Methuen were a relative latecomer to the ‘sixpenny’ market established by Penguin in 1935. Other companies had reacted much more quickly, so by the time Methuen finally launched their new series in 1939, it was a crowded market. The Collins White Circle series was well established by then, as was the Hutchinson Pocket Library, and many other series too. All of these new series shared the key elements of the Penguin revolution – same size, same price, standard designed covers without cover illustration, and dustwrappers in the same design as the book cover.
Several of them also shared the idea of using a bird as their logo – Jackdaw Books, Toucan Books and Wren Books had already joined Penguin and Pelican. So for Methuen to choose a Kingfisher as their logo, as well as copying all the other elements that had become standard, was hardly breaking the mould. At least they didn’t call their series Kingfisher Books, settling instead for Methuen’s Sixpennies.
The series launched with the first four books in April 1939, although the list of titles on the back cover of the books already anticipated a roll-out of books up to number 14. In practice further batches of four books appeared in each of May 1939, June 1939 and July 1939, taking the series up to sixteen books, before it paused. There was nothing more for a full year, until another batch of four titles appeared, dated August 1940.
By this time of course the war was well under way and paper rationing was starting to bite. The effects of it are seen in the abandoning of dustwrappers, and the limiting of the length of the books to 192 pages. Pre-war issues had up to 320 pages and looked generally much bulkier. The wartime books have smaller type, smaller margins and thinner paper as well, so look meagre in comparison. The August 1940 batch are also coloured a pale yellow on the cover, although later titles revert to the pre-war white.
There were twelve more titles to come, published in three batches of four, in January, February and March 1941. Other than going back to white on the cover, they follow the same format as the 1940 issues and all are limited to 192 pages. The final eight books resort to advertising for ‘Shadphos’ tonic tablets (‘commonly known as “brain sparklers”‘!) on the back cover, rather than a list of other titles.
The selection of titles published in the series is generally middlebrow – the type of book that could easily have been published by Penguin. There are titles by Arnold Bennett and A.P. Herbert, Jack London, P.G. Wodehouse and Marjorie Bowen. Indeed all of these authors did, sooner or later, have books published by Penguin. There’s a good range of crime titles and thrillers too, if not by the very best known crime writers – they had mostly been snapped up by Collins. Authors such as Sax Rohmer, George A. Birmingham, Walter S. Masterman and E. Phillips Oppenheim were popular though in their day and still attract some interest today. And then there’s a single Tarzan novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Overall from a selection of only thirty-two books, that’s not a bad list. It seems unlikely that the series failed because the books weren’t good enough. In the end it probably failed just because of bad timing – three years earlier and it might have succeeded. But launching in April 1939 into a crowded market, just before war and paper rationing were about to hit, was about the worst timing possible.
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.
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.
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.
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.