I used to work for a company, Eagle Star Insurance, which claimed to have been founded in 1807. It was useful for an insurance company to have been around for a long time. It gave you more confidence that it might still be around when you came to make a claim, or when your 30 year pension policy finally matured.
The claim was nonsense, really. Eagle Star had actually been founded by Edward Mountain as the British Dominions Marine Insurance Company in 1904. It later bought up older companies, including the Eagle Insurance Company (founded in 1807) and the Star, before renaming itself as the Eagle, Star and British Dominions in 1917. Twenty years later it dropped the British Dominions bit to become just Eagle Star, and adopted the history of the Eagle company, as well as its name. In my time there, Eagle Star employed an archivist and had a small museum with such treasures as an insurance policy issued to Charles Dickens.
But when Eagle Star in turn was bought up by Zurich Insurance Company, that history was no longer wanted. Zurich had a little earlier celebrated the 125th anniversary of its founding in Zurich in 1872 and had its own museum. It had no interest in tracing new roots back to London 65 years earlier. The Eagle Star museum was closed and a new home was sought for the archive. It ended up in the City of London’s Guildhall Library, where it still is, including that Dickens policy.
Publishing is another industry, like insurance, where large numbers of companies have been amalgamated into a small number of modern conglomerates. So when HarperCollins, a business that has been around for less than 30 years, announces that it is celebrating its 200th anniversary, it’s a reasonable question to ask exactly what it is that goes back 200 years. For example, Thomas Nelson, one of the many publishing companies belonging to HarperCollins, was founded in Edinburgh in 1798. It could have celebrated its 200th anniversary almost 20 years ago. ‘William Collins, Sons’ was founded in Glasgow in 1819, so still has two years to wait.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the company that dates back 200 years is the American firm of J & J Harper. I suppose they’re regarded as the company that came out on top in the various mergers, and it’s the winners who get to write the history. So the history of HarperCollins starts in 1817. And it has to be said that it’s an impressive history, showcased in their wonderful anniversary website at http://200.hc.com/
The business has combined so many publishing companies over the years that the list of books first published by its various subsidiaries is long and includes many titles that have become part of the culture. William Collins was Agatha Christie‘s publisher for most of her books, J. B. Lippincott was the publisher of ‘To kill a mockingbird’ and Lippincott’s Magazine saw the first publication of the Sherlock Holmes novel ‘The sign of (the) four’. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was first published by George Allen and Unwin, C.S. Lewis’s early Narnia books were published by Geoffrey Bles, and Harper Brothers published American classics such as ‘A tree grows in Brooklyn’, ‘Charlotte’s Web’, and later ‘The Exorcist’. All of these are now part of HarperCollins. It has collected history as if it were collecting stamps.
So Happy Birthday, HarperCollins, and congratulations on your first 200 years … or so.
The idea of Printers’ Pie as a magazine of stories and cartoons seems to date back at least to 1903, when it was (first?) published by ‘The Sphere’ to raise funds for the Printers’ Pension, Almshouse, and Orphan Asylum Corporation. The name ‘Printers’ Pie’ comes from the term used to describe unsorted type – a jumble of different letters, and the Printers’ Pension Corporation was a long-established charity. Its first Festival President was Lord John Russell in 1828 and later Presidents included Dickens, Disraeli and Gladstone amongst many other distinguished names.
Over the next few years there were regular issues of Printers’ Pie, from around 1912 extended to two issues a year, with the addition of a Christmas issue under the title ‘Winter’s Pie’. From 1909 to 1918 all or most issues featured drawings by George Studdy, best known for his drawings of the dog ‘Bonzo’. After that it may have become less regular and eventually petered out.
But some time around 1935 the idea seems to have been revived under a slightly different name. I have a copy of ‘Christmas Pie’ 1935, printed and published by Odhams Press, selling for 6d and now raising money not for a printers’ charity, but for the King George’s Jubilee Trust. There’s a Foreword from Edward, the Prince of Wales, soon after to become King Edward VIII, noting (in underlined text) that the entire proceeds from sale of the publication would go to the Trust. In contrast the front cover says only that the Trust would receive all profits.
The list of writers, who presumably contributed stories without being paid, includes many of the leading and most popular names of the time – A.A. Milne, A.E.W. Mason, G.K. Chesterton, Warwick Deeping, Ethel Mannin and Beverley Nichols among them. All stories are illustrated, and all illustrators credited, as are the various cartoonists contributing ‘joke drawings’.
