Penguin’s attempt to woo the American market had started in 1939 with the establishment of an office in New York under the twenty-three year old Ian Ballantine, importing Penguins from the UK. It was not a great time though to be shipping books across the Atlantic and by 1941 it was clear that the operation had no future unless books could be produced locally.
A small number of UK books were reprinted in the US, but to extend the operation and move into local publishing, Allen Lane would need a more experienced publisher. He was perhaps lucky to find Kurt Enoch, one of the founders of Albatross Books, and a Jew who had been forced by the Nazis to leave Germany and then subsequently had had to flee for a second time from Paris, after it fell to the German army ( for the full story, see ‘A strange bird’ by Michele Troy).
Enoch had recently arrived in the US, was looking for work, and suggested to Lane that he could raise the capital to launch a local publishing programme. Lane took him on as Vice President responsible for production and design, with Ballantine in charge of distribution / sales. That leaves it a little unclear who was responsible for the core function of choosing and commissioning new titles. Enoch was the one with experience in this area at the time, so presumably took the lead, although Ballantine later went on to become a hugely successful publisher in his own right.
Albatross Books had been in many ways the model for Penguin, so Allen Lane might reasonably have expected to find in Kurt Enoch somebody who shared his ideals and vision for the business. But from the start Enoch seems to have had doubts about key parts of the Penguin brand that had been so successful in the UK.
The parents of American Penguins – rather different from the child
Penguin’s UK launch had been almost an overnight success and had transformed the UK paperback market, with almost all competitors adopting the main elements of the Penguin ‘package’ – size, price, colour coding, dustwrappers and so on, but above all, no cover illustration. The first tentative steps in the US market had not triggered any similar revolution and Enoch seems to have been sceptical that it ever could. Almost from day one, he seems to have had his eye on illustrated covers.
For Allen Lane and others back in Harmondsworth though, this was an article of faith. Before Penguin’s UK launch, there had been plenty of people saying that non-illustrated covers could never work in the UK market and they had proved them all wrong. Now they saw the brightly striped and immediately recognisable covers of Penguin Books as their main weapon in conquering new markets. The scene was set for a struggle that could have profound consequences for Penguin’s future.
In early 1942 the new US Penguin series launched, with numbers starting from 501. The first two books, numbers 501 and 502, appeared with the iconic striped covers. First blood to the Brits. But by volume 503 the design had changed significantly to one that allowed space on the front for a brief written description of the book, and on the back for advertising or for information about the author. Enoch must have been planning this for some time, perhaps waiting for approval from Head Office.
While Lane may not have been happy with any move away from the classic design, this change looks as though it may have been deliberately designed to get approval. It retains enough elements of Penguin identity to still look Penguin-ish and it’s still a very restrained design that doesn’t introduce any illustration to the front cover. It also retains the principle of colour coding used in the UK. Crime is still green, although perhaps strangely, the classic Penguin orange for novels is replaced by red, and yellow is more widely used for a range of books including non-fiction and westerns.
But this was by no means the limit of Enoch’s ambitions. He wanted cover illustration, and as it happened he had the right opportunity to get a foot into the door. A short series of classic texts illustrated by woodcuts had appeared in the UK in 1938 as Penguin Illustrated Classics. They had used illustration on the covers and had included ‘Walden’ by Thoreau, an American classic that would fit well into the new US Penguin series. How could the UK Head Office possibly object to a cover illustration that they had themselves used? The book appeared as volume 508 and was the first American Penguin to feature cover art.
Once the principle had been breached, Enoch was not going to let go. He had shown how a simple illustration could (not coincidentally?) fit well into the cover design he had introduced and others would follow. The first was ‘Tombstone’ by Walter Noble Burns, volume 514 published in October 1942, and from then on illustrated covers were the norm. It may have grated even more in the UK that the process started with a western – at this stage considered too down market for Penguin in the UK, although later on in the series, a few did appear.
The first illustrations were quite small, but it was not long before they were taking up the entire panel. And in the meantime, Enoch was attacking another of Penguin’s key brand attributes – the size of the books. Penguins had always been roughly 11 cm by 18 cm, a format based on the golden ratio and again copied from Albatross. But paperbacks in the US and particularly those from the main competitor, Pocket Books, were shorter and squatter. So Penguin moved in line with them.
