I’m still on a bit of a personal mission to show that Penguin revolutionised, but did not invent, the sixpenny paperback. The success of Penguin was so overwhelming that in retrospect it has obscured what went before and rather created the impression that Penguins appeared out of nowhere. In practice Penguins evolved from a long history of sixpenny paperbacks going back to Victorian times. I’ve already written about the Chatto & Windus series that ran from 1893 to the 1920s and about the Hutchinson series that ran roughly from 1925 to 1935. There are still many more to cover and this post now looks at pre-Penguin sixpenny paperbacks from Collins.
Collins are an interesting example, because for a long time after Penguin’s launch they were perhaps their closest competitor, with the Collins White Circle series. To see the effect that Penguin had, it’s interesting to compare Collins paperbacks from just before and just after that 1935 watershed.
The immediate changes caused by Penguin’s launch are not hard to see. Almost overnight, paperbacks became smaller, lost their cover illustration (other than a stylised design), gained a dustwrapper and generally became a bit more sober, respectable and middle class. As I’ve pointed out before, almost all of these changes were an aberration in historical terms and the earlier ones look rather more like modern paperbacks than the later ones do.
Collins had experimented with paperbacks over many years in various different formats and prices. They published a traditional series of large format 6d paperbacks in the early years of the twentieth century and then after the First World War tried out books in a smaller but chunkier format at ninepence.
Collins 6d from around 1905 and a 9d paperback possibly from the 1920s
But then towards the end of the 1920s they launched a more modern looking sixpenny series. The design clearly owes something to the Hutchinson series of Famous Copyright Novels. Where the Hutchinson covers were predominantly red, Collins were predominantly green (and incidentally, Hodder & Stoughton’s were yellow). Where Hutchinson had the title in yellow and the author’s name in white, Collins often had the title in red and the author’s name in yellow, although sometimes the colours switched round. Significantly in the light of what was to follow, both series moved away from fully pictorial covers to a more restrained design where the picture takes up only part of the cover.
Collins on the left, Hutchinson on the right
My guess is that this Collins series started around 1928. That’s largely based on the fact that several of the early books were first published in hardback around 1924/5, and one seems to be from 1927. Others went back much further, including books by Walter Scott, Charles Dickens and George Eliot. Most of the books were romances, adventure stories, crime stories or westerns.
Collins was starting to build a speciality in the fashionable field of crime fiction and this was cemented by the launch of the Collins Crime Club in 1930. It helped of course that they were the publisher for Agatha Christie, whose books were setting the standard for crime writing. The Crime Club was followed by the Wild West Club and as the 6d series went on, it was increasingly dominated by these two genres.
As with most pre-Penguin paperbacks, little is recorded of the Collins series, and I don’t know of any collectors, although I would have thought it was fairly collectable. It almost certainly includes the first paperback printings of many Agatha Christie stories as well as those of many other crime writers. I have a partial listing , drawn from the covers of the few copies I have, or have seen, which I’d be happy to share, and I’d like to hear of any other lists.
A few of the books seem to have switched away from the standard green covers to other colours, most strikingly a copy I have seen of Agatha Christie’s ‘Partners in Crime’ in red covers and a western from Hugh Pendexter in orange. As far as I can tell though these were exceptions and the vast majority of books were in green.
Unfortunately the books are undated and I can’t be sure for how long they continued. But I think the series went on right up to the launch of Penguin in July 1935. Suddenly then it looked old-fashioned and down-market in comparison to Penguin’s stylish but unillustrated covers. The inclusion of an Agatha Christie novel, ‘The mysterious affair at Styles’, in Penguin’s first ten was also an arrow aimed directly at the heart of Collins. This was Christie’s first novel and was (thought to be) available to Penguin because it had been published by the Bodley Head, before her move to Collins. Problems with the copyright led to it later being withdrawn and replaced by an alternative Christie title, but that didn’t help Collins.
By March 1936, the new Collins series was ready for launch. The first books in Penguin format were branded only as Crime Club books, but before long the overall ‘White Circle Books’ brand started to be used and it continued to be a significant challenger to Penguin, particularly on Crime and Mystery books, for the next 20 years.