It was followed in 1936 by a ‘Summer Pie’, sporting a front cover design by Bruce Bairnsfather (celebrated in the recent RSC production of ‘The Christmas Truce’). The charitable purpose of this issue is less boldly emblazoned, but profits were to go once again to the Printers’ Pension Corporation, as well as to the National Advertising Benevolent Society, a famous Fleet Street charity.
‘Christmas Pie’ 1936 returned to supporting the King George’s Jubilee Trust. With Edward having become King in early 1936, the foreword is now written by Albert, Duke of York, himself soon to become King George VI after the Abdication, and who again insists that the entire proceeds will go to the Trust. There’s a ‘Summer Pie’ 1937 too, supporting a new Children’s ward at Hornsey Central Hospital, as well as the National Advertising Benevolent Society.
After that I lose track of what happens, until Summer 1939, when there’s a final pre-war issue, with stories by Agatha Christie, Noel Coward, Sidney Horler and P.C. Wren amongst others, and a double page centrespread cartoon by W.H. Cobb. Were there Christmas Pies in 1937 and 1938 and a Summer Pie in 1938? I’ll look out for them. It’s likely though that the series was ended by the war after summer 1939, before coming back in a different form around 1943. I’ll come back to that revival in another post.
Launched in May 1930, the Collins Crime Club had been a huge success, surfing the wave of public interest in the golden age of detective fiction. By 1936 it had published around 200 titles and claimed to have around 20,000 subscribers, although it was not really a club – just a mailing list of potentially interested readers. The star writer was undoubtedly Agatha Christie, but there was a wide range of other writers including John Rhode, Freeman Wills Crofts. Philip Macdonald and G.D.H & M. Cole.
The books sold at 7 shillings and sixpence, a fairly standard price for UK hardbacks at the time, but one that put them out of the price range of most ordinary people, who perhaps borrowed them through libraries or waited for cheap editions to be published. A selection of the books was published in cheaper paperback editions in continental Europe through Albatross Books, with which Collins were associated. The Albatross Crime Club published only books from the Collins Crime Club, in distinctive red and black covers, but these could not be imported into the UK.
It was the success of Albatross in Europe that gave Allen Lane the idea for Penguin Books. Possibly Collins should have seen it coming, but they were experimenting in a rather different direction in the UK at the time, with a series of cheap hardbacks sold at 7d, less than 10% of the standard hardback price. This series certainly included crime novels, although I am unsure whether any of the titles had previously appeared in the Crime Club.
Quite why hardbacks at sevenpence were a failure, while Penguin’s paperbacks at sixpence were a roaring success is hard to say, but they were. Penguin’s launch in July 1935 was transformational. Within months, perhaps even weeks, it was clear that their format was a success. By October, Hutchinson had launched their own paperback series in a very similar format to Penguin, and a new market had been established.
Hardbacks at 7d, or paperbacks at 6d – the public knew which they preferred
Collins could see now that Penguin represented a threat to their core market. There had been only a handful of crime novels in the early titles, but enough to warn them of what could happen. In fact Penguin had issued what almost amounted to a direct challenge to Collins by including a novel by Agatha Christie in their first ten titles. ‘The mysterious affair at Styles’ was the first of Christie’s novels and like her other early novels had been first published by The Bodley Head, before she moved to Collins in 1926.
The Bodley Head was the Lane family company that Allen Lane worked for up to the launch of Penguin, so this was a book he had access to, or at least thought he did. As it happened, a copyright dispute over ‘The mysterious affair at Styles’ led to Penguin withdrawing it a few months later and replacing it with another early Christie novel ‘The murder on the links’, but the episode made clear that Penguin’s ambitions included becoming a major publisher of paperback crime.
Penguin’s original volume 6 and its replacement soon after, volume 6A
So Collins were now fighting a rear-guard action as they started to plan a paperback series of Crime Club novels. Some aspects were almost a given. The price would be 6d, the size would be the Albatross and Penguin size (using the golden ratio) and the books would have a dustwrapper in the same design as the cover. These were basic features of the market established by Penguin.
