It’s time to take another look at one of the many sixpenny paperback series that flourished before Penguin came along in 1935 to revolutionise the market – by selling paperbacks at sixpence. I come back to this popular misunderstanding of what Penguin’s paperback revolution was all about, because it certainly wasn’t about price.
The last sixpenny series I wrote about was the Hutchinson series of Famous Copyright Novels that ran from around 1925 to 1935. But the concept goes back much further than that. Chatto & Windus were selling sixpenny paperbacks from at least 1893 and the firm itself published a celebration of them in 1985 in a colourful book through their Hogarth Press imprint, called ‘Sixpenny Wonderfuls’. Thanks to a reader of the blog for bringing this to my attention. The title is intended as a reference and a contrast to the ‘penny dreadfuls’ that sold in vast numbers throughout the Victorian era, and reinforces the point that even sixpence was not a particularly cheap price for a paperback in those days. These books were by no means at the bottom of the market.
Perhaps inevitably ‘Sixpenny Wonderfuls’ focuses more on the colourful and dramatic covers than on the contents of the books, and that in a way is the point here. These books sold because of their cover illustrations – forty years later Penguins sold because of their lack of cover illustrations.
I don’t know of any complete list of the Chatto and Windus Sixpennies and I don’t have any collection of them, so the illustrations here come from the Chatto book. It sounds though as if the firm itself may have some quite detailed records, covering not only titles but printing numbers. They note that one of the first titles, ‘The cloister and the hearth’ by Charles Reade, had an initial print run of 50,000 in 1893 and went on to sell 380,000 copies in its sixpenny edition over the next 15 years. And that was a book that was already over 30 years old at the start of the series. You’ll be lucky to find a single copy of it today though. The internet is awash with hardback copies, but those hundreds of thousands of paperbacks have disappeared almost without trace.
There is probably even less chance though of finding a copy of ‘Antonina’ by Wilkie Collins, also published in 1893 in the series, but selling only 1,240 copies according to Chatto’s records. Clearly it was a hit-and-miss business.
Nevertheless the series seems to have prospered and I would guess it covered perhaps a couple of hundred titles over its 30 year history. It survived the First World War, although with few new titles being added, and in the post-war years it found it difficult to generate the levels of sales achieved pre-war. It’s unclear exactly when the series ended. Copies may have continued to be sold even into the early 1930s, but in terms of new titles it probably ended in the early 1920s.
The idea of sixpenny paperbacks certainly didn’t end then. New series from Hutchinson and from Collins were only getting going at that point, and Penguins were not even a gleam in Allen Lane’s eye, but the fashion for Chatto and Windus’ stories and their dramatic cover illustrations had come to an end.
The series was dominated by adventure stories and relatively light romances. Books by Ouida and B.M. Croker sold well, as did those by Walter Besant and Charles Reade. Their names may not be widely recognised today, but many of the other authors would be. The series contained books by Wilkie Collins, Thomas Hardy, Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, Emile Zola and Arnold Bennett. For comparison, it’s worth remembering that despite the reputation for quality, most of the authors and titles of the first couple of hundred Penguins are now justly forgotten. Amongst the few still remembered are Conan Doyle and Bennett.
Believe it or not, there were paperbacks in the UK before Penguin. There were even sixpenny paperbacks. There had been for a very long time and they were particularly plentiful in the first thirty years or so of the twentieth century, before Allen Lane came along to transform the market. Lane’s paperback revolution changed many things, perhaps most notably in getting rid of cover art, but also in changing the size of paperbacks. Before 1935, the standard size for a paperback was roughly 15 cm by 22 cm, or 6 inches by about 8.5 inches, considerably larger than the standard size ushered in by Penguin. What Penguin didn’t change was the price.
Typical large format 6d novels from the early 20th century
There were several long running series of these ‘large format’ paperbacks from publishers such as Hodder & Stoughton, George Newnes and Collins, as well as the series I want to look at here, from Hutchinson. They all looked fairly similar, all of course with cover art, mostly with advertising on the back and on other pages at the front and back as well, all on fairly cheap paper, usually priced at sixpence and often with the text arranged in two columns. That was probably a hangover from the story magazines that came before them that had a long history going back to Charles Dickens and ‘Household Words’ among others.
A sample page with two column format
Frustratingly, another thing most of these books had in common was that they carried no printing dates and as a result there is a lot of confusion about when they were published. In some cases I have seen the same book described by dealers as being from ‘around 1900’ or from ‘the 1930s’, while having little idea which of them is more nearly correct.
