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Boxing clever – the first 6 Albatross books

The launch of Albatross books in 1932 was a key moment in the paperback revolution, even if not fully recognised as such at the time.  It signalled the imminent demise of Tauchnitz, which had dominated English language publishing in Continental Europe for almost a century.  It was to be the inspiration for the launch of Penguin Books three years later.  And it was in some respects the moment that paperbacks came of age in the twentieth century.

A lot of planning and preparation had gone into the launch, which brought together three remarkable men, John Holroyd-Reece, Max Christian Wegner and Kurt Enoch.  Their stories are too long and varied to cover here, but all three played important roles in publishing history, even apart from their time at Albatross.   It was important for them that the first list of Albatross titles made a statement about the ambitions of the new series.

Albatross First six anouncement

It was a mixed list, establishing the principle that the series would cover a range of genres and styles.  A crime story and a romance rubbed shoulders with more literary fiction.   A volume of short stories was published alongside the first volume of an historical family saga.   There was something for everyone, and importantly, with colour coding by genre, the mix of types of book was reflected in a mix of colours for the first six books.

The choice of the first three authors – James Joyce, Aldous Huxley and Sinclair Lewis, seemed to say that the series would be more at the cutting edge of modern literature than Tauchnitz had been in recent years.   It also said something about the ability of Albatross to attract authors away from Tauchnitz.

James Joyce in particular had been neglected by Tauchnitz.  They had eventually published ‘A portrait of the artist as a young man’ in 1930, some ten years after being offered it, but had shown little interest in his other works.  So for Albatross, publishing ‘Dubliners’ as volume 1 was an open goal.

Huxley and Lewis had been treated better, with Tauchnitz publishing six volumes of Huxley and three from Lewis, arguably including their most important works.  But that was far from comprehensive coverage and as with Joyce, Albatross was able to target earlier works, overlooked by Tauchnitz, before later publishing new works.  Sinclair Lewis had in 1930 become the first American author to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, so it was a good time to be revisiting his earlier works.

The next three titles were perhaps a bit lighter, but Rogue Herries by Hugh Walpole was a significant prize.  It was the first of the Herries Chronicles, a trilogy of books set in the Lake District, and probably the work for which Walpole is best remembered now.  He too had to be attracted away from Tauchnitz, which had published several of his earlier works, as did Warwick Deeping.   As Tauchnitz had had a near monopoly on publishing English literature in Europe, it was almost inevitable that the authors Albatross wanted to publish would already have had dealings with Tauchnitz.

The launch of the first six titles was also marked by the issue of a boxed set of the six books.  I have little idea how many of these were produced or sold, or indeed the price at which it was offered.  I have only ever seen the one example, illustrated below, and that is in less than perfect condition.  Although the box has no Albatross branding, I am pretty sure that it was produced for Albatross, rather than just being a home-made affair.  It’s possible though that it was produced only for presentation copies, offered to business contacts and colleagues.

Box Set First Six 2

Just one of the books in this box still has its transparent dustwrapper, and that is in poor condition, but all the books would originally have had them.   They were easily damaged and after a year or so, new titles were instead given paper dustwrappers in the same design as the books.

Albatross and the Third Reich. A Strange Bird, but a wonderful book.

‘Strange Bird’ is a wonderful new book by Michele Troy, subtitled ‘The Albatross Press and the Third Reich’.  It vividly recounts the difficulties of a business publishing modernist British and American literature in 1930s Germany under the Nazis, and the lives of the key people involved as they cope with the sometimes brutal consequences.

Strange Bird

Michele Troy is Professor of English at Hillyer College at the University of Hartford in Connecticut.  On one level her book is a meticulously researched academic study, where every assertion is backed by detailed research referenced in copious footnotes.   But on another level it’s more like a novel, following the lives of a whole cast of characters, but particularly the three main founders of Albatross – John Holroyd-Reece, Max Christian Wegner and Kurt Enoch.

Kurt Enoch (right) with novelist Erskine Caldwell, in the US after the war

The book is beautifully written, again more like a novel in places, but the story the author has uncovered is almost too implausible for the plot of a novel.  There are twists and turns as the business has to adapt to Nazi control and suspicion, and the team is then split apart by restrictions on Jewish ownership of property in Germany.   I won’t include too many spoilers, but the story reaches a climax with the German occupation of Paris in 1940.  The contrasts in the experiences of the main participants at that point are almost heartbreaking, but there is far more to come.  Triumph turns to disaster and disaster turns to recovery in very personal terms as well as in political, military and business terms.

