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Asher’s to Ashes

My first post on Asher’s Collection of English Authors covered the period from launch in 1872 through to 1874 when the publisher’s name changed from A. Asher & Co. to Albert Cohn.  It was a story of early success, tempting large numbers of authors away from Tauchnitz, followed by a gentle pulling back as the harsh economic realities started to bite.   It was never going to be easy competing against Tauchnitz with its massively entrenched position.  Asher had a good go at it, but sales were probably not high enough to justify the high advances paid to authors to convince them to switch.

I can only guess at the financial position of Asher, but a record of around 50 volumes in 1872, 37 volumes in 1873 and 12 in 1874 tells its own story.  And the fact that the firm was divided and part of it sold off in 1874 suggests there may have been financial pressures.  A small number of books in late 1874 appeared under the name of Albert Cohn as publisher (Cohn was the owner of A. Asher & Co.) and then there was another change.

Over the next few years, volumes of ‘Asher’s Collection of English Authors’ appeared under two different publisher’s names – Julius Engelmann in Berlin and Paul Ollendorff in  Paris.  I can’t tie down exact dates for either of them, but I suspect Engelmann came first, taking the series on from volume 99, possibly the last volume published by Albert Cohn in 1874, to around volume 120 in 1877.  There seem also to be volumes in this same number range with Ollendorff’s name as publisher, dated 1875 or 1876, but these may be later reprints, still showing the original date.  Or possibly both publishers collaborated, contributing different titles to the series.

Half-title and Title page of volume 109, published by Julius Engelmann

Ollendorff’s involvement with the series also seems to have largely ended in 1877.  Volume 123 in 1877 (‘Eugénie’ by Beatrice May Butt) appears with his name on, as does a single later novel, ‘Proud Maisie’ by Bertha Thomas, published as volume 133 and 134 in 1878.  Possibly this was a hangover, already in the pipeline before the series moved on to another publisher.  There seem  to be only a handful of new volumes published under Ollendorff’s imprint, together with reprints of some earlier volumes.  Although he went on to build a substantial publishing business, in 1877 Paul Ollendorff was just 26 and at the start of his publishing career.

Asher 123 Eugenie Title page

Whatever the exact history of the series in this period, it seems unlikely that it was a major threat to Tauchnitz.  A total of around 30 volumes between the two publishers over three and a half years would have made little difference to Tauchnitz’s output of nearer 300 volumes over the same period.  But Baron Tauchnitz would no doubt still have been disappointed to see occasional titles appearing by novelists that he had published regularly in his own series – Anthony Trollope and Mary Braddon among them.

A greater threat was to come when Asher’s Collection acquired yet another new owner.   The first appearance of the name Karl Grädener on the title page of a newly published volume seems to have been around volume 124 in 1877, although reprints of earlier volumes are again a complicating factor that makes it difficult to be precise.   Certainly Grädener added several volumes to the series in late 1877 and 1888, before striking off in a slightly different direction in 1879.

Up to early 1879, all volumes appeared under the series title ‘Asher’s Collection of English Authors’ and followed a consistent numbering sequence from 1 up to around 150.  From around this point though a new numbering sequence starts again at 1 and a new series name makes its appearance.   The series is now referred to as ‘Asher’s Continental Library’ on the half-titles, although oddly the front wrapper still refers to the old series title.   It’s also slightly odd that the half-titles refer to a series ‘in one-shilling volumes’.  The books could not be sold in Britain or the British Empire, so a price in shillings is of little relevance, and the German price of 1.50 Marks corresponded then I think to one shilling and sixpence.

Continental Library 1 Half title

The half-title of the first volume in the ‘Continental Library’ …


Continental Library 1 Front wrapper

… and the front wrapper, still with the old series title

The new series grew quite rapidly over the next two to three years, but confusingly, novels that had already appeared in the original series, were now reprinted with different numbers.  So ‘Erema’ by R.D. Blackmore, having been first published as volumes 130 to 132 of ‘Asher’s Collection’ in 1878, then appeared as volumes 22 to 24 of the new ‘Asher’s Continental Library’.  It was followed as volumes 25 to 27 of the ‘Continental Library’ by a reprint of ‘Comin’ through the rye’ by Helen Mathers, which had previously been issued as volumes 105 to 107 of the original series, during Engelmann’s time in charge.

