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Boxing clever – the first 6 Albatross books

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.

Albatross First six anouncement

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.

Box Set First Six 2

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.

A century of celebrations and the celebration of a centenary

Tauchnitz loved issuing celebratory volumes and had plenty of occasions to do so.  The 500th volume of the series in 1860, the 1000th volume in 1869 and the 2000th in 1881 were all marked by specially commissioned volumes and by specially bound presentation copies to be offered to authors, friends and business contacts.

Then in 1887 it was time to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the business, with a specially published history.  Much of this is taken up with a long list of the works published by the firm, making it a rather luxurious catalogue, but it also includes excerpts from authors’ letters to Tauchnitz, which was to become a feature of subsequent histories.

tauchnitz-funfzig-jahre

Title page of the 50th anniversary history

Volume 3000 seemed to slip by largely unnoticed, but volume 4000 in 1909 was marked by a ‘A manual of American literature’.   This gave full recognition for the first time to the huge contribution from American authors to a series that for 70 years had been called ‘The Collection of British Authors’.

Then in 1912 another anniversary history to mark 75 years.  The catalogue of publications has now disappeared, and more prominence is given to letters from authors, with Charles Dickens pre-eminent among them.

tauchnitz-seventy-five-year-history-letters-from-dickens

A selection of letters from Dickens in the 75 year history

The milestone of the 5000th volume was reached in 1931 and celebrated with an ‘Anthology of Modern English Poetry’, but by then the business was tottering.  It was sold in 1934, and lived on until the outbreak of war effectively as a sub-division of Albatross, the firm which had defeated it commercially.

So when the time came to write its centenary publication in 1937 it must have felt to some in the firm more of an obituary than a celebration.  The task of writing it fell to John Holroyd-Reece, the Managing Director of Albatross, and in the end he did Tauchnitz proud, although an early draft had contained a paragraph seeming to celebrate his own role rather too much.  Again the publication included a selection of letters from famous authors, including Dickens and Disraeli, this time in facsimile form, and also a range of congratulatory letters from well-known people, including the British Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin and the Archbishop of York.  Slightly oddly, it was given the title of ‘The Harvest’, perhaps suggesting that the firm was now reaping the benefits of previous efforts, and no longer sowing new seed for the future, a position uncomfortably close to the truth.

tauchnitz-the-harvest-1937-front-wrapper

The book appeared in two different forms, one with cream paper boards, and one with gold wrappers, each with a blind-stamped Tauchnitz Centenary logo on the front.  Neither version is difficult to find today.  More interesting are the presentation copies prepared for authors and other friends of the firm.  These are identical to the gold paperback edition, but the half-title is replaced with an individual printed page with the name of the person to whom it was presented.   The copy illustrated here was presented to Janet Beith, the author of ‘No second spring’, published as volume 5157 in 1934.  Other copies in public collections have the names of W.W. Jacobs, Louis Golding, H.M. Tomlinson and Helen Simpson.

tauchnitz-the-harvest-1937-janet-beith-dedication

Presumably copies were printed with the names of all Tauchnitz authors still alive in 1937, which would have included, amongst many others, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Graham Greene, Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, Daphne du Maurier, Aldous Huxley, P.G. Wodehouse and A.A. Milne.   As Louis Golding, whose copy survives, was published only by Albatross, never by Tauchnitz itself, this suggests copies may also have been presented to all Albatross authors.   In that case, copies may exist with the names of Agatha Christie, Evelyn Waugh and Ernest Hemingway, amongst others.

An intriguing question arises though from the fact that several of the Tauchnitz authors, including for instance Joyce, Wells and Huxley, had been placed on the list of banned authors, by the Nazi party, then in power in Germany.  Albatross, whose editorial offices were based in Paris, continued to publish works by banned authors, but always in the Albatross series rather than in Tauchnitz, and presumably for sale only outside Germany.  Interestingly the Albatross books were still being printed in Germany, just down the road from where other works by some of the same authors were being burned.  But did Tauchnitz in 1937, a German-owned firm based in Leipzig, print special celebratory volumes for authors at that time banned in Germany?  A copy printed for James Joyce would be an interesting find …

Penguins March into April

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.

