Almost all Services Editions are paperbacks, mostly very thin, cheap paperbacks on poor quality wartime paper. Apart from the need to reduce costs in wartime, there was also the practical matter of fitting into a battledress pocket.
So what are we to make of the Harrap Services Editions, a hardback series issued towards the end of the war? These are not only hardbacks, but some of them very substantial books, certainly not pocket size.
Of course there were hardback books in Service libraries throughout the war. Many of the early books were donated by the public and came in all shapes and sizes, as well as being on all manner of topics, many of them of little interest to their intended readers. On the other hand it was precisely because many of the donated books were unsuitable, that the new series of paperback Services Editions were launched in 1943.
Those paperbacks were a huge success and were so widely read and passed around that many of them simply disintegrated, one of the factors making them so scarce today. Some units developed their own solutions, providing homemade hard bindings to make them last a little longer. But perhaps as the war moved towards an end in 1945, it became clear that there was a need for something more durable.
Did the armed forces commission a series of hardbacks from Harrap, or was it an initiative from the publisher? By 1945 the dominance of the two long series of paperback Services Editions, from Collins and from Guild Books, was coming to an end. Several other publishers were starting to produce Services Editions, presumably under some sort of contract with the Services that at least enabled them to access the necessary paper ration. But I suspect individual publishers still had a fair amount of discretion over exactly what they published as Services Editions.
In the case of Harrap, all they seem to have done is take some of the books that they were publishing anyway and stamp Services Edition on the front cover. There is nothing in the printing history that suggests a specific printing for the services. The only evidence that they are Services Editions at all is that stamp on the front board. Nor is there any evidence that they were a series in the normal sense. They come in all shapes and sizes and all types of book. The five examples I have come across include two spy novels by Helen MacInnes, an oilfield novel by Robert Sturgis, the semi-fictionalised account of life in Thailand that later formed the basis for the musical ‘The King and I’, and a biography of General Allenby, a military leader. Are there many others?
Four of these five books were printed in 1945, and the fifth in 1946. Judging by the scarcity of the books today, the numbers printed (or the numbers of those printed that were stamped “Services Edition”) must have been small. Almost all Services Editions are now difficult to find, even those paperbacks printed in editions of 50,000 copies. But while it’s relatively easy to make 50,000 poor quality paperbacks disappear, that seems more difficult with hardbacks. If even 5,000 copies of each book were printed, you might expect several hundred to have survived. But if they have, I don’t know where they are.
Two of the copies I have show clear evidence of Services use. One other has the half-title torn out, often seen with Services Editions, presumably to remove evidence of Services ownership. So unlike some later Services Editions, they do at least seem to have reached their intended market.
I’d love to hear from anyone who knows anything more about these unusual and rather surprising books.