Grädener was still trying to tempt authors away from Tauchnitz.  On 4 October 1880, Macmillan, the British publisher of Henry James, wrote to him that ‘One Grädener of Hamburg who publishes “Ashers Collection of English Authors” has written to say that he would like to buy the right to print ‘The portrait of a lady’.  I fancy however that your books are published by Tauchnitz and will tell him so if you like.  I hope the Baron pays you well …’.  James did feel that he was better off with Tauchnitz and was one of those to stay loyal.

It looks as if the ‘Continental Library’ (later described as ‘Asher’s Continental Library of Favourite Modern Authors’) got up to about 55 volumes through a mixture of new publications and reprints by early 1881, before the emphasis switched back again to the original series name and numbering.  This change seems roughly to coincide with yet another change in the name of the publisher for the series.   The name of Karl Grädener is replaced in 1881 with Grädener & Richter, apparently because of a merger of the two firms.

Was it Richter who killed off the ‘Continental Library’ and proposed going back to ‘Asher’s Collection of English Authors’?  Anyway that seems to be what happened.  Numbers between 149 and 158 were allocated for 10 volumes of Shakespeare plays, which may have been published over a period of several years, and the original series got going again from volume 159 in 1881.  Around 20 volumes were added in 1881 and another 20 or so in 1882, but 1883 saw over 40 new volumes.

Asher 172 The chaplain of the fleet II Title page

Volume 172 of ‘Asher’s Collection’ now published by Grädener & Richter

The authors in that year included not only Anthony Trollope and Robert Louis Stevenson, but a string of other authors previously published by Tauchnitz, including James Payn, Bret Harte, William Black, W.E. Norris, Emma Marshall and Mrs. Alexander.  Clearly Tauchnitz was again in a fight, at risk of losing both authors and sales, but as in the early years of Asher’s Collection, it held firm.   It was to be Grädener & Richter that blinked first.

1884 saw a reduction to just under 20 volumes and for 1885 there was just a single 2 volume novel.  Occasional volumes continued to be added for another 6 or 7 years, and there were still two more changes of publisher name to come, first to just J.F. Richter and then to Verlagsanstalt und Druckerei (vormals J.F. Richter).  Over the 20 year history of the Asher’s Collection it had appeared under at least 8 different publisher imprints.

Both in the early years from 1872 to 1874 under A. Asher & Co. and then again around 1883 under Grädener & Richter, it had seriously challenged the dominance of Tauchnitz, without ever quite managing to dethrone it.

Middlemarching away. The story of Asher’s Collection

For almost a century, from 1840 to 1940, the Tauchnitz Editions dominated English language publishing in Europe.  Almost every significant work of English Literature from the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century appeared in their familiar buff covers.

Except one.

By almost any measure, George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’ was one of the most significant English language novels of the 19th century, but it never appeared in a Tauchnitz Edition.  At first sight this is odd, as all Eliot’s other novels did – ‘Adam Bede’, ‘The mill on the floss’, ‘Silas Marner’, ‘Romola’, ‘Felix Holt’, ‘Daniel Deronda’ – they’re all there, along with various other works.  Surely Bernhard Tauchnitz, usually such a sure judge of literary merit as well as sales popularity, wasn’t blind to the merits of ‘Middlemarch’?

Of course the answer is no.  He would have loved to publish ‘Middlemarch’ but he was denied the opportunity.   It went instead to a rival publisher, A. Asher & Co. in Berlin, who presumably outbid Tauchnitz and used the novel as the basis on which to launch a new series of English language novels in competition to Tauchnitz.

Asher 1 Middlemarch Half title

‘Asher’s Collection of English Authors – British and American’ was launched in 1872 with the first two books of ‘Middlemarch’ as Volumes I and II.  The title of the series was perhaps a bit of a dig at Tauchnitz, whose own ‘Collection of British Authors’ failed to give any recognition to the nationality of the many American authors in its ranks.  However, other than a token appearance of one novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne (who had died several years earlier), the early authors published seemed to be almost all British, and the American reference was later quietly dropped.

There was no doubt that ‘Middlemarch’ was Asher’s trophy asset and the firm must have paid heavily to acquire it.   The novel is split into eight ‘books’ and each of them was published as a separately numbered volume in the series, spread out over the following year, with each volume priced at a premium 20 Groschen (2/3 Thaler), compared to 15 Groschen (1/2 Thaler) for all other volumes in the series.   So the price for all eight volumes was over 5 Thalers, compared to 1 Thaler for the Tauchnitz Edition of ‘Felix Holt’, or 2 Thalers for the later 4-volume edition of ‘Daniel Deronda’.