By the 1950s though, Collins were starting to bridle at the self-imposed restrictions on the use of cover art, as indeed Penguin were. They started to experiment with going back to illustrated covers and a few books were issued that look remarkably like the 1930s predecessors to Penguin (although no longer at sixpence). Going back to the past was not the answer though. Cover art would of course return, but in a more modern form.
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.
This is the story of a very unusual Penguin from the other side of the world.
At first sight it’s very clearly a Penguin. The broad bands of colour and the Penguin symbol make it instantly recognisable, even though the bands are red rather than the more familiar orange. The more striped effect at the top, and the text-heavy cover, mark it out as a Penguin Special, one of the series of topical books on current affairs that sold millions in the run-up to, and the early years of, the Second World War.
But after that first impression, other things don’t seem quite right. Firstly it’s the wrong size. Basically all Penguins at that time (this was printed in 1940) were of a standard size – the size that Penguin had adopted from the European series of Albatross Books, and which in turn had been copied by almost all other British paperback publishers. This one is larger, roughly 14 cm by 22 cm. It’s also made up of a single gathering, stapled in the middle, so has a rounded spine, unlike the flatter spine of almost all other Penguins.
Then the cover has been printed in three colours – black, blue and red. Almost all other Penguin covers at the time were printed in two colours, typically orange and black. This one has an extra colour to allow the British and Australian flags to appear, and that also seems to account for why it’s red rather than orange. Interestingly it’s not the current Australian flag. The version then in use was the Australian Red Ensign, which changed to blue only in 1954. It’s also noteworthy that the penguin logo is printed in blue rather than black.
This is an Australian printing of course, but that in itself is not particularly unusual. Over 70 UK Penguins were reprinted in Australia during the war years, given the difficulty in exporting copies from the UK. They were published through a local company, Lothian Publishing Company Pty. Ltd., whose name generally appears on the title page, below that of Penguin Books. But this book has no mention of Lothian, crediting only a local printer in Melbourne.
Lothian’s own list of the Penguin books they published in Australia does though include it and shows it as the very first such book in August 1940, almost two years before any others followed. Why did this particular book justify such an unusual step?
The author, Sir Richard Acland, was a British Liberal Party MP (and a 15th generation baronet), who had been stridently against the policy of appeasement being followed by the UK Governments under Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain. In 1938 he had engineered a famous by-election in Bridgwater, a Conservative-held constituency neighbouring his own in Barnstaple, and persuaded a journalist, Vernon Bartlett, to stand as an ‘Independent Progressive’ anti-appeasement candidate. Both the Liberal and Labour parties agreed to stand down in favour of Bartlett, leaving him a clear run against a Conservative candidate in the election, which he won by a relatively small majority.
Acland’s book, ‘Unser Kampf’ was written after the outbreak of war and published as a Penguin Special in the UK in February 1940 – volume S54 of the series. It is a plan for a new world order to be established after the war, and almost a manifesto for a new political movement. Acland went on to be one of the main founders of the Common Wealth Party in 1942, with J.B. Priestley and Tom Wintringham amongst others. He stood for the new party in the 1945 election, but it fared badly and he lost his seat, later defecting to Labour and being elected as a Labour MP.
Clearly his book was a significant contribution to the debate at a time of high interest in public affairs. but was it any more than that? It was not one of the Penguin Specials chosen for reprinting in the US (although interestingly one of Tom Wintringham’s books was). Did it then have any special relevance in Australia, more than any of the other Penguin Specials, several of which dealt with similar subjects? I’m not convinced that it did, although the Preface to the Australian Edition suggests that “To enable the demand to be met, it has been found necessary to reprint in Australia”.
It is unclear who wrote this rather evangelical preface. It refers to both the author and the English publishers (Penguin Books) in the third party, and thanks them for agreeing to no royalties or copyright fees. So presumably somebody else wrote it and it reads as if written by a supporter of Acland, rather than by a publisher. I suspect that it was local supporters of Acland, or his ideas, who promoted the idea of reprinting it in Australia, and possibly approached Lothian with the suggestion. Could that in turn have been what sparked later negotiations between Lothian and Penguin about reprinting other titles?
