most successful attempts at series branding in paperback publishing history, Hutchinson were moving in the opposite direction. That didn’t go too well, then.
A high proportion of the books in the series are romantic novels, mixed in with adventure stories and thrillers. There are not many crime novels or westerns (Collins was the dominant publisher in these genres) and few books with any serious literary pretensions. The author most represented is Charles Garvice, an enormously popular writer of light romances, who on his own accounted for around 50 of the 300 plus titles in the series. Other popular authors included Charlotte M. Brame, Rafael Sabatini, Kathlyn Rhodes, William Le Queux, E.W. Savi and Rider Haggard.
Hutchinson was a sprawling group of associated publishing companies, which each retained some separate identity, and at least one of these, Hurst & Blackett, published a very similar series. Hurst & Blackett’s Famous Copyright Library at 6d a volume seems to have included titles from almost exactly the same authors, although I have not seen a copy of any of them.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When Services Editions were first printed in 1943, Peter Cheyney was one of the most popular and the most prolific authors in Britain. His first novel had been published only in 1936, but had been an almost immediate success and it was rapidly followed by many others. By the end of 1942 Cheyney had around fifteen novels in print.
Most of them were available only in hardback through his publisher Collins, and hardbacks novels were not only expensive, but also limited by paper rationing. To achieve a wider readership they needed to appear in paperback and the natural route was through the Collins White Circle paperback series, probably the most successful of the many rivals to Penguin launched in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
‘Poison Ivy’, one of Cheyney’s early novels featuring the private eye Lemmy Caution, was the first to appear in a White Circle edition in July 1939, and four others followed over the next four years, gradually building the author’s readership. But paper rationing was a problem for paperbacks too and by 1943 the flow of new additions to the White Circle series had slowed to a trickle.
Almost the only remaining route to achieving a mass readership was through the Services Editions, which had a dedicated paper ration for a long print run, typically at least 50,000 copies. The books were then held in the libraries of battalions or other units, or passed around from hand to hand, with each copy possibly read several times. I doubt they paid the author much, but they could certainly build the readership and popularity of an author and anyway it was the patriotic duty of the author to participate in the scheme. Fortunately for Cheyney, Collins were the most enthusiastic of participants, contributing books to the multi-publisher Guild Books series, as well as running their own series.
In 1943 Collins offered ‘Poison Ivy’ to the Guild Books series as volume S61 and for their own series chose ‘Dangerous Curves’ to be included in the first batch of books. Both are now very difficult to find in first printing. As far as I know there was only one printing of ‘Poison Ivy’, but ‘Dangerous Curves’ was reprinted in 1945 and the reprint is much more common. The first printing is dated ‘Services Edition 1943’ and has no spine number, while the reprint is dated 1945 and numbered c207.
There were to be no further Cheyney novels published in Guild Books. All the later books issued were in the Collins series of Services Editions. ‘Dangerous Curves’ was quickly followed by ‘You’d be surprised’ (1943, volume c224), by ‘You can always duck’ (1944, c276) and ‘They never say when’ (1944, c284). I’m reasonably confident of the dates and numbers here, although there’s a little bit of guesswork involved as I have never seen first printing copies of any of these three. I do have a reprint of ‘You can always duck’ dated 1946.
I also have first printing copies of the remaining two Cheyney novels issued in the series, which were issued together in 1945 – ‘Dark duet’ as volume c315 and ‘Sorry you’ve been troubled’ as volume c316. ‘Dark duet’ is notable as the only one of Cheyney’s ‘Dark’ series of spy stories to appear in a Services Edition. The other six novels are all detective stories featuring either Cheyney’s American FBI agent / Private eye Lemmy Caution, or his British equivalent Slim Callaghan.
A total of seven books published in Services Editions makes Peter Cheyney one of the most published authors, almost on a par with Agatha Christie. It was however a small fraction of his output and only a first indication of what was to come. His popularity surged after the war and with the end of Services Editions he went on to become the principal author of ‘mystery stories’ in the White Circle series of paperbacks as well as a mainstay of Pan Books, selling sometimes over a million books in a year.
The distinctive red and black covers of the Albatross Crime Club books from the 1930s will be relatively familiar to anyone with an interest in continental English language editions. I’ve written before about how they resulted from a partnership between Albatross and Collins, publisher of the Collins Crime Club in the UK.