Max Christian Wegner

Max Christian Wegner, after the war

Holroyd-Reece, Wegner and Enoch all had very successful publishing careers separately from Albatross, both before and after the war, and they worked together for only a few years.  I’ve long believed that in that short period they were able to create something really special, and that the Albatross series was a remarkable achievement in both literary and business terms.  But I had little idea before picking up this book of quite how remarkable it really was.  It needs the context of time and place, of everything that was going on in 1930s Germany, followed by the war and the post-war chaos, to understand the extent of their achievement.  ‘Strange Bird’ brings together the context and the achievement and ties it together with the intertwining personal life stories of three remarkable men.

Holroyd Reece Christmas Card 8 and 9

John Holroyd Reece in his Paris office, drawn by Gunter Böhmer for a 1938 Christmas Card

All three died many years ago, but as well as researching many archives, Michele Troy has tracked down relatives and uncovered personal reminiscences that transform the book from a dusty academic work to a spellbinding thriller.  Above all it’s the stories of the people that you come away with from this book.  They’re engaging stories and engaging people, for the most part sympathetically drawn characters, despite all their faults.

The book is part history, part biography, part novel, part academic treatise, part detective story, part bibliographical research, but above all it’s a thoroughly enjoyable read.   I hope many more people will read it.

Aldous Huxley in Tauchnitz and Albatross – Part 2

For Part 1, follow this link.

In 1934 Tauchnitz was on the point of collapse.   Its brash new rival, Albatross, had succeeded far beyond its expectations and had stripped Tauchnitz of its sales, its authors and its prestige.   Tauchnitz was ready to admit defeat and to agree to being bought by Albatross, but one thing stood in the way.  The National Socialists, the Nazis,  had just come to power in Germany, and Albatross was a company with multiple Jewish connections.    In the political climate of the time, such a transaction was impossible.

Instead a complicated arrangement was put in place where Tauchnitz was bought by Brandstetter, the German printing firm that printed Albatross books.  Brandstetter passed editorial control to Albatross, but kept the printing work for itself.   From 1934, editorial control of both series was handled from Paris by Albatross.

Aldous Huxley smoking, circa 1946

Aldous Huxley

With Huxley and various other writers though, they had a problem.  Their books were being burned by the Nazis and were appearing on various lists of banned books.   Albatross / Tauchnitz had to tread carefully along a narrow line if they were to survive at all in Germany.   They had to exercise some self-censorship not only in terms of what they published, but how they published it and where they sold it.  The story is told in some detail and in very entertaining form in Michele Troy’s new book ‘Strange Bird.  The Albatross Press and the Third Reich’.

Strange Bird

On the face of it, it made little difference whether books were published by Albatross or by Tauchnitz.  Editorial control of both series was from the same office in Paris, the books of both series were printed at the same printer in Leipzig, and they were distributed by the same distributor in Hamburg.  But the evidence of the books suggests a different story.  Tauchnitz after all was a German firm, with a higher proportion of its sales in Germany, and had to be extremely careful about publishing writers that were not approved of by the German government.  Albatross, although coming under considerable German control, seemed to be allowed a little more freedom.   Its books, printed in Germany, but sold across Europe, earned valuable foreign currency for Germany and the Nazis were prepared to be a bit more tolerant.

But it seems clear that Huxley was no longer to be tolerated as a Tauchnitz author.   He had moved to Albatross anyway for new publications, but even works for which Tauchnitz already had the rights were not reprinted.   The Tauchnitz bibliography records reprint dates for the six Huxley volumes in Tauchnitz editions.  Each was reprinted several times, but none of them after the end of 1934.   A similar pattern exists for D.H. Lawrence and other writers not approved of by the Nazis.

Instead Huxley’s books were transferred across to the Albatross series.  The two volumes of short stories, ‘Two or three graces’ and ‘Brief candles’ were reprinted in 1935 as Albatross volumes 246 and 247, followed shortly afterwards by ‘Music at night and other essays’ as volume 260.  ‘Point Counter Point’ appeared in April 1937 as volumes 331 and 332.

