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
When Services Editions were first printed in 1943, Peter Cheyney was one of the most popular and the most prolific authors in Britain. His first novel had been published only in 1936, but had been an almost immediate success and it was rapidly followed by many others. By the end of 1942 Cheyney had around fifteen novels in print.
Most of them were available only in hardback through his publisher Collins, and hardbacks novels were not only expensive, but also limited by paper rationing. To achieve a wider readership they needed to appear in paperback and the natural route was through the Collins White Circle paperback series, probably the most successful of the many rivals to Penguin launched in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
‘Poison Ivy’, one of Cheyney’s early novels featuring the private eye Lemmy Caution, was the first to appear in a White Circle edition in July 1939, and four others followed over the next four years, gradually building the author’s readership. But paper rationing was a problem for paperbacks too and by 1943 the flow of new additions to the White Circle series had slowed to a trickle.
Almost the only remaining route to achieving a mass readership was through the Services Editions, which had a dedicated paper ration for a long print run, typically at least 50,000 copies. The books were then held in the libraries of battalions or other units, or passed around from hand to hand, with each copy possibly read several times. I doubt they paid the author much, but they could certainly build the readership and popularity of an author and anyway it was the patriotic duty of the author to participate in the scheme. Fortunately for Cheyney, Collins were the most enthusiastic of participants, contributing books to the multi-publisher Guild Books series, as well as running their own series.
In 1943 Collins offered ‘Poison Ivy’ to the Guild Books series as volume S61 and for their own series chose ‘Dangerous Curves’ to be included in the first batch of books. Both are now very difficult to find in first printing. As far as I know there was only one printing of ‘Poison Ivy’, but ‘Dangerous Curves’ was reprinted in 1945 and the reprint is much more common. The first printing is dated ‘Services Edition 1943’ and has no spine number, while the reprint is dated 1945 and numbered c207.
There were to be no further Cheyney novels published in Guild Books. All the later books issued were in the Collins series of Services Editions. ‘Dangerous Curves’ was quickly followed by ‘You’d be surprised’ (1943, volume c224), by ‘You can always duck’ (1944, c276) and ‘They never say when’ (1944, c284). I’m reasonably confident of the dates and numbers here, although there’s a little bit of guesswork involved as I have never seen first printing copies of any of these three. I do have a reprint of ‘You can always duck’ dated 1946.
I also have first printing copies of the remaining two Cheyney novels issued in the series, which were issued together in 1945 – ‘Dark duet’ as volume c315 and ‘Sorry you’ve been troubled’ as volume c316. ‘Dark duet’ is notable as the only one of Cheyney’s ‘Dark’ series of spy stories to appear in a Services Edition. The other six novels are all detective stories featuring either Cheyney’s American FBI agent / Private eye Lemmy Caution, or his British equivalent Slim Callaghan.
A total of seven books published in Services Editions makes Peter Cheyney one of the most published authors, almost on a par with Agatha Christie. It was however a small fraction of his output and only a first indication of what was to come. His popularity surged after the war and with the end of Services Editions he went on to become the principal author of ‘mystery stories’ in the White Circle series of paperbacks as well as a mainstay of Pan Books, selling sometimes over a million books in a year.
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.
From soon after the start of World War II in 1939, Britain became home to significant numbers of refugees from countries occupied by German forces – French, Dutch and Polish amongst others. In response to their needs the British Council published a number of books describing different aspects of the British way of life. A series on ‘British Life and Thought’ was published by Longman Green for the British Council, starting with ten books in 1940 and including titles such as ‘The British system of Government’, ‘British Justice’ and ‘British Education’.
Perhaps the most interesting title in this series was a volume on ‘The Englishman’, written by Earl Baldwin, who had been Prime Minister only three years previously. But it may have been rivalled by a parallel volume on ‘The Englishwoman’ by Cicely Hamilton, who had been very active in the suffrage movement, writing and acting in plays on the subject as well as campaigning. The series eventually ran to 25 or more titles, continuing even after the war.
But books in English were not enough. The British Council wanted to publish books in the languages of the refugees as well, which led to a new series – the International Guild Books. This series started in 1942 with six books, three of them taken from the Longman Green series, two other short books about the British Empire from the Oxford University Press and one new book specially written for the series – ‘Come and See Britain’ by Guy Ramsey.