Most of the series and most of the books have pretty much disappeared without trace. So far as I know almost nobody collects them or studies them and no libraries have significant holdings of them. There is far more interest in the Penguins and other similar books that replaced them. I can’t complain. That’s where most of my interest has been too.
The replacement happened incredibly quickly. The Hutchinson series of ‘Famous Copyright Novels’ had been running for many years and had reached over 300 titles when Penguin burst onto the scene in July 1935. By October of the same year, the series was dead and Hutchinson had launched a new series that copied Penguin in almost all material respects.
It’s hard to be sure when the Famous Copyright Novels series started, but my best guess is possibly 1924 or 1925. Volume number 2 in the series is ‘Life – and Erica’ by Gilbert Frankau, a book first published in 1924, so the series can’t be earlier than that. Most of the other titles were first published much earlier than this, as might be expected in a paperback reprint series, but I can’t identify any other early titles with a first printing date later than 1924.
If that’s the case, the series ran for around 10 years, from say 1925 to 1935. It had, for most of its life, a quite distinctive and striking appearance with primarily red covers, the title in yellow script and a cut-out style cover illustration with a white margin. Towards the end of the series that seems to have been altered, first to introduce a blue upper panel and then to move to fully illustrated covers with a much weaker series identity.
In other words, just as Penguin were about to launch one of the strongest and most successful attempts at series branding in paperback publishing history, Hutchinson were moving in the opposite direction. That didn’t go too well, then.
A high proportion of the books in the series are romantic novels, mixed in with adventure stories and thrillers. There are not many crime novels or westerns (Collins was the dominant publisher in these genres) and few books with any serious literary pretensions. The author most represented is Charles Garvice, an enormously popular writer of light romances, who on his own accounted for around 50 of the 300 plus titles in the series. Other popular authors included Charlotte M. Brame, Rafael Sabatini, Kathlyn Rhodes, William Le Queux, E.W. Savi and Rider Haggard.
Hutchinson was a sprawling group of associated publishing companies, which each retained some separate identity, and at least one of these, Hurst & Blackett, published a very similar series. Hurst & Blackett’s Famous Copyright Library at 6d a volume seems to have included titles from almost exactly the same authors, although I have not seen a copy of any of them.
From quite early days, the advertising and marketing for Penguin Books was associated with a kind of whimsy, a gentle sort of humour, both in terms of words and pictures. Cartoon penguins appeared in all sorts of guises to illustrate text that didn’t seem to take itself too seriously. Other companies still try to use the same kind of style today – somebody like Ben & Jerry’s for example, so maybe Penguin were ahead of their time. Here’s an example of Penguin’s (sometimes quite wordy) style, taken from an American Penguin in 1943.
It’s hard to say exactly where and when they started using this style. It probably developed gradually rather than arriving fully formed. But by March 1937 there were at least the first signs of it, as shown by the small advertising booklet illustrated below.
Penguin had launched in July 1935, so was almost 2 years old by this time and had already published 80 books in its main series. It had also already attracted several serious competitors. Hutchinson had launched their Pocket Library in a very similar style in November 1935 as well as their ‘Crime Book Society’ series in June 1936. The first paperback Chevron Books were on the market by February 1936 and the Collins White Circle series was only just behind in March 1936. Other competitors were certainly on the horizon.
Penguin had a head start, but there was a relatively short window of opportunity for them to establish their brand, not just as one of many types of paperback books, but as the name that customers associated with the whole idea of paperbacks. They did that, not only by pushing ahead with an ambitious programme of new titles in the main series, but by diversifying away from general fiction and crime fiction into other areas.
This little brochure as well as promoting the next ten main series titles (volumes 81 to 90, published on 19th March), also announces the launch of both the Penguin Shakespeare and Pelican books. Six of Shakespeare’s plays were to be published on April 23rd, Shakespeare’s birthday, and the first Pelican Books were to appear on May 21st. The Penguin Shakespeare is still published today, and Pelican Books ran for 53 years to 1990 before being recently revived. So not a bad three months work really, with volumes 91 to 100 of the main series to follow shortly after.
The Tauchnitz ‘Collection of British Authors’ launched in 1842 (or possibly late 1841) with ‘Pelham’ by Bulwer Lytton as volume 1 and Dickens’ ‘The Pickwick Papers’ as volumes 2 and 3. I’ve written about both of them here and I have copies of (what I believe to be) a first printing of each of them. But in both cases what I have is a hardback, privately bound, copy of a book that would originally have been issued as a paperback. Most of those first printings may have stayed as paperbacks, but if they did then they suffered the usual fate of paperbacks. It’s pretty tough for a paperback to survive over 170 years. So far as I know, no paperback first printing of volumes 1, 2 or 3 has made it through. Only copies that were taken to a bookbinder and given a sturdier binding, have survived.