It does seem to have been reasonably successful, with 10,000 copies in the first printing of August 1940, followed by a second printing of a further 10,000 copies in the same month. Enough to interest Lothian in extending the collaboration with Penguin?
There are still other oddities though with this very odd book. The UK edition is titled ‘Unser Kampf’ with ‘Our struggle’ as a sub-title, while the Australian edition reverses this. Were Australians thought to be even more uncomfortable with foreign languages than the British? Or less familiar with the title of Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’, which it echoes? It seems just a little condescending.
And despite the changes to the front cover, the back cover just copies the UK back cover other than to add ‘Printed in Australia’. So it has a list of the ‘Latest Specials’, most if not all of which, would not have been available in Australia.
Acknowledgements: Some of the information about Australian printings in this post, comes from an article written by Chris Barling in the Penguin Collector’s Society newsletter for May 1987. For more about the Bridgwater by-election of 1938, see https://vernonbartlett.co.uk/
Large publishing groups like HarperCollins, Penguin Random House or Hachette today use lots of different imprints for the books they publish. I’m not very sure why, because most readers would have little idea of the publisher’s name even after reading a book, never mind before buying it.
It wasn’t always so. Paperback series used to cultivate brand loyalty and the brand was very clearly signalled on the covers. If you bought a Penguin Book in the 1930s, 1940s or even later, you certainly knew it was a Penguin, both before you bought it and after you had read it. And given Penguin’s success, almost all other paperback publishers adopted clear and prominent brand identities as well. Which left Hutchinson, the HarperCollins of its day, with a problem. The Hutchinson Group contained a long list of publishing companies and it’s not clear to me how much cooperation there was between them. So they ended up with not one paperback series competing with Penguin, but several.
The Hutchinson Pocket Library was perhaps their flagship series in response to Penguin, but from different parts of the group also came Jarrolds Jackdaw books, Toucan books, John Long Four Square Thrillers and the Hutchinson Popular Pocket Library.
For several years in the late 1930s, the Leisure Library Company, another part of Hutchinson, resisted the trend to Penguinisation. They continued to publish paperbacks that were a throwback to pre-Penguin days – larger format, brightly illustrated covers, and selling for just 3d or 4d, substantially undercutting Penguin on price, but unashamedly down-market. Although Penguin mythology lauds the company for selling books at the low price of 6d, in reality Penguins were more at the top end of the paperback price range and only just below the 7d price of cheap hardbacks at the time.
Typical Leisure Library paperbacks from the late 1930s
But in 1940 the Leisure Library capitulated and joined the rush to establish Penguin-style paperback series, adding another to Hutchinson’s long list. Although in this case, it might be more accurate to describe them as Collins White Circle style.
Westerns from the Leisure Library and from Collins White Circle
Like Collins, the Leisure Library started separate sub-series for crime, westerns and romantic novels. Each sub-series had its own colour, with both companies using green for crime and yellow for westerns, and each added a stylised picture as part of the cover design.
Crime Novels from the Leisure Library and from Collins White Circle
To some extent also like Collins, the connection between the sub-series was not particularly emphasised, and the books were primarily branded as coming from ‘The Wild West Library’, ‘Crime Novel Library’ or ‘Romantic Novel Library’. The crime and romance novels are still shown as published by the Leisure Library Co. on the title page and the spine, but the westerns refer only to the Wild West Library. The westerns are though clearly linked to the crime novels by the square white title panel with perforated edges. These two series could almost have been called the Hutchinson White Square books, but oddly the Romance sub-series went for a white circle instead, making it easily confused with the Collins series.
The series was not very long-lived, although that was probably as much to do with the effect of the war on publishing, as with the commercial success or failure of the books. They were all published in 1940, in a relatively short period between about May and July, and few paperback series were able to maintain much of a publishing programme after that until the end of the war. There were a total of 32 books – fourteen crime, twelve westerns and six romances. I don’t think any of them have achieved much of a mark on literary history, even amongst fans of the relevant genres, but they added another layer to the story of the paperback revolution unleashed by Penguin.