The grey and green covers of the Albatross Mystery Club may be less familiar, partly just because there were far fewer of them, but they may also have been printed and sold in smaller quantities. Certainly some of them are now quite difficult to find, not helped by the fact that they were all issued from 1937 to 1939 in the last couple of years before the Second World War.
The distinction between Crime books and Mystery Books was a peculiarity of Collins. Books published in the Collins Crime Club series in the UK had to conform to certain criteria that defined what a crime story was. Books that didn’t qualify as crime, were published instead as ‘A Collins Mystery’. Since the Albatross Crime Club published only books that had appeared in the Collins Crime Club in the UK, they inherited the problem from Collins, although their answer to it was rather different.
For Collins, ‘The Collins Crime Club’ was a little bit more than just a marketing description. It was at least a mailing list and possibly a bit more than that, if not really a club in the traditional sense. There was no parallel organisation for mystery stories, so no corresponding Collins Mystery Club. For Albatross though, the Albatross Crime Club was purely a brand for marketing purposes. As far as I can tell, it didn’t even have a mailing list or any other pretence of club membership or organisation. So creating a parallel ‘Albatross Mystery Club’ was not at all difficult. All it required was a new logo and a new colour scheme for the books.
It still took them quite a long while to get round to it. The Albatross Crime Club was already four years old and had published some eighty titles before the first Albatross Mystery Club title appeared in 1937. By this point, Collins had also started their own paperback ‘White Circle’ series in the UK, initially only with Crime Club titles, but from January 1937 with a separate Mystery sub-series as well. So Albatross were playing catch-up.
The Albatross Mystery Club began with a run of nine titles numbered from 401 to 409 and dated 1937, while Albatross Crime Club titles continued to be published with numbers in the 100 series. But then in early 1938, all Crime Club titles started to be issued using numbers in the 400s and mixed in with Mystery Club titles. So 410 and 411 are Crime Club titles, then 412 is from the Mystery Club, all these three issued in May 1938. In May, June, July and August there was a consistent pattern of two Crime Club books and one Mystery Club in each month. Then from September 1938 to June 1939, one in each series appeared each month, before the Mystery Club titles came to an end. One Crime Club title a month continued to be published for another four months, before the war finally put an end to them.
So overall nine Mystery Club titles in 1937 then one a month for fourteen months in 1938/39, giving a grand total of 23 books in the grey and green livery of the club. The mix of authors is similar to those published in the White Circle Mystery sub-series in the 1930s, although David Hume is a bit more prominent and J.M. Walsh a bit less so. Hume has 5 of the 23 titles followed by Peter Cheyney with three. Interestingly the White Circle series in the UK didn’t publish its first Cheyney title until July 1939, after all three of these continental editions, although Cheyney went on to become the dominant author for Collins White Circle after the war.
The only books in the Albatross Mystery Club that have really achieved any lasting fame are the two Dorothy L. Sayers novels, both early Lord Peter Wimsey novels – ‘Whose Body?’ and ‘Unnatural Death’. Both had been first published in the UK more than ten years earlier, and were probably already seen as classics of the genre. Indeed later Sayers novels had already appeared in the Albatross main series with red crime branding, but these were books for which Collins did not hold the rights, so they came to Albatross by a different route and under a different policy.
When Albatross came briefly back after the war, there was no longer any role for the Mystery Club, or the Crime Club. Those 23 books represent the entire output of the Albatross Mystery Club.
It was Charles Dickens who quickly became the star writer of the Tauchnitz Collection of British Authors, but when the series launched in 1841, Dickens was only 29 years old and had published relatively few works. He had already written ‘The Pickwick Papers’, ‘Oliver Twist’ and ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ all of which appeared early on in the Tauchnitz series, and he was at work on ‘Master Humphrey’s Clock’. These on their own were more than enough to cement his reputation in literary terms, but in terms of quantity, they were not enough to sustain the new series.
That task fell instead in large part to Edward Bulwer Lytton, perhaps the most popular writer of the 1830s, filling the gap between Walter Scott and Dickens. His reputation has not survived in the same way, but in his time he was seen as a master storyteller (before Dickens came along to redefine the term). Bulwer Lytton’s books were widely pirated in continental Europe, and in publishing them in his new series, Tauchnitz was following in the footsteps of several other publishers. It was a natural way to keep the series going, while he prepared his revolutionary plans to pay authors for permission to publish authorised editions of their latest works.