But the most important feature of the Penguin revolution was no cover illustrations, other than a standard logo. This feature, again copied from Albatross, seemed fundamental to Penguin’s success. It conveyed an image of seriousness and established a break with the traditions of earlier paperbacks, which had often had lurid cover illustrations. For the Collins Crime Club, cover illustrations had been an important part of their marketing, so it was a big decision to replace them with a standard designed cover.
In the end, Collins settled for a new design that created a standard identity for the series and established its up-market credentials, while still having a nod to the earlier Crime Club branding. It was sufficiently similar to the Penguin format to make clear that it was a direct competitor, but sufficiently different to be instantly recognisable as a Collins Crime Club novel.
Instead of Penguin’s central white band, Collins introduced a large white circle for the title and author. And as well as using colour to indicate genre (again green for crime), Collins splashed across the cover a stylised picture of two masked murderers carrying a pistol and a knife that was effectively a development of the original Crime Club branding.
In its own way this cover was as classic a design as was Penguin’s three bands, and indeed it lasted rather longer. It was still being used right up to the end of the series in 1959, long after Penguin had abandoned its three horizontal bands in favour of various experiments with vertical bands, other grids and even cover illustrations. But it has never quite achieved the iconic status of Penguin’s design, now used for everything from t-shirts and bags to deckchairs, and I have been unable to find out who the designer was.
It’s not clear that there was any intention at the start to use the white circle on the cover as a unifying element across different types of fiction, or to develop it as the name of the overall series. It’s not even clear that there were any plans at the start to publish fiction from other genres in similar paperback editions. It is very clear in the early books that the brand is ‘The Crime Club’ and there is no mention of ‘White Circle’ at all. It’s only from about July 1937 onwards, once other types of book have been published, that ‘White Circle’ starts to appear as a series name.
The next key decision of course was which books to publish, and here Collins were spoilt for choice. Penguin, in its early days, had to search across the market and negotiate with various hardback publishers, who were often reluctant to allow cheap paperback editions. As a result, they ended up with a lot of older books, where hardback sales had declined to a trickle. But Collins had a treasure trove of around 200 recent titles that had already been published in the Collins Crime Club and could take their pick.
Unsurprisingly they chose a more recent Agatha Christie novel ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, for volume number 1. The first 6 titles, published in March 1936, also included an Edgar Wallace and novels by John Rhode and Freeman Wills Crofts. The other two were by Philip Macdonald, one of them under the pseudonym of Martin Porlock. The next batch in June included further titles by Christie, Rhode and Macdonald as well as one from G.D.H. & M. Cole and these writers between them accounted for most of the first 30 titles, although other authors were gradually introduced.
By the time war broke out in September 1939, the series of Crime Club paperbacks had reached around 80 titles, and the wider White Circle series had extended to cover westerns, mysteries, romantic fiction, general fiction and even a small number of non-fiction titles. It was certainly in some respects a serious rival to Penguin, at least in the area of crime fiction. Even in that area, Penguin would eventually triumph, but not before the Crime Club paperbacks had reached almost 300 titles, published over a period of more than 20 years.
Was it a success in terms of broadening the reach of classic crime fiction and extending its popularity? I imagine it must have been. The print runs were probably at least 20,000 and quite possibly 50,000 or more, so sales are likely to have been far higher in paperback than they ever were in the original hardback editions. The wartime Services Editions will have extended that reach even further. But in the end, the Crime Club paperbacks did fail, presumably as another victim of Penguin when they ended in 1959, and it was the hardback editions that outlasted them, continuing right through to 1994.
Albatross Books was founded in 1932 in Paris as a direct rival to the long-established firm of Tauchnitz, which had had a near-monopoly on the sale of English language books in Continental Europe for 90 years. It was phenomenally successful in the period up to the Second World War, and its effects were felt long after that, particularly in its key influence on the launch and development of Penguin Books.
In that period, from 1932 to 1939, it would have been difficult to ignore Agatha Christie. She dominated crime writing at the time, and crime writing was enjoying its golden age. Yet in some ways it was just a happy coincidence that she was able to appear in the series. There was no tradition of publishing detective stories in English on the continent. Tauchnitz had published the Sherlock Holmes books from 1891 onwards, but had shown relatively little interest in other developments in crime fiction after the First World War. Albatross too seemed at the start to be primarily interested in publishing literary fiction, championing D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and Aldous Huxley amongst others. In its first 50 books, there were just 7 crime stories.
