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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.