Allen Lane’s decision to abandon cover art when he launched Penguin Books in July 1935, was a revolutionary move that was followed by almost all of his competitors. Previously lurid cover designs gave way to much more restrained design. So what is happening just two years later, when Lane seems to abandon all restraint with the Penguin Specials series?
It is not yet the return of multi-coloured cover art. It would be many more years before Lane could reconcile himself to such a step. But the screaming headlines, the long prose blurbs and the occasional cartoons and maps on the covers of the Penguin Specials are a long way away from the simple tripartite model of the main Penguin series.
The series of topical political tracts on world affairs, launched in late 1937 was a huge success. The turbulent state of European politics had created an appetite for information on international affairs that Lane was happy to satisfy. The initial print run of 50,000 for the first volume sold out within four days and had to be almost immediately reprinted. Other books sold in their hundreds of thousands and their success gave Penguin a platform for later domination. When paper rationing was introduced later in the war, the allocations were based on paper use in these pre-war years and Penguin were using paper in vast quantities.
But why the lack of restraint in design? Penguin seem to have decided that in the political situation of the time, with the threat of war looming, restraint was simply not appropriate. Every new book in the series, and every new topic, was a matter of screaming urgency and the covers should reflect this.
And the books were after all, despite their lack of restraint, still recognisably Penguins. Enough of the basic Penguin design was retained for that to be clear. They carried the Penguin brand and the values associated with it – a certain vague notion of seriousness, quality and intellectual aspiration. Despite the shoutiness of the covers, these were not to be seen as populist or downmarket. The basic colour was still orange, the colour most associated with Penguin (or Pelican blue for those volumes branded as Pelican specials), the design was still based on horizontal bands, the Penguin logo was still in much the same place at the bottom of the front cover, and the price of course was still 6d.
The style of cover was not really new. The covers remind me particularly of the dustwrapper designs on many hardback books from Gollancz in the 1930s, and no doubt other publishers too. But I don’t think they were normal on paperbacks at this time, and if anybody was going to introduce them, the last person you’d have in mind would be Allen Lane. For the second time in three years, he was revolutionising paperback cover design.
But in the end this one wasn’t really a revolution. Other companies didn’t copy it, although Hutchinson moved some way in the same direction for a while. Perhaps even more significantly, Penguin themselves didn’t persist for too long with the policy. When war was declared in September 1939, the series had reached almost 40 titles, but gradually screaming headlines started to give way to the more sober realities of war. By 1942, as the series passed 100 volumes, a new design was emerging that had no room for long quotations or cartoons and was much more like the classic Penguin design. This looks to me to be a recognition that the technique of shouting can be very effective in the short term, particularly if unexpected, but almost inevitably loses its effectiveness and shows diminishing returns if persisted with. Restraint was back in fashion.
A Penguin special from 1943
The recent news of the death of Charles Aznavour reminded me, like many others, that this most French of singers, was born as Shahnour Vaghinag Aznavourian, the son of Armenian immigrants. To the British at least, he had an impeccably French accent, sang quintessentially French songs about French passions and in an unmistakably French way.
Which reminds me in turn of Michael Arlen, that most English of early twentieth century writers, who was though born as Dikran Kouyoumdjian, the son of Armenian immigrants to Britain. He himself was born in Bulgaria, but came to England with his parents in 1901 at the age of 5. He was sent to Malvern College, which no doubt turned him into the perfect English gentleman, as it no doubt still does for his modern equivalents. He remained a Bulgarian citizen though throughout the First World War (in which Bulgaria was aligned with Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire) becoming a British Citizen only in 1922 and changing his name at this point to Michael Arlen.
My interest in him is focused on the books he had published in Continental Europe by Tauchnitz and Albatross and in the UK by Penguin and Hutchinson. He first appeared as a Tauchnitz author in 1930, one of the new authors introduced by Max Christian Wegner, who had been appointed as General Manager of the company in 1929. The first of his books to appear was ‘Lily Christine’ as volume 4926. As usual Tauchnitz preferred to start by publishing his latest work, rather than going back to the earlier works that had made his name.
