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.