Old Man blurb

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.

Penguins March into April 1937

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.

Penguins March into April 1937 inside front cover

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.

Penguins March into April 1937 rear

Check, re-check and then check again

I have read many Tauchnitz books and browsed many others and I don’t think I have ever come across a spelling mistake.   There are one or two small printing errors – the first printing of volume 35 managed to spell Tauchnitz’s own name wrongly on the title page- but these are very few and far between.  Remember these are books typeset and printed in Germany but in the English language.  For the people who set them up they were effectively foreign language books.  There were no automatic spellcheckers when they were produced.  The firm had no London office where it employed English language editors, and I have no knowledge of it employing British staff in its Leipzig office, although it seems possible that it may have done so.  The early volumes though carried a note on the front cover saying ‘The corrections of the press by Dr. Fluegel’, who doesn’t sound very British.

Tauchnitz 35 Title page

A rare – but embarrassing error

Dr Fluegel 2

Dr. Fluegel seems to have done a remarkably good job

How on earth did they do it?   It’s clear from his correspondence that Bernhard Tauchnitz himself was, or became, a fluent English speaker.  But there must have been some limitations to his command of English at least in his younger days, and in any case he would hardly be reviewing every text himself in detail.   Most of the books the firm published had already been published in Britain, so there would have been a printed text to work from rather than the author’s manuscript.  However in many cases the Tauchnitz Edition came out within a few days of the UK edition, or even in some cases earlier, so they must sometimes have been working from early proofs, rather than a final text.   And I assume that the people actually setting the type to create the stereotype plates were not native English speakers.   A few spelling or printing mistakes would certainly have been excusable.

The firm didn’t just publish in English.   They also published in German and in French as well as a large number of Latin books.  I can’t vouch for the level of accuracy in these, but it seems fair to assume that attention to detail was one of the firm’s strengths.  And they applied the same attention to numbers as well as words.  When they published Dr. Bruhn’s ‘New manual of logarithms to seven places of decimals’ in 1970, it gave details of five separate examinations of the logarithms for accuracy, the last two of them read from the stereotype plates.   As the book contains over 600 large pages of closely packed figures, this was no mean feat.   It was accompanied by an offer from the publisher to pay one Friedrichsd’or (a Prussian gold coin named after Frederick the Great) as a prize for finding a typographical error.  However the proof reading wasn’t perfect.  By the time the book was reprinted in 1903, six errors had been found and corrected.

Bruhns logarithms 6th edition 1903

The child of a brief affair

The myth about the birth of Penguin Books involves an immaculate conception on a station platform in Exeter.  In a post earlier this year though, I speculated that the new baby bore a remarkable resemblance to the continental Albatross Books, which might indicate some parentage.

Penguin-1785-a Greene End of the Affair

I have now come across an article by Alistair McCleery, which confirms the link and goes much further. Allen Lane was not only well aware of Albatross and its innovations, but had explored the possibility of a joint venture between Albatross and the Bodley Head, the publisher of which he was a Director. It was only when this possibility foundered that he went ahead with the separate launch of Penguin Books. The use of a seabird as a logo was then not in the slightest coincidental, and nor were the other design features shared by the two series. Penguin was indeed the child of a brief affair between Albatross and the Bodley Head.

Albatross 398   Brighton Rock

It is hardly surprising that copyright issues caused the end of the affair.   British publishers were wary of the potential damage that paperback reprints, even limited to the European continent, could do to their hardback sales, and would have been far more concerned about UK paperbacks.   In the nineteenth century Tauchnitz had built much of its reputation on publishing the latest English literature in continental editions more or less simultaneously with the first UK publication.   But by 1930 authors and publishers were enforcing a delay of at least a year before allowing continental publication.   Within the UK they would be looking for a far longer delay, and this is reflected in the titles that Allen Lane was eventually able to publish in the early days of Penguin, most of which came 10 years or more after first publication and many much longer than that.