It’s possible that a first printing of volume 4 has survived, but first we need to know how to recognise a first printing. For Tauchnitz Editions unfortunately, the date on the title page is of little use and there is no printing history on the back. Luckily most paperbacks are easier to date than hardbacks. From 1872 to 1934 they generally carry the true printing date at the top of the back wrapper and there are also differences in the format of the first printing wrappers that distinguish them from reprints. Before 1872 it’s more difficult, but copies can usually be dated by reference to the other books that are advertised on the wrappers. So any early paperback from 1842 should not advertise more than a handful of other titles – the series had reached volume 32 by the end of the year, and a first printing copy should not advertise any titles published much later than itself.
The Tauchnitz bibliographers, Todd & Bowden, found very few copies that came even close to meeting these conditions. An early copy of volume 1, held in the New York Public Library, lists other titles up to volume 52 and a copy of volume 8 in Paris lists titles up to volume 79. More promising are a paperback copy of volume 12, also in the Bibliotèque Nationale in Paris, advertising titles up to volume 21 and a copy of volume 31 in the Netherlands (in the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in the Hague) listing nothing later than volume 32. Both of these are likely to be first printings as volume 12 was issued out of sequence and roughly at the same time as volume 21.
Even earlier though are two copies in my collection that list only 7 titles on the back wrapper. One of these is volume 7 itself, ‘Paul Clifford’ by Bulwer Lytton, so is almost certainly a first printing. The other is volume 4, ‘Eugene Aram’, also by Lytton. Tauchnitz announced the publication of volume 4 at the end of December 1841 and didn’t announce volume 7 until nearly the end of February 1842, so it’s perhaps unlikely that the first printing of volume 4 would advertise volume 7 as having been printed. However there’s considerable doubt about exactly when the early books were published, and some evidence of announcements coming significantly ahead of actual printing, so until someone can produce an earlier copy, I still cling to the hope that my copy may be a first printing.
This post, like all my posts about Tauchnitz books, is tagged ‘Vintage paperbacks’. Yet if you check out the thousands of Tauchnitz volumes for sale on the internet, you’ll find far more copies in hardback than in paperback. My own collection too probably contains more hardback than paperback books in the main series, although other things being equal, I always give preference to a paperback copy. I’m not just being perverse. Tauchnitz editions at heart are paperbacks. Although the company did sell hardback copies almost from day one, the vast majority were sold in paperback, including most of those now advertised for sale in hardback. Somewhere along the line, there’s been a visit to the bookbinder.
This was not unusual for Continental Europe at the time. There’s a typically insular British view that Penguin invented the paperback in 1935 (some Americans even give the credit to Pocket Books in 1939), but paperbacks had been sold in continental Europe for centuries before that, and even in Britain were widespread before 1935. They had several advantages, including of course price, but for many European purchasers that was not the main consideration. They were quite willing to pay the cost of binding, but they wanted it done in their own style, not that of the publisher.
So in 19th century Europe, books were often sold in paperback, then taken to a bookbinder. In some cases whole shelves full of books from a range of different publishers would be bound in a uniform binding. It must at times have looked stunning. But the result now is that Tauchnitz editions are found in a huge variety of bindings and a shelf full of them often looks anything but uniform. And of course it’s the books that were bound, particularly those in expensive bindings, that have survived best. In contrast, the paperbacks that may once have been far more numerous, have mostly disintegrated and are now difficult to find. The older the books, the more that’s the case, so the earliest volumes from the 1840s and 1850s are now rarely found in paperback.
Or at least they’re rarely found in first printing paperbacks. Later printings abound for some of the earliest volumes and one of the major advantages for a collector is that paperback copies are usually relatively easy to date, whereas hardback copies can be almost impossible. Tauchnitz had the unusual habit of leaving the first printing date on the title page even on reprints many years later, and not showing the printing history. The true printing date is usually on the paperback covers or can be worked out from the information about other publications on the covers or on the half-title verso. But often bookbinders would discard not only the covers, but the half-title as well, leaving almost no way to establish the date of the book.
In fact often the best clue to the date of a hardback may come from the style of the binding. There’s a whole art to dating bindings, although complicated by the variation between countries and individual binders, as well as over time. It’s not unusual though to see a Tauchnitz Edition offered for sale and claiming to be from the mid-19th century, when the most cursory glance at the binding shows it can’t possibly date from then.