All that was to change though with the launch of the Albatross Crime Club in 1933. It was effectively a joint venture with the Scottish publisher, Collins, and came about because of the presence of two of the Collins family on the Albatross board. I don’t know how much of the initiative came from Collins, eager to establish a European outlet for their Collins Crime Club novels, and how much from Albatross, keen to expand their list into more crime novels. But either way, it provided the platform for Albatross to publish the works of Agatha Christie, as well as other leading crime writers.
And they seized the opportunity. Over the six years of the Albatross Crime Club, it included 14 Agatha Christies, starting with ‘Lord Edgware dies’ as volume 115 in 1933. Each volume followed shortly after its first appearance in the Collins Club, usually within a year, sometimes much quicker. And although overall the Albatross Crime Club published far fewer books than the Collins Crime Club, it seems to have taken all the Christies it could get. As far as I can tell, every Christie novel that appeared in the Collins series between ‘Lord Edgware dies’ in 1933 and ‘Appointment with death’ in 1938, was also published in Albatross.
The Albatross editions are not only the first continental European editions, they’re also the first paperback editions. Collins didn’t launch the White Circle series of paperbacks in the UK until 1936, after Penguin’s launch. The first volume in that series was ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, which had already been published by Albatross in 1934 (volume 121) and so far as I know all 14 of the pre-war Christie books published by Albatross were first paperback editions.
Albatross Crime Club edition (1934) and Collins Crime Club (1936)
Like all the Albatross editions, they’re beautiful books, and mostly not too difficult to find. The print runs would have been relatively low, possibly only a couple of thousand copies of each book, so it’s unlikely that more than a couple of hundred survive, but they’re still out there to be found and usually not too expensive. The first book, ‘Lord Edgware dies’ would have had a transparent dustwrapper, although these were naturally fragile and I have never seen a copy with the dustwrapper intact. All the later books had paper dustwrappers in the same style as the covers. I don’t think any of the books were reprinted, so all copies are first printings.
When Albatross attempted a revival after the Second World War, it still had some support from Collins, but it was much less successful and there was to be no re-launch for the Albatross Crime Club. Instead a small number of crime titles were published in the main series, just four in total, but two of those were by Christie. ‘Ten little niggers’ (since renamed as ‘And then there were none’ and televised recently by the BBC) appeared as volume 554 in 1947, followed by ‘One, two, buckle my shoe’ as volume 575 in 1950. The first of these was again a paperback first printing, but the second may just have been beaten by the White Circle edition that appeared the same year. It’s probably significant that unlike the pre-war publications, these were not recent novels, hot off the press. Both had been written, and published in the Collins Crime Club, several years earlier. Albatross was no longer the cutting edge publisher it had been in its pre-war glory.
Overall though 16 Agatha Christie novels, all of them continental European first printings, and possibly 15 paperback first printings, is not a bad representation for the ‘Queen of Crime’ in Albatross.
For other paperback first printings, see also the story of Agatha Christie in UK Services Editions.
The heading for this post is the sub-title of ‘Do no Harm’ by Henry Marsh, which I chose as the first of my holiday books this year. It’s a fair description for the book – a memoir from a senior neurosurgeon, now close to retirement, but coincidentally it just about sums up all my summer reading. I hadn’t appreciated when I was packing, that one of my other choices – ‘Saturday’ by Ian McEwan, was also about a brain surgeon, although this time of course a fictional one. And the other books certainly covered plenty of life and death, if no more brain surgery.
I’d heard Henry Marsh talking on the radio before reading his book, and heard the book described more than once as remarkably honest. It is, in the sense that he talks openly about his failures as well as his successes. That means not only the occasional death on the operating table, but coming across others, years later, who had been left in a permanent vegetative state as a result of his failures. And he’s open, although perhaps not to his patients, that mistakes, even with terrible consequences, are almost a necessary part of the learning process, if we’re to end up with experienced consultants.
He’s also candid about the arrogance and feelings of being a Master of the Universe, that the job can tend to cultivate. That may apply, with less cause, even beyond brain surgery, to other surgeons who can hold our lives in their hands. At least in his case though, the arrogance doesn’t entirely prevent the feelings of self-doubt or the necessary humanity and understanding of what patients must be feeling. He recognises that he’d much prefer to be carrying out a difficult operation than having a difficult conversation with patients – a failing he suggests is common amongst surgeons, to the extent that many unnecessary or even damaging operations are performed. Consultants prefer to offer patients the hope that an operation may succeed, rather than be honest with them that at best the result is likely to be a painfully extended death rather than a swifter less painful one.
