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.
There are lots of people who collect crime fiction and many who research it and blog about it. There seem to be rather fewer these days who are interested in westerns, and less is written about western fiction, but it certainly still has many devotees. Even gangster novels and other specialist genres are well collected. So I suppose there must also be people who collect romantic fiction and are passionately interested, if that’s the right word, in the genre. I’ve never met any of them though, and prices of romantic novels in vintage paperbacks remain generally very low, so I doubt there can be very many collectors around.
All of which means that despite the prominence of the general Collins White Circle series over a period of almost 25 years, its sub-series covering romantic fiction has attracted little attention.
It was in any case a bit of an afterthought to the White Circle series. The Crime Club novels had first appeared in 1936, followed later that same year by the launch of western novels, numbered from 101, and in January 1937 by a mystery sub-series numbered from 201. The name ‘White Circle’ for the overall series started to appear about July 1937, although the use of a large white circle as the title panel was a unifying element in the branding long before then. Each genre though had its own colour and its own standard cover design as well as its own block of numbers.
When three volumes of Galsworthy’s ‘Forsyte Saga’ appeared in February 1937, it was obvious from their appearance that they were intended to be part of the White Circle series, although they were unnumbered and not obviously part of any sub-series or genre. They were followed in April / May by a group of six romance novels, numbered from 304 to 309, and with the listing of other novels at the back now including the Forsyte Saga novels as numbers 301 to 303.
So the ‘300 series’ now seemed to be established as a slightly odd combination of Galsworthy and Romance. Three further Forsyte Saga novels appeared in August / September 1937, oddly again unnumbered, but quickly identified in other volumes as 310 to 312. Then more Romance novels in early 1938 with numbering from 313 and from this point on, the 300 series of numbers is essentially reserved for romantic fiction. A sort of turquoisy blue was established as the colour for the genre, and a stylish lady’s head as the distinctive symbol in the bottom right of the cover. The series was clearly aimed at women readers and although the image looks a little quaint and demure to modern eyes, it must have been an aspirational look at the time. At first it appeared only on the dustwrappers and the covers of the books themselves were left plain.
The authors of the early novels included Renee Shann, Pamela Wynne (a pseudonym of Winifred Mary Scott), Betty Trask and Henry de Vere Stacpoole, each with several novels in the series. None of the names mean much to me and I don’t think they’re much remembered, although I see Betty Trask’s name is still attached to a fiction prize for young authors. It’s described as being established from money left in her will by the ‘reclusive author of over 30 romance novels’.
The list gradually extended up to volume 330 by the end of 1939 and continued well into the war years, reaching volume 359 by March 1942. There was one interloper – volume 321 in August 1938, was a special film tie-in edition of ‘A Yank at Oxford’ by A.P. Garland in a specially illustrated cover, but mostly the books followed a fairly standard format. The lady’s head on the dustwrapper was altered at some point in 1939 (making her look slightly older and with a less prominent nose?), the ‘White Circle’ branding was introduced, and the words ‘A love story’ added to the cover.
At least one of the two Philip Hughes novels in 1940 / 41 appeared with an alternative purple cover featuring a head and shoulders portrait of the author (a format more consistent with the later ‘500 series’ of volumes), but otherwise there was little change. In line with the rest of the series and most other paperbacks, dustwrappers disappeared from about 1940 and from that point on the illustration was carried on the front cover of the book itself.
Romantic novels did not re-appear with the other sub-series after the war and it was not until 1950 that the series started again in a rather different format. From here on they are still branded ‘A White Circle Pocket novel’ but they have pictorial covers and as a result look very different from other books in the series. The Penguin hegemony that had imposed non-illustrated covers on the market for any paperbacks with up-market pretensions, for 15 years by this point, was now starting to break down. Collins must have felt it was worth breaking away from it for romance novels, although perhaps oddly, they stuck with non-illustrated covers on westerns and other genres for another nine years – almost as long as Penguin themselves did.