‘Lily Christine’, a tangled romance chronicling the lives of upper class society in the 1920s ‘Jazz Age’, had been published in the UK in 1928. It is probably fairly typical of the novels that led to Arlen being described as the English F. Scott Fitzgerald. The first printing in Tauchnitz is dated March 1930 at the top of the rear wrapper, and like all first printings from this era, has a two column list of latest volumes on the back and inside wrappers. Later printings have a single column listing on the back only.
It was followed shortly after by ‘Babes in the Wood’, a collection of short stories that begins with an apparently autobiographical story called ‘Confessions of a naturalised Englishman’ (although a note adds that all characters are fictitious, including the author). It appeared as volume 4943 and the first printing is dated June 1930 at the top of the rear wrapper. In the three months between publication of the two books, Tauchnitz had introduced a modernised design for the front wrappers, so that they look rather different at first.
A final Tauchnitz volume, ‘Men dislike women’ appeared the following year, as volume 5001, dated July 1931 on the rear wrapper. By this time Christian Wegner had been fired by Tauchnitz and was shortly to re-appear as one of the founders of the rival Albatross series. Albatross was hugely successful in persuading leading British and American authors to publish with them rather than Tauchnitz, and Arlen quickly switched allegiance to the new firm, no doubt partly because of his earlier relationship with Wegner.
‘Young men in love’, an earlier novel by Arlen, first published in 1927, appeared as volume 40 of the Albatross series in late 1932, in the blue covers used to identify love stories. Then in 1934, ‘Man’s mortality’, a rather different type of novel from his usual romances, was published as volume 211. This is more like science fiction, set 50 years in the future and often compared (almost always unfavourably) with Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’, published the previous year. Albatross gave it the yellow covers representing ‘psychological novels, essays etc.’, although perhaps slightly oddly ‘Brave New World’ had been given the orange covers of ‘tales and short stories, humorous and satirical works’.
Arlen’s third and final book in Albatross, was a book of short stories though, and so was given orange covers, making him one of only a handful of writers to have books published in Albatross in three different categories / colours (Evelyn Waugh, Aldous Huxley and Katherine Mansfield were others, and D.H. Lawrence managed four). ‘The Crooked Coronet’ was published in March 1938 as volume 362.
This was long after Albatross had taken over editorial control of Tauchnitz in 1934, with the two series being managed jointly from then on. Arlen could presumably have been published in either series, and the criteria for determining which series was used, are not entirely clear. Most authors stayed with the series they were published in before the two came together, generally with more of the edgier modern authors in Albatross and more of the longer established or more conservative authors in Tauchnitz. That fitted the harsh reality that authors banned by the Nazis could not be published by the German-based Tauchnitz. I don’t think that Michael Arlen was ever banned (or could ever be described as edgy and modern), so presumably he stayed in Albatross just because that was where he was at the time of the coming together.
Meanwhile in the UK, Penguin had been launched in 1935 and was buying up paperback rights where it could, mostly for books published several years earlier, rather than the latest novels. They obtained the rights to Michael Arlen’s ‘These charming people’, another collection of short stories that had been first published by Collins in 1923, and this appeared as volume 86 of the Penguin series in 1937. It includes a story called ‘When the nightingale sang in Berkeley Square’, a title that was later appropriated for a song that became one of the most popular songs of the second world war.
I think ‘These charming people’ was the only one of Michael Arlen’s works to appear in Penguin, but at least two others appeared in Hutchinson’s Pocket Library. Hutchinson was the original UK publisher for several of Arlen’s books, so they were in a stronger position to publish paperback editions in their series competing against Penguin. ‘Young men in love’ appeared as volume 50 of the series in May 1938 and ‘Lily Christine as volume 59 in October of the same year.
There may have been other paperback editions in other series, but by this time Arlen’s style was going out of fashion. He wrote mainly about an era and a society that had vanished, at least from public sympathy, with the depression of the 1930s and that was totally out of tune with the conditions of the second world war. For a few short years though he had been one of the most popular writers in Britain. His most successful novel, ‘The green hat’, first published in 1924, doesn’t seem to have ever appeared in paperback.