Two volume, or even three volume novels had been a long tradition for Tauchnitz, although gradually dropping out of favour by the 1930s.  For Albatross, they were almost unheard of.  Longer novels appeared, not in two volumes, but in a larger ‘extra volume’ sold at a higher price.  Presumably they could have done that with ‘Point Counter Point’, but, perhaps for contractual reasons, they chose to retain the Tauchnitz two volume format.  Unlike Tauchnitz though, they offered the two volumes for sale together in a slipcase.

Point counter point with slipcase

This transfer of Huxley’s books across to Albatross was probably made necessary by implicit censorship, but it made some sense anyway for editorial reasons.  Albatross had been the more modern, edgier series, and Tauchnitz the more traditional, conservative one, even before the takeover.   With new books still being added to both series, there had to be some basis for deciding which books appeared in which series and Huxley fitted better into Albatross.  The opportunity to develop a ‘collected edition’ of Huxley’s works in Albatross may have been too good to miss.

Huxley Collected Edition ad

On the other hand, shifting books from one series to the other could also have a financial impact.  The two firms had different ownership structures, so profits from the books could end up in a different place.  The Tauchnitz bibliographers, Todd & Bowden, accused the Albatross managers, particularly John Holroyd-Reece, of systematically transferring profits away from Tauchnitz, to the detriment of the new owners, Brandstetter.

This is probably unfair, and seems to take no account of the difficult circumstances in Germany at the time.  Whether the various dealings were fair to Brandstetter or not, depends upon the basis on which they went into the arrangement, what the ongoing financial arrangements were, and also on what was politically possible in 1930s Germany.   They did after all buy Tauchnitz at a time when, without the support of Albatross, it had little future or value at all.  It is likely that Brandstetter’s financial interest came more from printing the books of both firms than from the profits of publishing.  But the details of the arrangements were to be of vital importance later when war came to separate the firms.

Albatross 269 Beyond the Mexique Bay

There was still the question of  whether any further new works of Huxley’s could be published.  ‘Beyond the Mexique Bay’, appeared in Britain in 1934, nominally a record of Huxley’s travels in Mexico and Central America, but also including long sections that were critical of fascism and offensive to the German government.   It could not appear in translation in Germany but it might be more tolerated in English.  It did appear in 1935, as Albatross volume 269, but only after considerable self-censorship by the Albatross editors – “die Schere im Kopf”, or the scissors in your own head, as described by Michele Troy’s book.  Even then it’s an open question as to how openly it could be sold in Germany as opposed to other European countries.

It was followed by ‘The olive tree and other essays’ in August 1937 (volume 336) and then by ‘Eyeless in Gaza’ in January 1938 as volume 358.  Finally in July 1939, only a few weeks before the outbreak of war, came ‘Along the Road’, another collection of essays, originally published in Britain as early as 1925, so another example of catching up with Huxley’s earlier works.

In total then, 14 Huxley volumes in Albatross, five of them transferred across from Tauchnitz (and one more that never transferred), covering almost all his pre-war novels and short stories, as well as a representative selection of his essays and travel writing.   In the end only D.H. Lawrence accounted for more volumes in the series, although Agatha Christie was level on fourteen.  For a series that was printed in Germany in the 1930s and a writer whose books were burned and appeared on banned lists, that was quite an achievement.

Albatross Spines Aldous Huxley no slipcase

Aldous Huxley in Tauchnitz and Albatross – Part 1

By 1928, when Aldous Huxley’s work first appeared in the Tauchnitz series, he was already a well-established writer.   Tauchnitz was still the dominant English language publisher in Continental Europe, but it had struggled during the First World War and the difficulties that followed in Germany.  It was no longer quite at the cutting edge of English literature, where it had been for most of its long existence, and British publishers were becoming reluctant to allow continental reprints as soon after UK publication as they previously had.  Still, to join the near-5000-volume-strong Tauchnitz series was recognition that you had reached a certain level in your profession.  The honour was as much to Huxley as it was to Tauchnitz.

‘Two or three graces’, a collection of Huxley’s short stories appeared in early 1928 (or possibly late 1927) as volume 4810, and the satirical novel ‘Those barren leaves’ followed shortly after as volume 4816.   Although both volumes are dated 1928 on the title page, the first printing of volume 4810 is dated December 1927 at the top of the back wrapper, while volume 4816 is dated January 1928.  There are multiple reprints of both books, identifiable by later dates on the back wrapper.

