Blog Archives

Happy Birthday, HarperCollins

I used to work for a company, Eagle Star Insurance, which claimed to have been founded in 1807.   It was useful for an insurance company to have been around for a long time.  It gave you more confidence that it might still be around when you came to make a claim, or when your 30 year pension policy finally matured.

The claim was nonsense, really.   Eagle Star had actually been founded by Edward Mountain as the British Dominions Marine Insurance Company in 1904.  It later bought up older companies, including the Eagle Insurance Company (founded in 1807) and the Star, before renaming itself as the Eagle, Star and British Dominions in 1917.   Twenty years later it dropped the British Dominions bit to become just Eagle Star, and adopted the history of the Eagle company, as well as its name.  In my time there, Eagle Star employed an archivist and had a small museum with such treasures as an insurance policy issued to Charles Dickens.

Eagle star 1918 advert
An early advert from 1918, just 14 years after the British Dominions company was formed, shows it already using the date of 1807 in its masthead
Eagle star 1918 advert close-up

But when Eagle Star in turn was bought up by Zurich Insurance Company, that history was no longer wanted.  Zurich had a little earlier celebrated the 125th anniversary of its founding in Zurich in 1872 and had its own museum.  It had no interest in tracing new roots back to London 65 years earlier.  The Eagle Star museum was closed and a new home was sought for the archive.  It ended up in the City of London’s Guildhall Library, where it still is, including that Dickens policy.

harpercollins 200

Publishing is another industry, like insurance, where large numbers of companies have been amalgamated into a small number of modern conglomerates.   So when HarperCollins, a business that has been around for less than 30 years, announces that it is celebrating its 200th anniversary, it’s a reasonable question to ask exactly what it is that goes back 200 years.  For example, Thomas Nelson, one of the many publishing companies belonging to HarperCollins, was founded in Edinburgh in 1798.   It could have celebrated its 200th anniversary almost 20 years ago.  ‘William Collins, Sons’ was founded in Glasgow in 1819, so still has two years to wait.

Thomas Nelson

Perhaps not surprisingly, the company that dates back 200 years is the American firm of J & J Harper.  I suppose they’re regarded as the company that came out on top in the various mergers, and it’s the winners who get to write the history.   So the history of HarperCollins starts in 1817.  And it has to be said that it’s an impressive history, showcased in their wonderful anniversary website at

Agatha Christie with Billy Collins of William Collins, Sons

The business has combined so many publishing companies over the years that the list of books first published by its various subsidiaries is long and includes many titles that have become part of the culture.  William Collins was Agatha Christie‘s publisher for most of her books, J. B. Lippincott was the publisher of ‘To kill a mockingbird’ and Lippincott’s Magazine saw the first publication of the Sherlock Holmes novel ‘The sign of (the) four’.    Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was first published by George Allen and Unwin, C.S. Lewis’s early Narnia books were published by Geoffrey Bles, and Harper Brothers published American classics such as ‘A tree grows in Brooklyn’, ‘Charlotte’s Web’, and later ‘The Exorcist’.  All of these are now part of HarperCollins.  It has collected history as if it were collecting stamps.

So Happy Birthday, HarperCollins, and congratulations on your first 200 years … or so.

While the cat’s away …

Nelson were not the only publisher to try to take advantage of the enforced absence of Tauchnitz from at least part of the European market during the First World War.   Louis Conard, another publisher in Paris, saw the opportunity too, and was quick to act.   ‘The Standard Collection of latest copyrighted works by British and American Authors’ launched in 1915 with an impressive list of authors.  The first 10 volumes included works by H.G. Wells, Joseph Conrad, Arnold Bennett, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and E.F. Benson, all of whom had previously been published by Tauchnitz.   Later volumes included works by Kipling, Galsworthy, Conan Doyle, Rider Haggard, Katherine Mansfield and G.K. Chesterton, amongst others.  As the Nelson’s Continental Library was launched at almost the same time, there must have been quite a scramble to sign up authors.

Standard Collection 1

Conard clearly modelled their series on Tauchnitz, as Nelson did.  The books are the same shape, the same buff colour and the same price, at least to start with.   In comparison with Tauchnitz, their market would have been restricted geographically, but did the war itself create a new market?  Over 5 million British soldiers served in France and Flanders during the war.  They would have had little opportunity to visit bookshops, but it seems possible that at least some of these volumes might have found their way into battledress pockets.