Confusingly, the eight books of ‘Middlemarch’ were also grouped in twos into four ‘volumes’.   This resulted in an almost surreal numbering system, where for instance book 7 of the novel is also part 1 of the 4th volume, but is volume 52 of the Asher series.

However peculiar the numbering, the series was a serious rival to Tauchnitz.  In its first year in 1872 it published around 50 volumes, almost all of them by authors who had previously had works published by Tauchnitz.   As well as Eliot, other authors who defected to the new series in that first year included George Whyte-Melville, Henry Kingsley, George MacDonald, Rhoda Broughton, Ouida, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Margaret Oliphant, Louisa Parr, Harriet Parr (Holme Lee), Sheridan Le Fanu, William Hepworth Dixon and Matilda Betham-Edwards.

Asher 22 How it all happened I Front wrapper

A typical early volume in the original wrappers.  Louis Reinige was the French distributor, not the publisher.

And yet Tauchnitz survived, and rather more than survived.  In 1871 the firm had published a total of 66 volumes in its series, many of them by the authors listed above.  Despite their defection, it managed in 1872 a total of 93 new volumes, which seems to have been a record number. Presumably there was some loss of sales, and it had to increase payments to authors to avoid losing more, but Tauchnitz clearly wasn’t going to go down without a fight.

Bernhard Tauchnitz was certainly determined not to lose Bulwer Lytton, to whom he wrote in a letter on 3 October 1872 ‘I could not bear the thought to see your name in any other publisher’s hand’.  As a result he paid Bulwer a record 8000 Marks (£400) for ‘Kenelm Chillingley’, published in early 1873 and recorded in the 50 year history of the firm as being the largest fee paid for a single novel.  To protect margins, the price to customers was effectively increased by spreading the novel out over four volumes.  To achieve this, the number of lines to a page went right down to 23, from a more normal 30 or so.

There was no immediate let up in the pressure on Tauchnitz in the early part of 1873.   Further defections included Annie Thomas, Anthony Trollope and Charlotte Riddell, but gradually the outflow was stemmed.  The number of volumes published by Asher in 1873 reduced a little to around 37, while Tauchnitz’s total remained around 90.  Perhaps even more encouragingly, authors started to return.   Some like Rhoda Broughton, Holme Lee, William Hepworth Dixon and Margaret Oliphant, having flirted briefly with Asher, came back to the Tauchnitz fold.  Others like Trollope, Mary Braddon and Henry Kingsley continued to play one off against the other, publishing books under both imprints.

In 1874 the number of volumes published in the Asher series reduced again to 12 and it began to look as though it might have shot its bolt.  Tauchnitz wouldn’t have been pleased though to see that the  books published included one by Florence Marryat, who had previously been loyal to his firm, and whose father had been published by Tauchnitz since 1842.

In the later part of 1874, the books started to feature the name of Albert Cohn as publisher on the title page in place of A. Asher, although the series title continued to be ‘Asher’s Collection’.    Adolf Asher himself had died long before and the business had been run by Albert Cohn for many years, but some of the business seems to have been sold in 1874, with other parts continuing under Cohn’s name.  Could the sale have been partly the result of losses from the new venture?

Asher 96 Phineas Redux Title page 1874

An 1874 title page showing the publisher as Albert Cohn

Adolf Asher had been an antiquarian bookdealer and bibliographer as well as a publisher.  He seems to have had a particular attachment to England and became one of the principal suppliers of books to the British Museum, so it was appropriate enough that the series bore his name.  Albert Cohn too was a book dealer and literary scholar as well as a publisher and may have concentrated more on his antiquarian interests after 1874.  After a brief period during which the books carried his name on the title page, they re-appeared in 1875 under yet another new name.

The first phase of ‘Asher’s Collection’ was over.  It had certainly given Tauchnitz a scare, and forced it to pay higher fees to its authors.   It had cost it ‘Middlemarch’ and a handful of other titles that it would regret, perhaps most notably ‘Lorna Doone’ and ‘Under the greenwood tree’.  But it had failed to end the domination of Tauchnitz in continental Europe.

And if the first phase had ended, the full story of Asher’s Collection certainly had not.   It would still be adding books, and causing irritation to Tauchnitz more than 15 years later.   I’ll come back to the second phase of its story in another post.