On the other hand it is not difficult to see the initial attractions.   Despite the impact its books had made, Albatross was a long way from reaching the kind of mass market success that Penguin would go on to achieve.  A typical initial print run for Albatross would have been a few thousand copies, perhaps even as low as 2,000, and unlikely to be as much as 10,000.  In the European market alone, it could not achieve the kind of economies of scale that that UK sales could have brought.  Penguin started at 10,000 and was later printing 100,000 copies or more of its more popular titles. The prices this enabled it to achieve were vital to its success.

The standard price in Germany for an Albatross book, as for Tauchnitz before it, was RM1.80, and as far as I can work out from exchange rates at the time, this was closer to 2 shillings than to the sixpence that Penguins initially sold for.  Certainly Albatross was a superior product, and its distribution network spread over many countries would have been expensive, but longer print runs could undoubtedly have reduced its unit costs substantially.  So a flirtation was understandable, and if it never led to marriage, the liaison did result in a beautiful child.

A letter from Charles Dickens

If, like me, you have an interest in the Tauchnitz Editions, then a 150 year-old letter addressed to Bernhard Tauchnitz, is an exciting find.   If you’re at all interested in English literature, then a letter written and signed by Charles Dickens is something special.   A letter from Dickens to Tauchnitz wins on both counts.

24. Auktion

This one was written by Dickens in November 1860 accepting an offer of £35 from Tauchnitz for the publication of ‘The uncommercial traveller’ and ‘Hunted Down’.  The two works were published together as volume 536 of the Tauchnitz series just a few weeks later, their publication announced on 13 December 1860.  Dickens seems to consider ‘The uncommercial traveller’, a series of sketches from his journal ‘All the Year Round’, as being the main work for which payment is being offered.  He adds ‘Hunted Down’ apparently only as an afterthought, at the bottom of the letter, and it accounts for little more than 30 of the near 300 pages in the book.  Yet it is this short story that takes pride of place at the front of the book and on the title page.  Did Tauchnitz see this as the real prize?

Tauchnitz 536 Hunted Down title page

The 75th anniversary publication for Tauchnitz in 1912 included a long selection of extracts of letters from famous authors, with a special section for a series of letters from Dickens.  It is clear from these that Dickens had absolute faith in the reputation of Tauchnitz for fair dealing.  In relation to ‘Dombey and Son’ in 1846 for instance he wrote ‘… I really do not know what it would be fair and reasonable to require from you.  But I have every reason to rely upon your honourable intentions; and if you will do me the favour to state your own proposal, I have little doubt that I shall be willing to assent to it …’.

Letters from Dickens quoted in 1912 Anniversary history 3 Letters from Dickens quoted in 1912 Anniversary history 2

In this letter too, he accepts without question the proposal of £35 from Tauchnitz.   That may well have been a fair price, but it is worth noting that ‘Hunted Down’ is a story that has drawn attention because of the large amount of money initially paid for it.  Dickens was offered £1000 to write it for the ‘New York Ledger’, which published it in three instalments in August and September 1859.   He then published it in ‘All the Year Round’ in 1860, and here now he offers it to Tauchnitz as a makeweight in a £35 deal.   Its value seems to have fallen from £1000 to just a few pounds in little over 12 months!

This particular letter was not quoted in the 1912 publication, but there is an extract from a letter dated just 6 days later, on November 21st 1860.   ‘I beg to acknowledge with thanks, the safe receipt of your draft for £ .. Sterling, also, to send you the agreement with my signature and seal attached’.   Although the publisher’s discretion means that neither the amount of money nor the name of the work are quoted, it seems fair to assume that Dickens had already received both the contract and the payment of £35.   Tauchnitz it seems was a fast worker, and the postal service between Britain and Germany must also have been efficient, possibly even faster than it now is.