Arlen himself had left Britain in 1927, first joining D.H. Lawrence in Florence and then moving to Cannes, where he married a Greek Countess, Atalanta Mercati. He returned to Britain during the war, but then moved to the US for the last years of his life. His son, Michael J. Arlen, an American with Armenian / British / Greek / French / Bulgarian heritage, has written ‘Exiles’, a memoir of his parents and his childhood, itself published many years later in Penguin.
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.
In wartime, everyone had to be satisfied with less and that included the youngest. While books for adults were in short supply and had to be crammed onto as little paper as possible, books for young children, which were already small, had to be made even smaller. As Gulliver Books put it, “On all sides there must be economy. When victory is obtained we shall again have a plentiful supply of famous works in popular editions. In the meantime …”.
And in the meantime, they produced books so small they would fit easily into a wallet, perhaps into a credit card slot if such things had then existed, or more likely at the time into a cigarette packet. They are sometimes referred to as ‘air raid shelter’ books, produced to distract children from the noise and the terror of air raids. But they are so small that (for an adult) they barely take ten minutes to read, which wouldn’t have provided much distraction during the long hours that were often spent in shelters.
In design terms the Gulliver Little Books look remarkably like miniature Penguins, using the same tripartite layout with a broad horizontal white title panel between two blocks of colour above and below. The series title in the top block and the logo in the bottom block also follow the Penguin model, with a picture of Gulliver replacing the Penguin, and a shield for the series title rather than Penguin’s odd shaped blob. The similarity is of course deliberate, with Penguin the leading paperback publisher at the time, and the one that carried an air of prestige and sophistication.
Unlike Penguin though (and Albatross before them), the colours have no apparent meaning. The same book may be found in a range of different coloured covers. There are so many variations that this looks to me to have been a deliberate policy from the start, rather than a case of books being reprinted later in whatever colour card was to hand.
The Gulliver Book company was based in Lower Chelston in Devon, a suburb of Torquay, not normally known as a centre of book publishing. I know little of the history of the business, but it seems to have specialised in small scale reprints of classic children’s books. Its paper usage may have been quite low before the war, so that when paper rationing came in, its quota would have been correspondingly low, perhaps leaving it little choice but to opt for miniature books.
It had competitors in the market for miniature books for children at the time. These included the ‘Mighty Midgets’ series, published by W. Barton, and the ‘Pocket Wonder Library’ published by PM (Productions) Ltd. I suspect both of these were very small scale publishers as well, so this may have been a bit of a cottage industry in wartime.
The Gulliver Little Books series eventually included a total of 36 books, starting with an abridged version of ‘A midsummer night’s dream’ from Lamb’s ‘Tales from Shakespeare’. Like many of the books, it is not an easy read for a child. Charles and Mary Lamb, writing in 1807, wrote in a style that is more convoluted than any children’s author would use today. The plot of ‘A midsummer night’s dream’ is complicated anyway and abridging makes it even more so. It would have to be a fairly bright young reader who was reading and making sense of this on his or her own.
The books are very different from the kind of thing that Penguin was publishing for children at the same time in its new Puffin imprint. They are all classic stories from a previous generation, and written in the style of a previous generation. This was not a company doing much to support new writers through the payment of royalties. It looks to me as if all or almost all of their books would have been out of copyright.
How much did they cost? There is no price on them, and given that typical paperbacks were selling for sixpence before the war (ninepence by the end of it), it’s hard to imagine that these tiny books can have cost more than one or two pence. Paper costs would have been low and author payments possibly non-existent. I’ve seen it suggested though that the similar (if slightly more luxurious) ‘Mighty Midgets’ series, sold for threepence a copy. Could prices of the Gulliver Little Books have reached these dizzy heights?
There is no date on them either, although they were clearly published sometime between 1939 and 1945. As well as appearing in multiple colours, they also exist in two different formats. Most copies, particularly the earlier ones, are produced in four ‘gatherings’ of 8 pages each, stapled across the spine. Later printings are in a single gathering stapled through the spine. The difference can be seen in the picture above of different printings of the Charles Dickens book, and in the example below of a later printing.
My best guess is that books in the earlier format might be from around 1942 /43 and the later format more like 1945, but this is only a guess. Presumably the series then came to a natural end at the end of the war. I doubt they were much mourned.
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.