 Tauchnitz 4810 Two or three graces  Tauchnitz 4810 Two or three graces rear wrapper

 Tauchnitz 4816 Those Barren Leaves  Tauchnitz 4816 Those Barren Leaves rear wrapper

Sales must have gone well, and having identified Huxley as a promising young writer, Tauchnitz were keen to extend the relationship.  The following year they published his new novel ‘Point Counter Point’, a longer work that stretched over two volumes, numbered 4872 and 4873, and dated March 1929 in the first printing.  That was followed up by ‘Brief candles’, another collection of short stories, (volume 4958, dated October 1930) and by ‘Music at Night and other essays’ (volume 5017, dated October 1931).  Both works appeared in Tauchnitz very shortly after first UK publication.

  Tauchnitz 4872 Point Counter Point Vol 1  Tauchnitz 4873 Point Counter Point Vol 2

 Tauchnitz 4958 Brief Candles  Tauchnitz 5017 Music at Night

Tauchnitz though, by this time, was in turmoil.  Hans Christian Wegner had been appointed to manage the firm in late 1929, after the death of Curt Otto, and was keen to modernise the series, encouraging writers such as Huxley, D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce.   But his ideas were too radical for the Tauchnitz board and he left in 1931, becoming one of the key founders of the rival firm Albatross.  At last, Tauchnitz had a serious competitor.

Wegner would have had a relationship with Huxley’s agent and UK publisher and been well aware of which works had already been published by Tauchnitz.  He wanted Huxley for his new Albatross series, and saw an opportunity to win him over by publishing some of the earlier works that had been ignored by Tauchnitz

‘The Gioconda Smile and other stories’ appeared as volume 2 of the Albatross series in 1932.  It brought together most of Huxley’s short stories from the two collections published in the UK as ‘Mortal Coils’ (1922) and ‘Little Mexican’ (1924).  ‘Antic Hay’, another early work from 1923, followed as volume 24, with ‘Crome Yellow’, his first novel from 1921, published as volume 64 in 1933.  Inbetween though came the real prize.  Having won Huxley over and published his early work in far more attractive editions than the drab Tauchnitz volumes, Albatross was rewarded with his latest new work, ‘Brave new World’ published early in 1933 as volume 47 of the series.

     

A further volume of short stories appeared  under the title ‘Uncle Spencer and other stories’ later in 1933, as volume 87.  It combined the two remaining stories from ‘Little Mexican’, with five stories that had appeared in Huxley’s first collection ‘Limbo’ in 1921.  So in the first 100 volumes and the first two years of Albatross, five Huxley volumes had been published.  The tally at that point stood at six Huxley volumes in Tauchnitz and five in Albatross.  Not bad for a writer who was still in his thirties.

Huxley in Tauchnitz and Albatross to 1934

But then two other events intervened that were to have significant effects on Huxley’s continental publishing history.  The first was the near collapse of Tauchnitz, unable to compete with its much more modern rival, and the second was the rise to power in Germany of the Nazi party.  I’ll come back to the effects of those two events in my next post.

How an albatross gave birth to an entire aviary

When Albatross Books was launched in 1932 to compete with Tauchnitz selling English language books in continental Europe, the name was said to have been chosen because it was almost the same word in all European languages.  The elegant silhouette of an Albatross was a nice design touch, but it seems unlikely that they started off with the idea of having a bird as a motif and then settled on an Albatross as the most suitable bird.

But that seems to be precisely what many other publishing companies did in the years that followed.  The first imitator was Penguin Books, who launched their paperback series in the UK just 3 years later.  Before the launch Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin, had explored the possibility of a joint venture with Albatross.  When that didn’t work, he decided to go it alone, but copied all the principal design features of Albatross, including the use of a seabird as the logo and name of the series.

  Web-Albatross-1   Penguin 003

Penguin’s launch in the UK was such a success that a large part of the UK publishing industry felt it had to respond by launching similar series, copying many of the design features that Penguin in turn had copied from Albatross.  Perhaps most importantly this meant scrapping cover art and using instead a standard cover design, mostly typographical, and designed to provide a strong identity for the series rather than the individual book.