They were described as published for the British Council by Guild Books, an unusual organisation that wasn’t really a publisher at all, just an imprint of the British Publishers Guild. Its original role was as a sort of anti-Penguin front, a combined book industry response to the paperback revolution initiated by Penguin. It had come too late to be an effective competitive response, and its publication of around 50 paperbacks in 1941 / 1942 made little impression on a market that was by then struggling to adapt to wartime conditions. So by 1942 it was perhaps looking around for what to do next. That eventually led to the long series of Services Editions, which was the highpoint of the Guild’s surprisingly long existence, but in the meantime it turned its hand to British Council work.
The books were translated into up to six languages – French, Dutch, Greek, Polish, Czech and Norwegian – all languages of countries invaded by the Nazis. Guy Ramsey’s book was translated into all six languages, two others into five languages, and overall from this first group, 23 different language versions were produced. Two further books followed in 1943 in 7 language versions, and when a Greek language version of one of the first books was added in 1944 that brought the total to 31 books – seven each in Polish and Czech, five each for Greek, Norwegian and Dutch, and two in French. It’s possible that a sixth Dutch book was added later, bringing the overall total to 32, but I can’t get clear confirmation of that.
As was typical for the time, the books had a standard designed wrapper, with different colours used to signify different languages – orange (of course) for Dutch, light blue for Greek and so on. The design was based on the British Council’s flaming torch symbol, held over a globe surrounded by stars. To modern eyes it looks almost Soviet in its iconography. Dustwrappers had by this time been abandoned on paperbacks, but the covers still had the slightly odd turned-back flaps that were used around then.
They were all fairly short books – typically not much more than 80 pages or so – but on reasonable quality paper and not particularly cramped in their layout. Some books had photographs and the Ramsey book even had two coloured pages of maps. There’s no evidence of war economy standard production here. The books sold for either 9d or 1s, with the higher price generally for those with photographs. Production numbers were probably quite low, maybe only a thousand or so of each(?), although it’s hard to tell now. Certainly few have survived, but that’s generally the case for wartime paperbacks anyway, even when printed in much, much larger quantities.
I don’t know of any significant collection of them, other than the ones I’ve put together. There are very few copies shown on the library cataloguing system, Worldcat, and only a handful to be found on internet book sites. Just another wartime paperback series on the point of falling out of recorded knowledge.
Anybody who collects early Penguins knows two things:
- the crime titles (in green covers) are rarer than the standard novels (in orange covers).
- The wartime editions, particularly those published from 1942 onwards, up to the end of the war, are much rarer than both earlier and later editions
Put those two things together and a third thing becomes obvious – wartime crime titles are very rare.
Rarity alone doesn’t make books valuable, but the combination of rarity and high demand does. And since there are a surprising number of people interested in early Penguins, often trying to collect the first 1000 in first printings, demand for the wartime crime titles is high, and so are prices.
Change was gradual at the start of the war, for paperbacks as for many other things, and early wartime Penguins from late 1939 and much of 1940 are not too difficult to find. But with the Battle of Britain in mid-1940 and the introduction of paper rationing around the same time, wartime conditions were really starting to bite by the end of the year. From about Penguin volume 300 onwards, the books start to get thinner and start to become much rarer. Volumes 301 to 304, all crime titles published at the end of 1940, are really the first of the rarities.
For some reason that I can’t explain, the next three or four crime titles seem to be a little easier to find, but from then on there’s no let up. The twenty-seven crime Penguins numbered between 350 and 500 and roughly published between mid-1942 and mid-1945, are unremittingly difficult to find, often expensive to buy and often in very poor condition.
Penguins from this period were printed to the ‘War Economy Standard’ on very poor quality paper. They are usually very thin, with small type and small margins to cram as much as possible onto the minimum amount of paper. They fall apart very easily and would not last long with repeated use. The popularity of crime titles at the time, and the shortage of books, meant that many of them were passed around, read and re-read and would naturally have disintegrated. Those that survived at all, usually survived in poor condition. Even reprints from this period are scarce.