Letters from Dickens quoted in 1912 Anniversary history 4

Clearly Tauchnitz kept files of his correspondence with his authors, and recognised himself that the letters from Dickens were something special.  It would be reasonable to assume that they continued to be kept at the Tauchnitz offices and might have been in the premises destroyed by an Allied bombing raid in December 1943.   The survival of this letter suggests though that may not have been the case.  Perhaps they were kept by representatives of the Tauchnitz family when the business was sold in 1934.   This letter turned up last year in an auction in Germany, where it was described as a letter to the German publisher, Tauchnitz, but not identified as being from Dickens.   Do  other letters still exist out there somewhere?

Finally, if that’s not enough, there is another reason to celebrate this find.  ‘Hunted Down’ is one of the few stories to be set in the exciting world of life assurance and to have as one of its principal characters, an actuary, the career to which I have devoted most of my working life.

How to deal with a war against your customers

When your whole business is based on the cultural links between two countries, and hostilities then break out between them, you’re in a difficult position.  It can’t be easy at the moment to sell Russian folk music in Kiev.  So imagine how Tauchnitz must have felt at the outbreak of war between Britain and Germany a hundred years ago.

For over 70 years the firm had been publishing English literature in Germany and selling their books across the European continent.  A large part of their market, including selling to British and American travellers, disappeared more or less immediately and their basic product, contemporary English literature, became unacceptable to the censor.   Like any business in wartime they would also have faced many practical difficulties, including the loss of a large part of their staff.  From publishing at the rate of around 6 volumes a month up to August 1914, they were reduced to a total of 20 volumes in their main series between September 1914 and December 1918.

English Text-Books 10

And yet somehow Tauchnitz survived.  They may never have quite recovered their pre-war strength, but there were many reasons for that and arguably the signs of decline were evident even before the outbreak of war.  That they survived at all was due partly to a series known originally as ‘English Text-Books’ and later as the Tauchnitz Pocket Library.  It may have been born out of desperation, and was one of the least attractive of their products, but it may also have been one of the most important.

The series started life in 1916 as ‘English Text-Books – selected from the Tauchnitz Edition’  – a description perhaps chosen for political reasons, although the books don’t appear to have been aimed particularly at schools.  In practice they were all parts of books previously published, and even printed from the original plates with the original page numbering.  Most were relatively slim volumes, typically 100 to 150 pages in drab covers, and sold for around 90 pfennigs, just under 1 Mark.  The first selection consisted of 38 volumes, followed later in 1916 by a further 40 titles, with the series title now altered to ‘Tauchnitz Pocket Library’.   A lot of the first 38 were also reprinted either at this stage, or possibly in 1917, with the new series title.

English Text-Books 22a  Tauchnitz Pocket Library 22a

First printing and reprint with new series title (and censor mark on cover)

A final 11 volumes taking the series total up to 89, were published in 1918 and again earlier titles were then reprinted, distinguishable as reprints only by the rear cover listing all 89 titles rather than just the first 78.

They’re not easy to find now, particularly in first printing, and they are poorly represented in most Tauchnitz collections, although there is a full collection of them in the Deutsche Bücherei in Leipzig.

Tauchnitz Pocket Library 80a

A later issue in the series, from 1918

Bookmarking the old-fashioned way

I never really had any interest in bookmarks.  My interest has always been in the books themselves.  But sometimes it’s difficult to collect one without the other.  They tend to turn up together.  Bookmarks left out of books don’t usually last long.  But neatly pressed between the pages of a book, they can last as long as the book.

That’s certainly the case with Tauchnitz bookmarks that regularly turn up within the pages of old Tauchnitz Editions, usually the paperback ones rather than hardbacks.   Over the years I’ve found around 50 of these within books, as well as buying others separately, so I suppose I have to admit that I now collect the bookmarks as well as the books.