But for several publishers, copying Penguin’s design features also meant copying their use of a bird as a logo.   The Hutchinson Group even had two goes at it, with the series of Toucan novels, and the Jarrolds Jackdaw series. When the Lutterworth Press launched a series of children’s books, it looked for a correspondingly small bird and came up with Wren Books.  Another publisher of children’s books, Juvenile Productions Ltd., started the Martyn Library, featuring a bird that is presumably meant to be a martin, although I can’t explain the slightly odd spelling.

 toucan-1  jackdaw-2-dw

 martyn-5-dw  wren-5-dw

One publisher, Methuen, settled on the kingfisher as a logo, but resisted the temptation to call their series Kingfisher books, choosing instead the more prosaic ‘Methuen’s Sixpennies’.  Penguin meanwhile, perhaps concerned that it was losing its distinctiveness, decided to lay claim to all the other birds it could think of that began with a P.  So its non-fiction series was called Pelican Books, its children’s series was called Puffin and there was even a short-lived series of miscellaneous titles at the end of the war called Ptarmigan Books.

methuen-sixpennies-1

I make that at least eight series of paperback books in the UK given bird logos just between 1935 and 1939, with one later on in 1945.  Not bad for the brood of a single Albatross.

albatross-and-progeny

How Crime became green

The launch of Penguin in July 1935 changed many things in British paperbacks.  Most of their design innovations were copied from the continental publisher Albatross, but other publishers quickly copied them from Penguin and in just a few years they became the standard market practice.

One of these changes was the use of colour to signify the genre of the book.  For Penguin, orange meant  fiction and crime was green.  These two became the dominant colours in the Penguin series, although there was also blue for biography, cerise for travel, red for drama and so on.

For Albatross though, green had meant travel, and they had used red for crime, both in the main series and in the Albatross Crime Club series, which had distinctive red and black covers.  Was red a more appropriate colour for crime?  On the other hand Collins had already issued Crime Club paperbacks in the UK, predominantly in green, so perhaps it was the more natural choice in the UK.

 collins-paperbacks-1930s-no-196-the-golden-hands  crime-club-1933-murder-at-vicarage-3  edgar-wallace-1930ish

Pre-Penguin crime paperbacks in the UK were often green

But for Albatross in continental Europe, crime was always red

When it became clear that Penguin’s experiment was a success, others rushed to follow, including of course Collins, who relaunched their Crime Club paperbacks in 1936 in a Penguin style format, with no cover art.  They naturally chose green, using a stylised illustration of two figures with knife and gun, later adding westerns in yellow and mysteries in purple.

Hutchinson had launched its rival Penguin-style series in October 1935, using a variety of colours, but no clear indication of genre.  In June 1936 it added an associated crime series under the ‘Crime Book Society’ brand, and again used a range of colours.

Early Crime Book Society titles used all sorts of colours

But their distinctiveness didn’t last for long.  Within a year or so they too had accepted that crime meant green.  From about September 1937 onwards, all Crime Book Society paperbacks appeared in green covers. They were soon followed by two other imprints, both related to the Hutchinson Group, the Jackdaw Crime series and the Crime Novel Library.  Both series used only green covers and the convention now seemed to be well established – green means crime.

 jackdaw-crime-3-dw  crime-novel-library-1

The Crime Club goes paperback

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.

Collins Crime Club Dumb witness front

An early Collins Crime Club edition (courtesy of the Art and Books blog)

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.

Albatross 121 Murder on the Orient Express

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.

  Collins 7d The lone house mystery  Penguin 003

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 006  Penguin 006A

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.

White Circle 002

A classic design?

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.

A reprint from the mid-1950s, still with the same cover design, lightly modified, and colours reversed. The branding now includes 'White Circle'.

A reprint from the mid-1950s, still with the same cover design, lightly modified, and colours reversed.  The branding now includes ‘White Circle’.

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.

White Circle 001

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.

 

Dorothy L. Sayers in Albatross Books

This is the second of two posts about the continental European editions of major crime writers in Albatross Books.  The first one reviewed the Agatha Christie editions and this one goes on to look at Dorothy L. Sayers, her great rival for the title of ‘Queen of Crime’ in the 1930s.    There are quite significant differences in the way that the two authors appeared in the series that raise some interesting questions.

The two writers did not share a UK publisher.  While most of Christie’s novels appeared in the Collins Crime Club, Sayers used a number of different publishers, but in the 1930s, mostly Gollancz.   That was no barrier to being published in Albatross, which took books from across the range of UK publishers, but it was in practice a barrier to the Albatross Crime Club, which was effectively the continental arm of the Collins Crime Club.  So instead of appearing in Crime Club branding, ‘The nine tailors’, the first Sayers novel to appear in Albatross in 1934, was in the main series as volume 212 of the Albatross Modern Continental Library.