This was in November 1943, barely 18 months after the launch and already Penguins had little in common with their UK parents and looked more like the local competitors. Even the glossy card covers and the red page edges looked more American than British. Any idea of changing the market had been abandoned. It was the Penguins that were having to change.
From late 1943 onwards, the rate of new titles started to increase and the cover illustrations became more and more dominant, with the single colour of the covers increasingly used within the picture as well. From volume 566 in October 1945, a second colour is used on the cover before moving on to full colour shortly afterwards.
This was though another turbulent period for the business. Some time around the end of 1944 or the beginning of 1945, Ian Ballantine resigned to work on the launch of a competitor, Bantam Books. He had learned what he could from Enoch and was ready to take the next step in his publishing career. Allen Lane however was not prepared to leave Kurt Enoch in sole charge of Penguin’s US business. Eunice Frost, originally Allen Lane’s secretary and still in her twenties, but in practice one of his closest aides in London, was sent out to New York to hold the fort, while Lane attempted to make more permanent arrangements.
That eventually led to the appointment of Victor Weybright to work with Enoch, and to a whole series of other developments. I’ll come back to them in another post and also look separately at the US Penguin Specials, an important series in their own right, which had been published alongside the main series throughout the period I’ve been talking about.
By the time P.G. Wodehouse first appeared in a Tauchnitz Edition in 1924, he was already a well-established and successful writer with around 20 novels to his name. For an author who went on to have around 40 books published by Tauchnitz, this was a surprisingly late start. But Wodehouse had started to come to prominence just as the First World War effectively took the German firm out of the market for new English language books, and the effects of the war lingered on for several years afterwards.
It was at least 1923 before Tauchnitz could get back to anything like a normal publishing programme and it never really recovered its former dominance of the market. The ability to spot promising new writers and publish their latest works almost simultaneously with the first UK editions, had been a defining feature of the business for much of the nineteenth century, but by the mid-1920s it was a fading memory. And Tauchnitz was entering a period that would prove to be one of the most turbulent of its existence. So we should perhaps be grateful that they were able to publish Wodehouse at all.
As usual with a new writer, Tauchnitz were keen to start with Wodehouse’s latest new work, rather than going back to earlier works. So the first in the series was a volume of short stories, ‘Ukridge’, published in the UK in June 1924, and then two months later in Tauchnitz as volume 4651, dated August 1924 at the top of the back wrapper on the first printing.
As always with Tauchnitz paperbacks, it’s the date on the back wrapper that’s important for dating, rather than the date on the title page, which remains fixed at the first printing year, even on reprints many years later. First printing paperbacks from this period also have a distinctive two column format for the latest volumes, which was not used on reprints.
For Tauchnitz Editions from the 1920s and 1930s far more copies do survive in paperback than is the case for 19th century novels and they’re much easier to date than bound copies, so I’ve focused on these.
Wodehouse’s next new novel was ‘Bill the Conqueror’, published in the UK in November 1924 and again following rapidly in Tauchnitz as volume 4669, dated January 1925 in the first printing (and listing only ‘Ukridge’ on the back of the half-title). Another volume of short stories, ‘Carry on, Jeeves’, appeared in the UK in October 1925 and the novel ‘Sam the sudden’ came out in the same month. Both were taken up by Tauchnitz – ‘Carry on, Jeeves!’ as volume 4710, dated November 1925 and ‘Sam the sudden’ as volume 4714, dated January 1926.
The pattern seemed to be set, with Tauchnitz taking each new work of Wodehouse’s as quickly as possible after UK printing. But prolific as Wodehouse was, new works were not coming fast enough to satisfy the appetite of continental readers, and there was still a temptingly long list of older works that could be issued. So along with the next volume of short stories, ‘The heart of a goof’ (volume 4641, dated July 1926), Tauchnitz also published a much earlier work ‘ Love among the chickens’ (volume 4640, July 1926), that Wodehouse had first written in 1906 and then rewritten in 1921.