The book’s a great read, although quite an emotional one and a fascinating insight into a little known world, at least to me, as someone who’s spent little time in hospital and even less watching medical dramas. I always imagined that brain surgeons were cutting into the brain and attempting to influence in some way the way it worked. It seems instead that their bread and butter is the more humdrum business of cutting out tumours, while trying to avoid as much as possible of the brain itself.
Fortunately there are few glaring inconsistencies between the fictional neurosurgeon in ‘Saturday’ and the real one in ‘Do no harm’. Ian McEwan has done his background research well (I went straight to the acknowledgements to check whether Henry Marsh had been consulted, but it’s another of his colleagues who provided the advice). The arrogance and self-satisfaction is still there, and although it starts to unravel in a ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ style moment, McEwan spares us the full descent into Hell and is satisfied with a brief look over the edge into the abyss. It builds up to an action-packed and gripping finale, but the real strength of the book is in its slower, more descriptive sections, with extended riffs on a game of squash or the preparation of a fish stew. I’ve enjoyed all of the McEwan books I’ve read and will be searching out more.
I also enjoyed ‘Elizabeth is missing’, a first novel by Emma Healey, an unusual combination of murder mystery and literary exploration of dementia, another theme that I’ve seen tackled elsewhere recently. The action shifts constantly between past and present, as our heroine Maud, who can hardly remember what happened a minute ago, solves a 70 year-old mystery. It’s in some ways a similar structure to the one that A.S. Byatt used so well in ‘Possession’ and then Tom Stoppard in ‘Arcadia’, and it’s well suited to the subject of dementia. On the whole, the episodes of flashback to her youth work better than the passages in the present, which are a bit predictable and repetitive, but it’s a great read.
As of course is Agatha Christie. I’ve worked my way through quite a few of her classic mysteries in recent years, several of them from the Albatross Crime Club editions. ‘The ABC mysteries’ definitely feels rather dated now, but so carefully plotted that it still keeps you on the edge of your seat, pitting your wits against the great Hercule Poirot.
At the end of the Second World War there were large numbers of British Servicemen stationed in India. My father was one of them, arriving in India in 1945 (or possibly not until 1946?) with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) and passing through Doelali, the British Army base that was effectively a transit camp for most British soldiers arriving in India. Its name entered into the language, with doolally coming to mean a kind of madness, and much later it became the setting for the BBC comedy programme ‘It ain’t half hot Mum’.
Like army units everywhere, they would have received shipments of books for regimental and unit libraries alongside shipments of other military equipment, and these would no doubt have included the specially printed paperback Services Editions. But in reality it made little sense to send books on a hazardous journey for thousands of miles around the world, from a home base in Britain where paper was severely rationed. British publishers, including Collins, the largest publisher of Services Editions, had already moved away from the export of books towards local printing and publishing where possible. Collins had established a significant publishing programme in India and no doubt many of its books were bought by soldiers and other Army personnel, as well as by the civilian population, both expatriate and local.
UK Services Edition and Indian Services Edition – both Collins White Circle
So it was a natural step for Collins to print Services Editions in India as well. They were commissioned by the ‘Welfare General in India’ to produce a series of paperbacks, including some of the same titles that had already appeared in the UK Services Editions series. These books would not be for sale, but would be distributed for free to service units. They carried the prominent text across the front ‘Printed specially for the Army and Royal Air Force in India and SEAC’ and although they still had elements of the ‘White Circle’ branding, they were plainer than the equivalent Services Editions printed in the UK.
There are lists in the books that suggest that up to 40 different books were ‘in preparation’, but it’s hard to say whether these were all published or not. I have only ever found copies of four of the books myself and I know of surviving copies of two others. Twelve of the titles listed were Westerns, always the most difficult to find, and I’ve never seen evidence of any of these having survived, although I suspect at least some of them were published, probably with the bright yellow covers used for the other White Circle westerns. If anyone’s ever seen one, I’d love to hear about it.
None of the books carry printing dates, but I think they’re all from 1945 to 1946. Most of the books are in the standard paperback size of the time, but one that I have is in a smaller format.
