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Collins sixpenny paperbacks from the pre-Penguin era

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.

  Collins Large Format 196 The Golden Hands  White Circle 006

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 Pre WW1 Large Format 6d No 19 Silas Marner   Collins 9d History of Mr Polly

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 Large format 232  Famous Copyright Novels 28

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.

Chatto and Windus sixpenny paperbacks

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.

Chatto and Windus sixpenny wonderfuls

Chatto & Windus’ own celebration of their sixpenny paperbacks

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.

Hutchinson’s Famous Copyright Novels

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.

Famous Copyright Novels sample page

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.

Famous Copyright Novels 40

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.

Famous Copyright Novels 5

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.

Famous Copyright Novels 149

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.