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Frederick Fleischer – pirate publisher

The market for English language publishing in Continental Europe existed well before Tauchnitz came along in 1842. It was dominated by two large French publishers, Galignani and Baudry, both of which published the latest English novels without any authorisation or any payment to the author. But there was also a German publisher, Frederick Fleischer of Leipzig with an interest in the market.

Fleischer’s niche seems to have been publishing series of books by particular authors, starting with Edward Lytton Bulwer (later Bulwer-Lytton) in 1834. Bulwer was only 31 at the time, perhaps a bit young for a ‘Complete Works’, but he was at the height of his popularity with already several novels to his name. Fleischer launched the series with ‘Pelham’ (later to be the first novel in the Tauchnitz series as well) and followed up with another five volumes of the series in that first year.

By the end of 1935 Fleischer had more or less caught up with Bulwer Lytton’s published output to date and celebrated with his portrait and signature as a frontispiece to volume 10. This might well have reinforced the impression that the series had his authorisation, which it certainly didn’t.

The publisher would now have to wait for new works – not for long as Bulwer was a prolific writer, but in the meantime it was time to launch a new author. Fleischer now settled on Frederick Marryat, another popular and prolific novelist and particularly a writer of sea stories. He too was given the honour of a ‘complete works’ series, although not the honour of any payment.

Eight novels by Marryat were published in 1836 and three more in 1837 and 1838, taking the series to eleven volumes, while the Bulwer Lytton series gradually extended to 15 volumes over the same period.

But by 1838 there was a new literary star on the horizon. The Pickwick Papers, serialised in the UK in 1836/7 and published in book form at the end of 1837, had been a huge success. Charles Dickens was now the author everyone wanted to read and Fleischer was not going to disappoint them. The Pickwick Papers appeared as the first two volumes of a new Complete Works of Charles Dickens in early 1839.

The suggestion of a ‘Complete Works’ of Dickens in 1839 was even more odd than it had been for Bulwer five years earlier. Dickens was barely 27 years old and had just two or three published works to his name. ‘Sketches by Boz’ had appeared in 1836 and ‘Oliver Twist’ appeared in book form in April 1839.

But Fleischer was far from alone in seeing the potential of Dickens. Both Baudry and Galignani had already published pirate editions of Pickwick in English in 1838 (with Galignani probably the first). J.J. Weber had also published a German translations in parts in 1837/8 and 1839 saw a second translation from Vieweg & Sohn of Braunschweig.

Fleischer followed up with ‘Oliver Twist’ as volume 3, ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ as volumes 4 and 5 and ‘Sketches’ as volume 6, so that by the end of 1940 he was up to date with Dickens’ works. Three volumes of ‘Master Humphrey’s Clock’ followed in 1841/2, taking Dickens to 9 volumes, while Bulwer gradually increased to 20 volumes and Marryat to 14.

Then in 1942 the rival Tauchnitz series launched, also in Leipzig, and it was very quickly all over for Fleischer. Even before Tauchnitz in mid-1843 landed the hammer blow of obtaining authorisation from the authors in return for payment, Fleischer had more or less given up. The final volume, ‘The last of the barons’ by Bulwer, appeared in 1843 and Fleischer, one of the last of the pirates, hauled down his Jolly Roger and went back to publishing books in German.

Rhombuses are forever

The market for English books published and sold in continental Europe was dominated by Tauchnitz for a long time.  Many competitors came and went, mostly unable to make much of a dent in the position of Tauchnitz.  But the First World War, which separated the German firm from its authors and from many of its customers, provided a rare opportunity for other firms to intervene.    The Nelson’s Continental series that launched in Paris in 1916 and the Standard Collection from Louis Conard in Brussels, were just two of the rival series that sprung up to fill the void.

Even after the end of the war, Tauchnitz continued to be hobbled by its aftermath and by the rampant inflation that took hold in Germany.   It was certainly several years before the company got back to anything like its former market position and arguably it never recovered the vigour and the dominance it had previously had.  The market opportunity for other companies persisted and one firm that decided to dip a toe into the water was the Rhombus publishing company based in Vienna.

Rhombus 25 Masque of Red death

‘Rhombus Editions’ seems to me a spectacularly bad choice of name.   There’s a perfectly good English word for the shape that mathematicians insist on calling a rhombus, and the same is true in German.  The shape is a diamond and if that’s the shape you want for your marketing, then surely ‘Diamond Editions’ is a better name than ‘Rhombus Editions’. But Rhombus Editions it was.

They launched around 1920, with a series of very slim volumes, typically only about 80 pages long.  This may have been the result of paper shortages in post-war Austria, or may have been a recognition that many potential purchasers had limited English and could not tackle a full length novel.  It’s also possible that the books were partly aimed at schools, or more generally at students.  Whatever the reason, Rhombus published mostly short stories and looked more like the Tauchnitz Pocket Library editions that the German publisher had issued during the war, than standard Tauchnitz Editions.

They were also more like the Tauchnitz Pocket Library in including only (?) out-of-copyright works by dead authors.  Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and William Thackeray all feature heavily alongside even earlier poets and playwrights.   Whereas the Tauchnitz list had for many years included more volumes by female than male authors while focusing on contemporary works, this list is almost entirely male as well as entirely dead.

Rhombus 51 The black cat

Working out what books existed is not easy, as relatively few of them remain and it’s not clear that the numbering system was either consistent or comprehensive.  Lists in the books I have seen include titles with a selection of numbers between 2 and 99, accounting for about thirty books in this range, but also many missing numbers.  Those may have been books that quickly went out of print, or they may never have been issued.

Rhombus 549 The purloined letter

After volume 99 in about 1922, the cover design changed and the series numbering moved on to 501.   From here on all numbers seem to be accounted for up to about 560.   But the series started to include some longer works, which were presumably sold at a higher price and were given two numbers, or even three.  These are not numbers for separate volumes, just two or three consecutive numbers given to a single book in a single volume.   So volumes 508/9 is Oliver Goldsmith’s ‘The citizen of the world’ and Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket’ is given numbers 518/19/20.

Rhombus 518 20 Edgar-Allan-Poe+The-narrative-of-Arthur-Gordon-Pym-of-Nantucket

Counting these as a single volume each, I can account for around seventy or so volumes in the series, issued roughly between 1920 and 1925, but there may have been many more.

Rhombus French Un phillosophe

Alongside the series of works in English, the firm published similar series in French and in Spanish as well as some books in German.  The ‘Bibliothèque Rhombus’ and ‘Biblioteca Rhombus’ seem to have been no more successful than the ‘Rhombus Edition’ and after 1925 they all seem to disappear.