Many of the books are of dubious quality. Penguin was not the leading UK publisher of crime novels at the time, and Collins probably had the pick of the best writers. Writers such as Eric Bennett, Stuart Martin, Lewis Robinson and Richard Keverne didn’t leave much of a collective mark on the history of crime writing. But there was still room in this group for two titles by Margery Allingham, three by Ngaio Marsh, and one from Mignon Eberhart, amongst writers whose reputations have stood the test of time.
There are of course differences of opinion about which are the rarest books. Some say ‘Panic Party’ by Anthony Berkeley (volume 402), but there’s a good case to be made also for the two Georgette Heyer titles – ‘The unfinished clue’ (volume 428) and ‘Why shoot a butler?’ (volume 429). Two earlier titles, ‘The general goes too far’ by Lewis Robinson and ‘William Cook – Antique dealer’ by Richard Keverne (volume 383 and 384) are certainly very rare as well, as are others from the same period.
But then others say that the rarest of all is not even a crime Penguin, but is the one Biggles book to be published by Penguin – volume 348, ‘Biggles flies again’ by W.E. Johns. There’s competition for that one from collectors of Biggles stories as well as Penguin collectors. Good luck if you’re searching for it – but you may need deep pockets as well as luck.
Crime author Cecil Street wrote around 150 crime novels, mostly under the pseudonyms of John Rhode and Miles Burton, between about 1925 and 1960. He was writing in the Golden Age of crime fiction and most of his books were published by the leading crime publisher of the time, the Collins Crime Club. That put him in distinguished company, appearing alongside Agatha Christie and a host of other leading crime writers.
Street’s books are still widely collected today, with some of them still in print. But it’s probably fair to say that his critical reputation has not survived as well as some of his contemporaries. Julian Symons, in his history of crime writing, categorised Street as one of the ‘humdrum’ writers, producing stories that were professionally crafted, but almost more like crossword puzzles than literature. A more recent book by Curtis Evans, ‘Masters of the Humdrum mystery’, tries to redress the balance and restore a bit of his battered reputation.
But his books were certainly popular in their time, and at the time of the Second World War they were exactly the kind of book that was wanted for the Services. As Collins produced a long series of paperback Services Editions including many of their Crime Club titles, Rhode and Burton titles inevitably featured strongly.
The series started in 1943 with numbering starting from c201, although numbers were only given retrospectively to the first 16 titles. So the 17th volume, ‘Murder at Lilac Cottage’ by John Rhode was possibly the first one to actually carry a series number, c217. I can’t be sure, as I’ve never seen this in first printing, which would be dated 1943. The only copies I’ve seen, all say ‘Services Edition 1946’ in the printing history, with no mention of the earlier printing. I live in hope of coming across an edition that says ‘Services Edition 1943’ one day. That would also be the paperback 1st printing as it appeared as a standard White Circle paperback only in March 1944.
Two more Street novels were issued in early 1944 – ‘Murder M.D.’ by Miles Burton as volume c248 and ‘Men die at Cyprus Lodge’ by John Rhode as c251. Both also exist as reprints dated 1946, with no indication of the earlier printing, but first printings should say ‘Services Edition 1944’. Inevitably, most of the copies that survive are the later 1946 printing, and first printings are scarce. Again the first printing Services Editions are also the first paperback printings. In fact so far as I know that’s the case for all the Rhode / Burton editions. They were all novels that had been first published in hardback only a year or two earlier, and had not previously appeared in paperback. It was often several years later before paperback editions appeared for non-Services customers.
The two 1944 editions were followed by six in 1945, and so far as I know, none of these were reprinted, so all copies say ‘Services Edition 1945’. ‘Four ply yarn’ by Miles Burton and ‘Death invades the meeting’ by John Rhode appeared early in the year as c291 and c292, then ‘Dead stop’ by Burton as c304, and two John Rhodes – ‘Dead on the track’ and ‘Night exercise’ as c311 and c312. ‘Night exercise’ was the only one of the Rhode Services Editions not to feature Dr. Priestley as the detective. A final Miles Burton novel, ‘The three corpse trick’ was published at the end of 1945 as c348.
Overall then nine of Street’s novels appeared in the series, more than those of any other crime writer. Even Agatha Christie only had eight.