In a recent blog post, I speculated that there might be an unrecorded edition of ‘Poirot investigates’ by Agatha Christie in the Guild Books series of Services Editions. ‘Unrecorded’ here means not included in the checklists that I’ve put together of Services Editions, which certainly include some gaps. I’d love to know if anybody else does have a record of such an edition existing.
But Agatha Christie certainly did have a significant number of Services Editions issued, all the others so far as I am aware, in the Collins series. ‘Poirot investigates’ had been first published in 1924 by The Bodley Head, but Collins had been her UK publisher since publication of ‘The murder of Roger Ackroyd’ in 1926. By the outbreak of war they had built up a significant back catalogue of her books, published in the Collins Crime Club, with paperback editions in the Collins White Circle series. These might have been natural candidates for inclusion in the series of Collins Services Editions using the same White Circle branding. But the Services Editions were fundamentally not a series of classic reprints. The agreement was that they would feature at least a significant proportion of new or recent novels, so Collins looked not to the classic Christie novels of the 1920s and 1930s, but to the new work that she was continuing to produce during the war.
The first to appear in 1943 was ‘Sad cypress’, first published in the Collins Crime Club in March 1940 and not previously published in paperback at all so far as I know – it didn’t appear in the main White Circle series until 1944. The Services Edition formed part of the first batch of these books to be issued and like the others in this batch, didn’t carry any series number, although on the evidence of later lists it seems to have been allocated the number c202.
It was followed later in 1943 by ‘The moving finger’ (c219) and ‘The body in the library’ (c221). ‘The body in the library’ had first appeared in the Collins Crime Club in May 1942, but ‘The moving finger’ not until June 1943, so the Services Edition must have followed quite quickly after this. Could it conceivably even have been before it and so represent the first UK edition? I have no information on the month of issue of the Services Editions, but it seems unlikely. My best guess is that it came out a couple of months later. Either way, both books are again probably first paperback editions, not appearing in the main White Circle series until after the end of the war.
4 further crime novels followed – ‘N or M?’ (Collins Crime Club November 1941, Services Edition c244, 1943), ‘Toward zero’ (CCC July 1944, Services Edition c275, 1944), ‘Five little pigs’ (CCC January 1943, Services Edition c305, 1945) and Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (CCC December 1938, Services Edition c352, 1946).
But there was still one more to come. ‘Absent in the Spring’ was published under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott (Services Edition c360, 1946), but was one of Christie’s non-crime novels. So a total of 8 novels, even without that possible ninth book. Most I should say are now very difficult to find in first printing, with the exception of the last two – ‘Hercule Poirot’s Christmas’ and ‘Absent in the Spring’, which are a little bit easier.
Albatross had many significant achievements to its name in the years from 1932 to 1939. Its books were widely recognised as a design classic and in many respects became the model for Penguin Books, it achieved commercial success and an effective takeover of the old-established firm of Tauchnitz and it published for the first time in Europe many significant novels that went on to become classics. Even surviving, as a firm with a Jewish owner and Jewish managers, was an achievement in Nazi Germany. But it had another ace up its sleeve as well – The Albatross Crime Club.
This was a direct offshoot of the Collins Crime Club in the UK, facilitated by the presence of Ian and William Collins on the Albatross Board of Directors. Collins had become almost the godfather of the Golden Age of detective fiction with their series, launched in 1930. The Collins Crime Club though was essentially a mailing list rather than a book club. Members paid nothing to join and had no obligation to buy the books, which were sold through bookshops in the normal way. But they received a quarterly newsletter and by 1934 the Club boasted 25,000 subscribers. So an extension into continental Europe through Albatross must have seemed attractive to both parties.
The new series launched in 1933, so there was already a sizeable back catalogue of titles in the Collins Crime Club to choose from, but in practice the first batch of titles (from 101 to 114) were all ones that had been published in the UK within the previous year or so. This went against the usual practice at that time, almost always enforced, that a continental paperback edition had to wait at least a year after first UK publication, to avoid eating into sales of the UK hardback. Presumably the close relationship with Collins allowed them to override this. So continental readers in 1933 had access to such recently published titles as ‘The ring of eyes’ by Hulbert Footner or ‘The motor rally mystery’ and ‘The Claverton mystery’ by John Rhode. Pride of place though went to Philip MacDonald,who had three titles in the first batch, with ‘Death on my left’ (volume 101), ‘R.I.P.’ (vol. 109) and as Martin Porlock, ‘X v Rex’ (vol. 107).