Albatross 212 The nine tailors

This was the ninth book in the already well established series of stories featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, and it appeared very quickly after first publication in the UK.   I don’t know the exact dates of either UK or European publication, but both were in 1934 and judging by the numbering sequence, the Albatross edition must have been around the middle of the year.   Although it had once been normal for European editions, particularly by Tauchnitz, to appear simultaneously with the UK editions, this had largely died out.  By the 1930s it was relatively unusual for UK publishers to allow a paperback continental edition within less than a year of the original hardback publication in the UK.

Perhaps allowing such an early continental edition was a mistake, because there was no repeat of it when the tenth story ‘Gaudy Night’ appeared the following year.  There was a gap of two to three years before that appeared as volume 364 of the Albatross series in February 1938, with the next story, ‘Busman’s honeymoon’, following in March 1939.

‘Busman’s honeymoon’ was not only the last Lord Peter Wimsey novel, it was effectively Sayers’ farewell to crime writing.   Marriage turned out not to be good for Wimsey’s crime fighting abilities and Sayers turned instead to religious writing and to translation, most notably producing an acclaimed translation of Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’.

In any case the war was coming and there was little time left for Albatross.  But they had already gone back to some of her earlier crime writing, starting with ‘Whose Body?’, the story that had first introduced Lord Peter Wimsey.  That had been first published in the UK in 1923 by Unwin, but the rights had subsequently been acquired by Collins.

For reasons that I don’t fully understand, Collins considered the book to be a mystery story rather than a crime story, so that it did not appear in the Collins Crime Club or the Albatross Crime Club.  I suspect that the distinction has something to do with the rules established for classic detection novels to ensure that authors played fair with the readers, although to me ‘Whose Body’ looks remarkably like a crime and detection novel.   I’d be delighted if anyone can explain to me why this is considered to be a mystery rather than a crime novel and whether the same applies to all of Sayers’ work.

Albatross 418 Whose body.

Anyway the distinction seemed to be important to Collins, who established a separate series for mystery stories in their UK White Circle paperbacks and a separate series too, with its own logo, for the Albatross Mystery Club.   The Mystery Club series started in 1937 with volume 401 and ‘Whose Body?’ appeared in July 1938 as volume 418.   It was quickly followed by ‘Unnatural Death’, another early Wimsey story that had been acquired by Collins, again in Mystery Club branding, as volume 425 in October 1938.

Albatross 425 Unnatural death

Both books, like almost all of the Albatross Mystery Club titles, are now pretty difficult to find.   The main series books are perhaps a little easier.  ‘Gaudy Night’ and ‘Busman’s honeymoon’ were both reprinted after the war, probably with a longer print run, and copies dated 1947 are now much more common than the pre-war editions (and since they carry no mention of the earlier printing, very easy to mistake for first printings).

Agatha Christie in Albatross Books

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.

Agatha Christie in Albatross

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.

Albatross 115 Lord Edgware dies

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 121 Murder on the Orient Express    White Circle 001

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.

Albatross 554 Ten little niggers

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.

 

Designed to fail? The Crosby Continental Editions

There were two English-language paperback series launched in Paris in 1932 as competitors to the long-established Tauchnitz Editions.  One of them, Albatross Books, was enormously successful, effectively taking over Tauchnitz within two years and going on to publish around 450 books before the outbreak of war in 1939.  The other, Crosby Continental Editions, was by almost any measure a failure, publishing just 10 books and not even outlasting the year.

But for some reason, it is the history of the unsuccessful company that seems to be more researched by historians, biographers and bibliographers, and the books of the unsuccessful company that are more highly prized these days, at least by booksellers.   Christian Wegner and John Holroyd-Reece, the founders of Albatross Books have slid gently into obscurity, with neither meriting an entry in the English-language Wikipedia, although they do creep into the German version.  Most of their books can still be bought for just a few Euros.  In contrast Caresse Crosby’s life is pored over by historians and the books she published are highly prized and highly priced.