I suspect a lot of the surviving bookmarks are ones that were never really used for their proper purpose.   They were inserted as advertising into the books at the point of sale, tucked in completely between the pages.  In books that were never read they just stayed there, sometimes untouched for decades.   By contrast those that were actually used to mark a page and then left in a book would have protruded slightly, and become worn and discarded.  And if any were left in paperbacks sent to the bookbinder, they’d be discarded and replaced with a nice silk ribbon – nice but uninteresting

Bookmark April 1893

An early bookmark – slightly longer than the books

It helps that most of the Tauchnitz bookmarks are just the right size to disappear inside the books.   In fact they started off rather bigger and few of the early ones have survived.  Luckily more of the later ones have, because they’re a fascinating piece of publishing history.   Tauchnitz had bookmarks printed probably every month for over 20 years, between about 1893 and 1914 and each month’s bookmark recorded the books issued that month.  Between them they’re more or less a complete record of the 1500 or so books published in that period.    Or at least I assume they are.   If I’m right to say that they were issued every month, then there should be around 250 different monthly bookmarks.   The Tauchnitz bibliography found surviving copies of only 56 of them.  I’ve found quite a lot more, and heard from bookmark collectors who have others.  That still leaves us a long way short of 250, but near enough to make it look as though they probably do all exist.  I’d love to hear from anybody who has others.

  Bookmark May 1903 front   Bookmark May 1903 back 

Front and back of the May 1903 bookmark

The design of the bookmarks remained essentially unchanged for 20 years, although there were minor changes in the colours and the details.  That may seem surprising in these days of constant design changes, but the design of the books themselves had been largely unaltered from launch in1842 until the first major redesign in 1914 – a period of over 70 years.  Although the early bookmarks list the books in roughly numerical order, with a short blurb about each one, they quickly became more selective about which books they wanted to promote the most.  The choice of which book to list first is then evidence of which book the publisher saw as most prominent that month.

The last regular bookmark probably appeared in July 1914, just over 100 years ago, but a further bookmark dated January 1915 swept up the final books published before the war effectively put a temporary end to the publishing of English books in Germany.  They never reappeared after the war in this format, although there were still occasional advertising bookmarks issued, often promoting the works of one particular author.

The final bookmark in the series?

Why did Penguins have numbers?

If you p-pick up a Penguin book published recently, you won’t find a series number prominently displayed on the spine or on the half-title.   When Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin, picked up the original books that he was about to republish as paperbacks, he wouldn’t have found series numbers on them.   As a publisher, and Director of The Bodley Head, he had already published many books and I doubt there was a number on any of them.

Yet of all the many decisions he had to take as he set about launching Penguins, the question of whether or not to use series numbers was probably one of the easiest.   They were paperbacks – of course they would be numbered.   However much of an innovator or revolutionary Lane was, not to number his new paperbacks would have been a step too far.

Penguin spines 1st ten

The continental Albatross Books from which Lane took many of the ideas for Penguin, had series numbers.  The Tauchnitz Editions that were effectively the predecessor of Albatross, had been numbering their books since the first volume in 1842, and had reached over 5000 by 1935.  In Britain too, paperbacks were almost always numbered.   The Hutchinson paperback series of ‘Famous sixpenny novels’ had already gone past 400 and Victorian paperbacks such as W.T. Stead’s ‘Books for the Bairns’ and ‘Penny Poets’ had all been numbered.   There were certainly a few hardback series that were numbered as well, but the general rule was to issue paperbacks as a numbered series and hardbacks as individual books.

Albatross spines 2  Volume 4 low

Albatross paperbacks and an early Tauchnitz paperback

But why?  Was it that paperbacks were seen as more like magazines than books?  Magazines had traditionally been numbered, although often split into in volumes, rather than just numbered sequentially.    Newspapers, even today, are often numbered – The Times is currently over 70,000, The Independent at a more modest 8,500ish. 