By the end of the war the series had extended to over 100 volumes.  The price had risen steadily to 3.50 Francs by 1919 although this was described as a temporary price, and the quality of the paper had declined.   Conard persisted though and by 1920 was heading towards 200 volumes, as Nelson, with fewer than 100, was winding its series down.  The market dynamics were inevitably changing with the end of the war and the return of Tauchnitz to the market, and Conard too decided to move on.

Standard Collection 199

Same format, but now published by William Collins in Brussels

This though was not the end of The Standard Collection.  Some time around 1920, the series was taken on by the Scottish publisher William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. from a base in Brussels, and the price increased again to 4.50 Francs.   They continued it for another 2 years or so, and up to at least 230 volumes, before finally ending it.  The last volume I have seen is G.K. Chesterton’s ‘Eugenics and other evils’ published in 1922.  This is also the only volume I have seen with an illustrated dustwrapper, following the example of the Nelson series, although it is quite possible that there are many others.

Standard Collection 230 dustwrapper

Illustrated dustwrapper for volume 230 – ‘Eugenics and other evils’

This is the second in what I intend to be a series of posts about the publishers in competition to Tauchnitz.  I looked at Thomas Nelson a few days ago.  Louis Conard and William Collins Sons represent competitors two and three.

Taking advantage of an absence

I looked last week at how Tauchnitz just about coped with World War I – a war that placed it on the opposing side to most of its customers.  There were many more trials to come, but it did at least survive the war, and could return to its main business of publishing contemporary English literature for the European continent.

The recovery was slow.   Before the war Tauchnitz had been publishing around 70 new volumes a year in its main Collection of British Authors.  In 1919 it published just 6, followed by 12 in1920, 23 in 1921, 25 in 1922 and 29 in 1923.  Many of the books printed in this period were on poor quality paper, and the company also had to deal with the problem of hyper-inflation in Germany.  It also faced new competitors, who had taken advantage of the enforced absence of Tauchnitz from much of Western Europe, to launch new series.

Nelson Continental Library 50

Amongst these new competitors was Thomas Nelson and Sons, a Scottish publisher, which had set up a Paris office in 1910 and very successfully launched a series of French language novels, which was to continue for over 50 years.  Seeing the gap created by the absence of Tauchnitz from the market in France and other European countries, they launched the ‘Nelson’s Continental Library’ in 1915 and quickly recruited several authors who had previously contributed novels to Tauchnitz, including Marie Corelli, Rider Haggard, John Galsworthy and Jack London.  They were also able to call on works from John Buchan, who was a Director of the firm.

Nelson Continental Library 9

The books looked very similar to Tauchnitz edition, the same size and the same buff colour, and could easily be mistaken for them – in fact they still often are.  There was though one major difference, that would have made them stand out.   Many of the Nelson books had brightly illustrated dustwrappers.  I don’t know whether these were used on just some, or on all the books – I suspect maybe not on the earliest issues, but on all the later ones and on reprints.  Tauchnitz did eventually use dustwrappers on their paperbacks, but only many years later, and much less garish than these.  Like Penguin later on, Tauchnitz seem to have had an aversion to illustrated covers, fearing they would project the wrong image – perhaps attract the ‘wrong’ type of customer.

The initial price of the books was 2 Francs, the same price at which Tauchnitz had sold before the war.  But by volume 43 it had increased to 2.25 Francs, and after that there was a steady increase to 4.50 Francs for the later titles.   Unhelpfully the books carry no date or printing history, so it’s difficult to be sure about the dates or about first printings.  Usually the list of other titles on the back cover is the best guide, and the price can also be an indication.  As far as I can tell though, the series didn’t last long after the end of the war. The final titles may have been issued around 1921. The last volume I have is volume 88, by now with an illustrated wrapper attached directly to the book and no separate dustwrapper, but there is some evidence of later volumes, possibly up to volume 99.   Whether the series ended because of falling sales or increased costs, or the desertion of their authors back to Tauchnitz, I don’t know.

Nelson Continental Library 88

When Albatross, the company that eventually toppled Tauchnitz, launched in 1932, they were reported to be around the 40th competitor that Tauchnitz had faced in its long history. I can’t identify anything like that number at the moment, but I intend to look at as many as I can of them in this blog. Nelson’s Continental Library is the first of those.