As India celebrates the 70th anniversary of its independence, here’s a short look back at one little known aspect of those last pre-independence days – its Wild West paperbacks. I’ve written before about the Collins paperbacks published in India during the war and in the years immediately afterwards. They’re now generally very difficult to find, although I’m not sure there’s anybody other than myself searching for them. But if most of them are difficult to find, the Wild West paperbacks seem to be almost impossible.
Judging by the lists of titles in the other books I have, Collins published over 40 westerns in paperback in India in the 1940s, most of them as White Circle paperbacks and a few in their general series. There seem to have been a further 12 westerns in the series of Services Editions, printed specially for the British forces in India and SEAC, and at least three more published by Collins in what was then Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. That’s over 50 different books, that would have been printed in large quantities – I’d have thought at least 10,000 copies of each book and possibly several times as many. In total surely at least half a million books. Yet in thirty years or so of searching, I had never seen a single copy of any of them.
There are reasons of course. They were printed on poor quality paper and seen as disposable items. Many would have been sold to British expatriates or British troops in India and would not have been thought worth transporting home. The westerns may have survived less well than the crime stories and other novels, because they were more avidly read and passed around, or perhaps because they were seen as more disposable. And even if copies have survived in India, they’re inevitably difficult to track down from Britain now. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to search for them on the ground and find they’re not as rare as I think.
But this week I finally found one. It’s in appalling condition, worn and dirty with the front cover missing and the spine disintegrating. Even at £5, including postage, it was hardly a bargain. But it’s the first Indian Wild West paperback from Collins that I have ever seen. A small piece of history has been preserved.
Not a pretty sight, but possibly unique
And it follows an earlier success, just over a year ago, in finding a western paperback from Ceylon, this one in much better condition. So the search is not impossible after all. There are westerns out there waiting to be found. I’d love to hear of others.
‘Printers’ Pie’ had started in the early years of the twentieth century as a way to raise funds for a Printers’ charity. It continued until at least 1918, sometimes twice a year, with Christmas issues called ‘Winter’s Pie’, but stopped publication soon after. There may have been one or two publications in the 1920s called the ‘Sketchbook and Printers’ Pie’, but information is scarce.
In 1935 it was revived (see this earlier blog post) to raise money for the King George’s Jubilee Trust and then for other charities, now using the titles ‘Christmas Pie’ and ‘Summer Pie’. So far as I can tell the final issue in this series, published by Odhams, was in 1939.
But then after a gap of three or four years, it appeared again in 1943 under the original title, this time published by Hutchinson. The publication marked Walter Hutchinson becoming Festival President of the Printers’ Pension, Almshouse and Orphan Asylum Corporation, the original charity for which ‘Printers’ Pie’ had been created, and was to raise funds for them.
It was now in a small paperback format, and selling for the relatively high price of 2s 6d. Pre-war issues had sold for 6d and in 1943 most paperbacks were selling for around 9d. But as well as being for charity, this was on unusually good quality paper for a wartime publication, featured a colour cover and several pages of glossy photographs in two sections. There were stories by H.E. Bates, Howard Spring, L.A.G. Strong and James Hilton among others.
It was followed by ‘Christmas Pie’ at the end of 1943 in a similar format, again selling for 2s 6d. This time there was an appeal for donations to the same Printers’ charity, but no direct mention that the proceeds or profits from the publication would go to the charity. Most issues from then onwards contained no mention of being for charity, but on the other hand the price came down to 1s 6d. The exceptions were the Spring Pies for 1945 and 1946, with the price raised to 2 shillings and profits going first to the Bookbinders’ Cottage Homes and Pensions Society, and then to Toc H.
The format instead seemed just to be adopted by Hutchinson as part of their series of Hutchinson Pocket Specials. From Autumn 1944, there were more or less regular issues five times a year, titled as Spring Pie, Summer Pie, Autumn Pie, Winter Pie and Christmas Pie, published roughly in March, June, September, November and December.
Each issue had a colour portrait of a girl on the cover and inside a mix of articles, short stories, cartoons and photographs. mostly in a light-hearted tone. The style feels very similar to ‘Lilliput’, then a popular monthly magazine.
In April 1946 there was an extra issue called Pie’s Film Book, with Vivien Leigh on the cover as Cleopatra, from one of the big films of the year. It was printed entirely on glossy paper, lavishly illustrated with black and white photos of film stars, and selling at two shillings. Pie’s Film Book No. 2 appeared the following year in similar format, with Margaret Lockwood on the cover, but that seems to have been the end of this venture.