Did it go back to the days when novels, such as several of those by Dickens, were sold as a series of parts, in numbered paperbacks?  Or was it just that paperbacks needed the branding of a series, whereas hardbacks sold more on the reputation of the author, or the cover illustration.  The logic doesn’t seem to apply any more, as few paperbacks are now numbered, or have any conspicuous series branding or publisher branding.

Whatever the reason, Penguin came to love their numbers.   Special numbers soon became reasons for celebration.   George Bernard Shaw was the prime celebratory author in the early days, being given numbers 200, 300 and 500.  Volume 1000 was saved for a book by Edward Young, a former Penguin employee who had drawn the original logo, before going on to become a submarine commander.   It was followed by volume 1001 – ‘The thousand and one nights’.   Earlier, number 666 had been used for ‘Defy the foul fiend’.

Penguin 1000

From the point of view of modern day collectors, series numbers are a great help, making it much easier to see what exists and which books are missing.   They almost provide a rationale for collecting – to find the first 100 or the first 1000 Penguins – although they also provide some intriguing mysteries, where numbers are missing or duplicated or inconsistent.

Penguin eventually stopped showing series numbers on their paperbacks some time around the 1970s, although they couldn’t entirely kick the habit.   Almost alone amongst major publishers, they continued to print the ISBN at the bottom of the spine, from which a series number could be inferred, for almost another twenty years before eventually deciding it was entirely redundant.

Back to basics – Collins White Circle paperbacks

This blog was supposed to be mostly about books, particularly vintage paperbacks.  It’s been rather taken over by theatre reviews and travel writing, but it’s time to get back to basics.

And what could be more basic than Collins White Circle paperbacks?   Although they followed in the footsteps of Penguin Books, launching less than a year later, in 1936, they had little of Penguin’s high-minded idealism.  At heart they were a publisher of genre fiction – crime, mystery, westerns and romance.   But they still followed the basic Penguin formula – standard size, standard price of sixpence, standard covers with colour and design indicating genre, but otherwise un-illustrated, dustwrappers in the same design as the cover.

White Circle 107 low   White Circle 045 low

Standard cover designs for the Wild West and Crime Club sub-series

On the face of it this is a bit odd.  There were plenty of paperbacks for sale before Penguin, and many of them were precisely in this market sector of genre fiction.   The one thing that they had in common was illustrated covers, often very gaudily illustrated.   Penguin’s innovation was to bring in soberly designed covers, aimed at a different audience, cultivating an image of seriousness, if not intellectual snobbery.   Even if Penguin’s actual output didn’t always match this image, there was at least a consistency in their branding.   But why would a publisher of genre fiction use such similar branding?

White Circle 226 low   White Circle 318 low

Mystery and romance cover designs

The answer presumably is that in reality the market sectors the two publishers were aiming at were not so different.   This was the golden age of detective fiction and the Collins Crime Club hardbacks had achieved a level of intellectual credibility and middle class acceptance.   Many of them had already been published as up-market paperbacks on the continent in the Albatross series that was Penguin’s inspiration.   Illustrated covers would have signalled a move down market.  Collins were probably aiming rather more up market than usual for genre fiction, and Penguin were aiming a bit more down market than they’d have liked to admit.   After all, Penguin’s own output included a significant number of crime titles.

White Circle 502 low

The few general fiction titles had more individual cover designs.

The White Circle series seems anyway to have been successful, and by the outbreak of war in 1939 it ran to almost 200 books.   Penguin by that point had reached about 220 in their main series, although they had also diversified in various other directions, notably into non-fiction through Pelicans and Penguin Specials.  With production in the UK hampered by war-time restrictions, Collins too had to diversify, launching a long series of White Circle Services Editions and exporting the White Circle brand to Canada, India and Australia.   All that’s a story for another day though, as is the renaissance of the series after the end of the war, when it continued to challenge Penguin for another 15 years through to the end of the 1950s.