Two other older works, ‘Psmith, journalist’ (vol. 4776, April 1927) and ‘Leave it to Psmith’ (vol. 4777, April 1927) followed in 1927 and from then on two or three new volumes were added almost every year, in a mix of completely new works and older works, both novels and short story collections. By mid 1929, when Curt Otto, the Managing Director, died, fourteen volumes of P.G. Wodehouse had been issued by Tauchnitz.
The incoming General Manager, Christian Wegner, set about making some significant changes, starting with a modernisation of the cover design for the series. After keeping essentially the same cover design for the first 70 years of its existence, a first real change had come in 1914, and now it was entering on a period of continual change. The new design appeared on a Wodehouse novel for the first time, with publication of ‘Mr. Mulliner speaking (vol. 4963, November 1930), followed quickly by ‘Very good, Jeeves!’ (vol. 4983, March 1931) and ‘Summer lightning’ (vol. 4995, June 1931).
Fourteen books appeared in the revised design taking the total to 28 and then from 1935, there was another change. Wegner had left under a cloud, but by mid 1934 he was effectively back as one of the managers of Albatross Books, which took over editorial control of Tauchnitz. The two lists for Albatross and Tauchnitz were managed together, but with Wodehouse remaining very much a Tauchnitz writer, with no entry to the (arguably more prestigious) Albatross list.
Another new cover design was launched in mid 1935, this time colour-coded to indicate genre. All Wodehouse volumes were coded orange, the colour for ‘tales and short stories, humorous and satirical works’. Shortly afterwards the size of the books changed to match the size of the Albatross volumes and dustwrappers in the same design as the covers were introduced, again in line with Albatross.
A further new design was introduced in 1938 that used colour more strikingly, but by this time war was approaching fast, and with it the end of the Tauchnitz series.
‘The code of the Woosters’, issued in June 1939 as volume 5357, was the last Wodehouse title to appear in the series before the outbreak of the Second World War, but it was not to be the last title of all. Wodehouse had been living in Le Touquet in France and was interned by the Germans after the invasion of France. He wrote ‘Money in the Bank’ on a typewriter provided by the Germans while in internment and the text was made available to Tauchnitz. It appeared in August 1943 as the very last volume in the Tauchnitz series, volume 5370, bringing the total number of Wodehouse works published in the series up to thirty-nine. It was the only new writing in English to be published in the Tauchnitz series after 1939.
Along with the infamous broadcasts on German radio, this was another example of Wodehouse being perhaps too willingly duped by the enemy. Certainly for them it was a publicity coup, and the book seems to have been printed in substantial numbers, although it’s hard to imagine much market in Germany in 1943 for Wodehouse’s brand of comedy.
The story should really end here. Shortly after publication of ‘Money in the bank’, the Tauchnitz premises were destroyed in an Allied bombing raid and after 100 years and 5370 volumes, the Tauchnitz Collection of British (and American) Authors came to an end.
But in fact it’s not the end of the story. After the war there were various attempts to revive Tauchnitz. A series of books reprinted from Hamburg, included ‘Money in the Bank’ as volume 16 in 1949. Then a short series of mostly new works published from Stuttgart, included two Wodehouse volumes -‘The mating season’ (volume 107 in 1952) and ‘Ring for Jeeves’ (volume 137 in 1954).
Neither of these post-war ventures was much of a success, and although no new volumes were published after 1955, unsold stock hung around for many years. In an attempt to shift it, more modern covers were added in the early 1960s and ‘Ring for Jeeves’ was certainly one of the books to appear in this style, at least the eighth style of wrapper to be applied to Wodehouse volumes by Tauchnitz.
This is the story of a very unusual Penguin from the other side of the world.
At first sight it’s very clearly a Penguin. The broad bands of colour and the Penguin symbol make it instantly recognisable, even though the bands are red rather than the more familiar orange. The more striped effect at the top, and the text-heavy cover, mark it out as a Penguin Special, one of the series of topical books on current affairs that sold millions in the run-up to, and the early years of, the Second World War.