Over the next 6 years through to the outbreak of war, Albatross published a total of 109 Crime Club titles, gradually bringing in most of the authors who had appeared in the Collins Crime Club. There were 14 titles by Agatha Christie, although even she had to take second place to Cecil John Street, with a total of 17 under his two pseudonyms of John Rhode and Miles Burton. Most of the books that appeared came relatively quickly after UK publication, and in most cases they are not only the First Continental Edition, but also the First Paperback Edition. Collins didn’t start to sell paperback editions themselves until the launch of their White Circle series in 1936, and even then they usually left a longer gap after publication of the hardback.
As with Collins, the Albatross Crime Club was really just a marketing device and mailing list rather than a real club. I have never seen any evidence of newsletters for club members, although I do have a copy of one flyer about new titles that might have been sent out to the mailing list. I’d love to hear of, or see, any evidence of other marketing materials.
From 1937 the Crime Club was joined by the Albatross Mystery Club, again publishing books previously published by Collins, and a further 23 books were included in this series before war intervened. There were also crime and mystery books not coming from Collins that were published in the main Albatross Modern Continental Library. Both of those developments though are a story for another day.
Why was it Allen Lane and the Lane brothers, rather than William Collins and the Collins brothers, who launched Penguin Books and the paperback revolution in the UK? In a previous post I suggested that Collins, through their key role in Albatross, were in a much better position to see the way the wind was blowing. Before launching Penguin, Allen Lane had been in discussions with Albatross about a possible joint venture. As Directors of Albatross, William and Ian Collins would surely have been aware of those discussions,, and so knew the way Lane was thinking. They could hardly have been totally surprised when he went ahead with a paperback launch in the UK.
Part of the answer seems to be that they did indeed see the market opportunity and had a strategy to exploit it, which would have seemed entirely reasonable at the time. It’s just that with hindsight their strategy turned out to be the wrong one. They had launched a new series of cheap hardbacks in 1934 called the Collins sevenpence novels. Sevenpence looks to be a very impressive price for a hardback, given that many new novels in hardback sold for more like seven shillings and sixpence at the time. The list of titles in the series looks like a reasonable mix of popular fiction – novels from Somerset Maugham, Rose Macaulay and Michael Arlen, crime titles from Agatha Christie, John Rhode and G.D.H. & M. Cole, mysteries from Edgar Wallace and a selection of westerns. Many of these same authors had already appeared in Albatross and would later appear in Penguin. Yet this series was completely blown away by the launch of Penguins a year later and Collins had to scramble to replace it with a new paperback series.
So what went wrong? Why were paperbacks at sixpence such a success when hardbacks at sevenpence weren’t? Why did customers rush to buy Agatha Christie’s ‘The mysterious affair at Styles’ from Penguin, rather than Agatha Christie’s ‘The murder of Roger Ackroyd’ from Collins?
Certainly it’s possible that Penguin got the price right and Collins just missed it. Sixpence was just one penny less, but it would have had a different feel to it, just as £1 now feels different from £1.20. Penguin may also have got the distribution right, famously selling through Woolworths as well as through bookshops. But the big difference seems to be the marketing, the brand and particularly the cover design, all elements that Penguin copied from Albatross. The Collins sevenpence novels had illustrated dustwrappers, designed to appeal to the mass market they were aiming for, rather than the typographical covers of Albatross, designed to appeal to the much more select group of people who would buy English books in continental Europe.
The genius of Allen Lane seems to have been to realise that a mass market product didn’t have to look mass market. The same design principles could be applied to it as to a much more up-market product. Customers might only be buying an Agatha Christie or a Michael Arlen novel, and might only be paying sixpence or sevenpence, but they wanted it to look like serious literature, not look trashy. That might seem obvious in retrospect, but at the time it would have been much less so. The strategy of Collins to sell hardbacks at sevenpence in bright dustwrappers would have seemed entirely reasonable and perhaps much more likely to succeed than Lane’s sober paperbacks at sixpence. It’s also worth remembering that Lane’s strategy was to some extent an anomaly in both historical and geographical terms. The US market never embraced soberly designed paperbacks, and the UK market has moved a long way away from them now, but in Britain, in 1935, that was the right strategy. Collins were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.