Monday, May 24, 2010

Emory Library Digitizes The Mother of Pulp Fiction

SAVAGE, Richard Henry. The Little Lady Of Lagunitas: A Franco-Chilean Romance. London: Routledge, 1892.

(Image Courtesy of Monash University Library.)

A cutting-edge imaging tool of today, a robotic digital book scanner from Kirtas Technologies, is allowing more readers than ever to enjoy the fruits of a previous publishing innovation: the yellowback. Yellowbacks, nicknamed "mustard plasters," were the Victorian era version of airport novels: railway reads that were cheaply bound in papered fiberboard, and usually sold for two shillings (about 50 cents). Their nickname comes from their most common cover: a three-colored illustration, often luridly sensational, printed on an eye-poppingly bright, yellow-glazed background. Emory University which holds the second largest collection of yellowbacks of any American university, has announced that more than 1,200 of these 19th century rarities have now been digitized and made available for free downloading.

GOULD, Nat, The Lady Trainer. London: Long, 1906.

(Image Courtesy Of Monash University Library.)

"There are a good number of yellowbacks where we have the only known copy of the text, so we're able to make that available to people around the world," says David Faulds, librarian at Emory's Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL). "They're very rare now because they weren't that sturdily built, they just disintegrated or were thrown away. It's an aspect of 19th century life that's disappeared today."

MARK TWAIN, A Yankee At The Court Of King Arthur. London: Chatto & Windus, [c.1893].

A pirated yellowback version of A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court.

(Image Courtesy of Monash University Library.)

Though less well-known to scholars and collectors than the more exploitative "penny dreadfuls," yellowbacks hold an important place in publishing history. Antiquarian book expert Anthony Rota noted in his authoritative history of the printed book, Apart From the Text (1998), that if "one had to describe in one word the books that transformed not only series publishing but all publishing in the last half of the 19th century, it would be 'yellow-back'."

[BRADDON, Mary Elizabeth], Lady Audley's Secret. London: Simpkin, Marshall, [188?].

(Image Courtesy of Monash University Library.)

These cheap books essentially ended the era of the three volume novel, or three-decker. The boom in train travel, along with an increasingly literate, but not necessarily wealthy, population, dried up the demand for heavy, bulky books. Yellowbacks were the first lightweight, portable book, inexpensive enough to be printed in mass quantities, and priced to be affordable for the growing working class created by the Industrial Revolution. And the eye-candy covers of the yellowbacks, prominently displayed in train stations, were among the first examples of using savvy design and marketing to create a best seller.

HARDY, Thomas. The Hand Of Ethelberta. London: Sampson, Low, 1888.

The back cover advertisement was a standard feature of most Victorian yellowbacks.

(Image Courtesy Of The British Library.)

The yellowbacks were such a financial success upon introduction in 1847, that nearly every major publisher of the day began a series aimed at the railway reader. Yellowbacks were not mere sleaze or trash, they were often reprints of works from the finest authors of the day, including Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, and Thomas Hardy. In America, British authors were favored by printers, as copyright laws allowed them to be "pirated," and sold without the payment of royalties. For the same reason, American and French authors were favored in England. Victor Hugo, Honore de Balzac, Mark Twain, and Bret Harte were particularly popular. Yellowbacks that weren't reprints were sometimes genuine first editions of the work of a foreign author: the first British translation of Pushkin's The Queen of Spades was published as a yellowback.

FEVAL, Paul, Bel Demonio. London: Ward, Lock. And Co., 1863.

KETTLE, Rosa, Fabian's Tower. London: Ward, Lock. And Co., 1880.

(Image Courtesy of The British Library.)

There were also wildly successful writers whose work appeared only within the pages of these early versions of "paperback originals." The yellowbacks began what we now take for granted as "genre fiction." French writer Emile Gaboriau's (1835-1873) series of titles featuring thief turned police officer Monsieur Lecoq were the template for all future detective fiction, and directly inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's creation of Sherlock Holmes. Another French writer, Maria Louise Rame, who wrote under the pen name "Ouida," popularized the historical romance novel. Without her yellowbacks there would have been no Harlequin Romances, and even worse, no covers featuring Fabio. A "confessions" genre also began with yellowbacks. It included, in 1860 alone, The Confessions of a Thief, The Confessions of a Horse Dealer and The Revelations of a Catholic Priest. Would we have today's best-selling junkie "memoirs" from writers like James Frey without these?

PLUES, Margaret, Geology For The Millions. London: Routledge, 1863.

(Image Courtesy of The British Library.)

But the yellowback was not limited only to fictional works. First editions of important Victorian literary journalists, such as George Augustus Sala, Edmund Yates, and Douglas Jerrold were all published as yellowbacks. And the next time you're checking out Warren Buffett's stock tips, remember that an investment guide was the first yellowback proper: in April 1853 Ingram, Cooke & Co., published Money: How To Get, How To Keep, and How To Use It with an illustrated cover on a yellow background. [Horace Mayhew's Letters Left At The Pastrycook's (1853) was the first title published in the format, but with white wrappers.] This format is also the source of the endless stream of "how to" books that now flood our libraries, everything from proper etiquette, the correct way to mount butterfly specimens, the rules of parlor games, and the process of at-home taxidermy, all described between the yellow covers. Travel guides and war reporting were also staples of non-fiction yellowbacks.

SULLIVAN, John L., Reminiscenes Of A Nineteenth Century Gladiator. London: Routledge, 1892.

(Image Courtesy Of Monash University Library.)

The heyday of yellowbacks, which Matthew Arnold dismissively called "tawdry novels... designed for people with a low standard of life," was between 1855 and 1870. During this period, printers gave cover artists free reign to design the illustrations and lettering on the covers and spines of titles which were published in runs as large as 100,000 copies. Volumes from this era have an integrity of style which was lost when, due to lower costs, printers standardized outer typography, thereby reducing artists to hired guns, producing only pasted in illustrations. By the 1890's yellowback covers were shoddy, monotonous, and undistinguished. What had begun as a publishing innovation became shorthand for a cheap product of inferior quality.

OUIDA, Pipistrello. London: Chatto & Windus, [1885].

(Image Courtesy Of Monash University Library.)

Yellowbacks did not entirely disappear: they were replaced by higher quality formats, which often recycled the earlier books' most outstanding cover illustrations. The digitization of yellowbacks by universities will give this unique piece of publishing history a new lease on life. As Emory rare book librarian David Faulds points out: "Some of these books are so rare that they've been lost to history. Scholars and casual readers can now discover these works. There may be aspects of them that are of interest not only to literary researchers, but also social historians looking at Britain or America in the 19th century, or women's lives in this period, what they were reading, how they are portrayed or what they wrote."



  1. As someone interested in railroads, I find it interesting that trains affected the book publishing business.

    The lawyer-author Scott F. Turow said on a program that he preferred conventional books for reading when "stationary" and e-books when traveling--the latter allowed several "books" to be packed in a single e-reader. So the trend continues.

  2. Is this "Bel Demonio" the rare pirated English translation or is it in French? An English translation of Paul Feval's Bel Demonio is something I want badly.


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