But after that first impression, other things don’t seem quite right. Firstly it’s the wrong size. Basically all Penguins at that time (this was printed in 1940) were of a standard size – the size that Penguin had adopted from the European series of Albatross Books, and which in turn had been copied by almost all other British paperback publishers. This one is larger, roughly 14 cm by 22 cm. It’s also made up of a single gathering, stapled in the middle, so has a rounded spine, unlike the flatter spine of almost all other Penguins.
Then the cover has been printed in three colours – black, blue and red. Almost all other Penguin covers at the time were printed in two colours, typically orange and black. This one has an extra colour to allow the British and Australian flags to appear, and that also seems to account for why it’s red rather than orange. Interestingly it’s not the current Australian flag. The version then in use was the Australian Red Ensign, which changed to blue only in 1954. It’s also noteworthy that the penguin logo is printed in blue rather than black.
This is an Australian printing of course, but that in itself is not particularly unusual. Over 70 UK Penguins were reprinted in Australia during the war years, given the difficulty in exporting copies from the UK. They were published through a local company, Lothian Publishing Company Pty. Ltd., whose name generally appears on the title page, below that of Penguin Books. But this book has no mention of Lothian, crediting only a local printer in Melbourne.
Lothian’s own list of the Penguin books they published in Australia does though include it and shows it as the very first such book in August 1940, almost two years before any others followed. Why did this particular book justify such an unusual step?
The author, Sir Richard Acland, was a British Liberal Party MP (and a 15th generation baronet), who had been stridently against the policy of appeasement being followed by the UK Governments under Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain. In 1938 he had engineered a famous by-election in Bridgwater, a Conservative-held constituency neighbouring his own in Barnstaple, and persuaded a journalist, Vernon Bartlett, to stand as an ‘Independent Progressive’ anti-appeasement candidate. Both the Liberal and Labour parties agreed to stand down in favour of Bartlett, leaving him a clear run against a Conservative candidate in the election, which he won by a relatively small majority.
Acland’s book, ‘Unser Kampf’ was written after the outbreak of war and published as a Penguin Special in the UK in February 1940 – volume S54 of the series. It is a plan for a new world order to be established after the war, and almost a manifesto for a new political movement. Acland went on to be one of the main founders of the Common Wealth Party in 1942, with J.B. Priestley and Tom Wintringham amongst others. He stood for the new party in the 1945 election, but it fared badly and he lost his seat, later defecting to Labour and being elected as a Labour MP.
Clearly his book was a significant contribution to the debate at a time of high interest in public affairs. but was it any more than that? It was not one of the Penguin Specials chosen for reprinting in the US (although interestingly one of Tom Wintringham’s books was). Did it then have any special relevance in Australia, more than any of the other Penguin Specials, several of which dealt with similar subjects? I’m not convinced that it did, although the Preface to the Australian Edition suggests that “To enable the demand to be met, it has been found necessary to reprint in Australia”.
It is unclear who wrote this rather evangelical preface. It refers to both the author and the English publishers (Penguin Books) in the third party, and thanks them for agreeing to no royalties or copyright fees. So presumably somebody else wrote it and it reads as if written by a supporter of Acland, rather than by a publisher. I suspect that it was local supporters of Acland, or his ideas, who promoted the idea of reprinting it in Australia, and possibly approached Lothian with the suggestion. Could that in turn have been what sparked later negotiations between Lothian and Penguin about reprinting other titles?
It does seem to have been reasonably successful, with 10,000 copies in the first printing of August 1940, followed by a second printing of a further 10,000 copies in the same month. Enough to interest Lothian in extending the collaboration with Penguin?
There are still other oddities though with this very odd book. The UK edition is titled ‘Unser Kampf’ with ‘Our struggle’ as a sub-title, while the Australian edition reverses this. Were Australians thought to be even more uncomfortable with foreign languages than the British? Or less familiar with the title of Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’, which it echoes? It seems just a little condescending.
And despite the changes to the front cover, the back cover just copies the UK back cover other than to add ‘Printed in Australia’. So it has a list of the ‘Latest Specials’, most if not all of which, would not have been available in Australia.
Acknowledgements: Some of the information about Australian printings in this post, comes from an article written by Chris Barling in the Penguin Collector’s Society newsletter for May 1987. For more about the Bridgwater by-election of 1938, see https://vernonbartlett.co.uk/
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.