Three of the first ten volumes in the Tauchnitz series were by Bulwer Lytton, including ‘Pelham’ as volume 1. By volume 25, he accounted for 12 volumes and by the time the series moved away from piracy to publishing editions sanctioned by the author, the tally had increased to 15 volumes. Almost all of Bulwer’s previous works had by then appeared, and later works appeared in authorised editions as they were written, over the next 30 years.
As the author most ‘pirated’ in the early years of the series, Bulwer might reasonably have borne Tauchnitz some ill will, but this seems not to have been the case. The grand gesture Tauchnitz made in offering to pay for authorisation, when there was no legal requirement to do so, seems to have silenced all his critics and established his reputation as a man of principle from then on.
In that rush of early pirate editions, one book that stands out is ‘Godolphin and Falkland’, which appeared as volume 23 of the series in 1842. It combines two works – ‘Godolphin’, a satirical novel from 1833, and ‘Falkland’, a shorter work written in the form of a series of letters.
Very unusually for Tauchnitz, the first printing is marked by a major printing error on the title page, where the title is shown as ‘Codolphin and Falkland’. As it is written correctly on the front wrappers and half-title, on the fly-title which follows the main title page, and throughout the novel, this seems to be a simple error in typesetting and proofreading. Such errors are rare though in Tauchnitz Editions and no doubt this one caused a good deal of distress to Dr. Fluegel, who according to the wrappers was responsible for ‘the corrections of the press’. It reminds me of the error allegedly committed by a priest saying Grace who referred to ‘the piece of Cod that passeth all understanding’.
The title page was corrected in later printings, but all early copies seem to have this misprint. Corrected copies appear only with the more modern typeface adopted in 1848, and are marked as copyright editions, so misprinted copies continued to be sold for around six years. It’s hard to imagine such a fundamental error being allowed to continue for so long these days. If nothing else, the author would surely insist on the book being withdrawn and pulped, but as this was initially a pirate edition, the author had no say.
Any copy of the book with the misprint is from those first 6 years, but as usual with Tauchnitz, the only way of being sure that a copy is a first printing, is if the original wrappers are still present. Tauchnitz bibliographers Todd & Bowden were unable to find any copy in original wrappers earlier than 1875, which hardly helps us. But the copy in my own collection is in a makeshift binding for the Jens & Gassmann circulating library in Solothurn, Switzerland, matching the similar copy of ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’, that I believe could be the earliest copy of this novel in book form anywhere in the world.
In particular, although these volumes are privately bound, the original paper wrappers are bound in, and provide the evidence for precise dating. In the case of ‘Godolphin and Falkland’, the rear wrapper lists just the first 25 volumes in the series, which makes it almost certainly the earliest wrapper, and the book therefore a first printing.
In wartime, everyone had to be satisfied with less and that included the youngest. While books for adults were in short supply and had to be crammed onto as little paper as possible, books for young children, which were already small, had to be made even smaller. As Gulliver Books put it, “On all sides there must be economy. When victory is obtained we shall again have a plentiful supply of famous works in popular editions. In the meantime …”.
And in the meantime, they produced books so small they would fit easily into a wallet, perhaps into a credit card slot if such things had then existed, or more likely at the time into a cigarette packet. They are sometimes referred to as ‘air raid shelter’ books, produced to distract children from the noise and the terror of air raids. But they are so small that (for an adult) they barely take ten minutes to read, which wouldn’t have provided much distraction during the long hours that were often spent in shelters.
In design terms the Gulliver Little Books look remarkably like miniature Penguins, using the same tripartite layout with a broad horizontal white title panel between two blocks of colour above and below. The series title in the top block and the logo in the bottom block also follow the Penguin model, with a picture of Gulliver replacing the Penguin, and a shield for the series title rather than Penguin’s odd shaped blob. The similarity is of course deliberate, with Penguin the leading paperback publisher at the time, and the one that carried an air of prestige and sophistication.
Unlike Penguin though (and Albatross before them), the colours have no apparent meaning. The same book may be found in a range of different coloured covers. There are so many variations that this looks to me to have been a deliberate policy from the start, rather than a case of books being reprinted later in whatever colour card was to hand.
The Gulliver Book company was based in Lower Chelston in Devon, a suburb of Torquay, not normally known as a centre of book publishing. I know little of the history of the business, but it seems to have specialised in small scale reprints of classic children’s books. Its paper usage may have been quite low before the war, so that when paper rationing came in, its quota would have been correspondingly low, perhaps leaving it little choice but to opt for miniature books.