Caresse Crosby and her whippet Clytoris

Caresse Crosby with her whippet, Clytoris

Much of the attention she gets is of course nothing to do with the Crosby Continental Editions.   She is remembered for her invention of the modern bra, her highly colourful sex life,  and the circles she moved in as a result of her wealth and her personality.  She had a huge range of contacts and was able to draw on them for her list of publications.  She persuaded Ernest Hemingway to let her publish ‘The torrents of Spring’ as the first book in the series and then ‘In our time’ as volume 6.  She received advice from Ezra Pound, and persuaded T.S. Eliot to write an introduction for volume 4, ‘Bubu of Montparnasse’.  That book had been translated by Laurence Vail, the husband of Kay Boyle, another friend of hers.  Boyle’s own work ‘Year before last’ appeared as volume 8 of the series, and her translation of ‘Devil in the flesh’ by Raymond Radiguet, as volume 3.  Crosby seemed to call in favours from a friend for almost every volume in the series.

Crosby Continental 8

And yet, it was a total failure.  That may partly have been the choice of titles.   Although Hemingway, Faulkner and Saint-Exupery sounds an impressive selection of authors, it was competing with Albatross, whose first ten books included titles by James Joyce, Aldous Huxley, Sinclair Lewis, Virginia Woolf, A.A. Milne and Edgar Wallace.  Crosby had been keen to launch her series with a best-seller and was delighted to get Hemingway on board, but ‘The torrents of Spring’ is probably not his finest work.  Albatross, which later published ‘The sun also rises’, may have got the better deal (not to mention Tauchnitz, which had earlier published ‘A farewell to arms’).

Overall the list contains 6 works by American authors and 4 by French writers in translation.  Was it insufficiently cosmopolitan, or even insufficiently British, to appeal to the readers of English language books in continental Europe, many of whom would have been British expatriates or tourists?

Crosby Continental 7

But perhaps even more important is that the books, as physical objects, are poorly designed, if not simply ugly.   It seems a strange thing to say, given that Crosby’s other venture, the Black Sun Press, was known for producing beautiful, high quality, limited editions.   But to my eye these are anything but beautiful, and are not a patch on the elegant Albatross books.  They seem to be modelled on the Tauchnitz Editions, which by then were looking old-fashioned.  They used the same broad shape and the same buff covers.  The CCE symbol on the cover is clunky and unattractive (to modern eyes resembling a Pac-man).  In comparison, the taller and more colourful Albatrosses, with the distinctive albatross silhouette, would have stood out in every bookshop stocking the two series.   It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the Crosby editions were designed to fail and deserved to fail.

Crosby Continental 6      Albatross 320 The sun also rises

Which would you rather buy, whether in 1932 or now?

Interestingly they seem to have been issued originally with glassine dustwrappers, as were the early Albatross books, although Albatross soon abandoned these as a bad idea.   Few of them survive from either series, but the photo below shows one recently sold at Sotheby’s.  Judging by this, the dustwrappers did little to improve their appearance.

Crosby Continental 1 in glassine dutswrapper

The fact that they are sold at Sotheby’s at all  is an indication of the veneration in which these strange little books seem to be regarded.  As far as I can tell, they are not rare – probably not as rare as many of the Albatross Books.   As an example, ABE currently has 17 copies of the Crosby volume 1 for sale.  The prices range from £32 to £178 for copies without the dustwrapper, to £1,250 for one copy with a dustwrapper, and £35,000 for an apparently limited edition in a slipcase, signed by Hemingway.  Interestingly, the dedication from Hemingway in this copy is to Sylvia Beech, the owner of the Shakespeare & Co. bookshop in Paris and refers with a hint of sarcasm, to the heading on the cover ‘World-wide masterpieces in English’.  Hemingway seems to be well aware that the book he had contributed was less than a masterpiece.

In comparison, ABE has just 5 copies of Albatross volume 1, at least 3 of which seem to be reprints, but you could still buy a first printing for £9.   I know which book I’d prefer to buy.

Despite the short duration of the series, it had a surprising re-birth after the war, with one volume, ‘Devil in the flesh’ reprinted in an American hardback edition with a dustwrapper still in the old design, and one new volume issued in Rome in 1951.   This final volume, a 13 page pamphlet advocating the use of referendums and issued almost 20 years after the others, seems to have little connection with the rest of the series.

1960s-Caresse Crosby with Ezra Pound in Italy

Crosby with Ezra Pound in Italy in the 1960s

This post continues a series on the competitors to Tauchnitz.   There are earlier posts on Nelson’s Continental Library and on the Standard Collection from first Louis Conard and then Collins.