There were other attempts to modernise the format. Colour appeared internally for the first time in the Christmas 1947 issue, with four reproductions of Dutch paintings and in 1948 many of the black and white photographs were replaced by colour illustrations of various kinds. But perhaps it was still not modern enough for the post-war world. The Summer and Christmas issues of 1948 experimented with some discreet nudity, but it was too late or too desperate.
So far as I know, the 1948 Christmas issue was the last until it reappeared in a slightly larger format and at the reduced price of one shilling in December 1949 as ‘Winter Pie’. The editor is now shown as Barbara Vise and the cover illustration is by (presumably related) Jenetta Vise. Inside there’s no longer any colour, but the layout looks less cramped. The content though is less than riveting, featuring articles such as ‘Why I like going to the cinema’ by the Bishop of London, alongside articles on suits of armour and portrait miniatures.
It was followed by ‘Spring Pie’ in April 1950 in a similar format, although this time with a centrefold featuring colour photographs of pottery and porcelain. But then this too seems to have died.
After that, Hutchinson seem to have given up any ambitions to continue the series. Both the ‘Pie’ title and the aim of raising money for good causes seem to have passed back to Odhams, the publisher of the pre-war issues. They published at least one more issue in 1952 in the larger pre-war format, as ‘Summer Pie, in aid of the National Advertising Benevolent Society. That may well have been the last of the Pies.
Almost all Services Editions are paperbacks, mostly very thin, cheap paperbacks on poor quality wartime paper. Apart from the need to reduce costs in wartime, there was also the practical matter of fitting into a battledress pocket.
So what are we to make of the Harrap Services Editions, a hardback series issued towards the end of the war? These are not only hardbacks, but some of them very substantial books, certainly not pocket size.
Of course there were hardback books in Service libraries throughout the war. Many of the early books were donated by the public and came in all shapes and sizes, as well as being on all manner of topics, many of them of little interest to their intended readers. On the other hand it was precisely because many of the donated books were unsuitable, that the new series of paperback Services Editions were launched in 1943.
Those paperbacks were a huge success and were so widely read and passed around that many of them simply disintegrated, one of the factors making them so scarce today. Some units developed their own solutions, providing homemade hard bindings to make them last a little longer. But perhaps as the war moved towards an end in 1945, it became clear that there was a need for something more durable.
Did the armed forces commission a series of hardbacks from Harrap, or was it an initiative from the publisher? By 1945 the dominance of the two long series of paperback Services Editions, from Collins and from Guild Books, was coming to an end. Several other publishers were starting to produce Services Editions, presumably under some sort of contract with the Services that at least enabled them to access the necessary paper ration. But I suspect individual publishers still had a fair amount of discretion over exactly what they published as Services Editions.
In the case of Harrap, all they seem to have done is take some of the books that they were publishing anyway and stamp Services Edition on the front cover. There is nothing in the printing history that suggests a specific printing for the services. The only evidence that they are Services Editions at all is that stamp on the front board. Nor is there any evidence that they were a series in the normal sense. They come in all shapes and sizes and all types of book. The five examples I have come across include two spy novels by Helen MacInnes, an oilfield novel by Robert Sturgis, the semi-fictionalised account of life in Thailand that later formed the basis for the musical ‘The King and I’, and a biography of General Allenby, a military leader. Are there many others?
Four of these five books were printed in 1945, and the fifth in 1946. Judging by the scarcity of the books today, the numbers printed (or the numbers of those printed that were stamped “Services Edition”) must have been small. Almost all Services Editions are now difficult to find, even those paperbacks printed in editions of 50,000 copies. But while it’s relatively easy to make 50,000 poor quality paperbacks disappear, that seems more difficult with hardbacks. If even 5,000 copies of each book were printed, you might expect several hundred to have survived. But if they have, I don’t know where they are.
Two of the copies I have show clear evidence of Services use. One other has the half-title torn out, often seen with Services Editions, presumably to remove evidence of Services ownership. So unlike some later Services Editions, they do at least seem to have reached their intended market.
I’d love to hear from anyone who knows anything more about these unusual and rather surprising books.