It had competitors in the market for miniature books for children at the time. These included the ‘Mighty Midgets’ series, published by W. Barton, and the ‘Pocket Wonder Library’ published by PM (Productions) Ltd. I suspect both of these were very small scale publishers as well, so this may have been a bit of a cottage industry in wartime.
The Gulliver Little Books series eventually included a total of 36 books, starting with an abridged version of ‘A midsummer night’s dream’ from Lamb’s ‘Tales from Shakespeare’. Like many of the books, it is not an easy read for a child. Charles and Mary Lamb, writing in 1807, wrote in a style that is more convoluted than any children’s author would use today. The plot of ‘A midsummer night’s dream’ is complicated anyway and abridging makes it even more so. It would have to be a fairly bright young reader who was reading and making sense of this on his or her own.
The books are very different from the kind of thing that Penguin was publishing for children at the same time in its new Puffin imprint. They are all classic stories from a previous generation, and written in the style of a previous generation. This was not a company doing much to support new writers through the payment of royalties. It looks to me as if all or almost all of their books would have been out of copyright.
How much did they cost? There is no price on them, and given that typical paperbacks were selling for sixpence before the war (ninepence by the end of it), it’s hard to imagine that these tiny books can have cost more than one or two pence. Paper costs would have been low and author payments possibly non-existent. I’ve seen it suggested though that the similar (if slightly more luxurious) ‘Mighty Midgets’ series, sold for threepence a copy. Could prices of the Gulliver Little Books have reached these dizzy heights?
There is no date on them either, although they were clearly published sometime between 1939 and 1945. As well as appearing in multiple colours, they also exist in two different formats. Most copies, particularly the earlier ones, are produced in four ‘gatherings’ of 8 pages each, stapled across the spine. Later printings are in a single gathering stapled through the spine. The difference can be seen in the picture above of different printings of the Charles Dickens book, and in the example below of a later printing.
My best guess is that books in the earlier format might be from around 1942 /43 and the later format more like 1945, but this is only a guess. Presumably the series then came to a natural end at the end of the war. I doubt they were much mourned.
Who today would consider buying a new paperback, where the cover had been replaced by a standard blank cover with the title and author written in by hand? And what bookshop would consider asking the publisher to replace the normal cover with a blank one so that they could write on it?
Yet that seems to be exactly what happened in the 19th and early 20th century with at least two booksellers and one publisher. I’m writing again about the Tauchnitz Editions, published in continental Europe for around 100 years from 1841. They were published in Leipzig and sold through a huge number of continental bookshops. The vast majority of these of course used the standard Tauchnitz paperback wrappers. But the Nicolaische Buchhandlung , and later the Kaufhaus des Westens (KDW), both in Berlin, opted for a different arrangement. Oddly both shops still exist today, which is not true of many bookshops from over 100 years ago, so perhaps it was a commercially successful idea.
For each of them, Tauchnitz used special wrappers with the name of the shop on, but blank spaces on the front and the spine, where they could write in the series number, title and author. I’m assuming it was Tauchnitz who used the special wrappers, and not the booksellers who stripped off the normal wrapper and rebound the books themselves?
The earlier bookstore to use handwritten wrappers was the Nicolaische Buchhandlung, roughly from the 1880s to around 1910. I have two examples in my own collection, pictured here, but there are multiple examples in other collections, including around 70 of them in a state collection in Berlin itself. Both of the examples I have are missing the half-title page at the front, which is unusual for paperback copies. That makes them difficult to date accurately, but may be evidence that suggests the original wrapper was removed and replaced, rather than the books being bound in the special wrapper from the start.
The wrappers for the Kaufhaus des Westens are known in only a single copy, post World War 1, but presumably there must have been others.
The question is why would booksellers do this? To my eyes the books with their scrawly handwriting look significantly less attractive than with the normal neatly printed Tauchnitz wrappers. The writing is not always easy to read, so it wouldn’t be easy for customers to scan them and decide quickly which books they might be interested in. That would be particularly true if the books were placed on shelves with only the spine showing, which would presumably be the usual position. There’s barely room on the spine to write in the title, so the writing is inevitably cramped and often almost illegible.
The advantage is perhaps that the books can carry advertising for the bookseller. In particular the back wrapper is used for bookseller advertising rather than the usual list of other titles in the series, which is really publisher advertising, although in the bookseller’s interest as well. But was it really worth it?