The Albatross Modern Continental Library was launched in 1932 by Max Christian Wegner and John Holroyd Reece, with the financial backing of Sir Edmund Davis, and with Kurt Enoch responsible for distribution. Both Wegner and Enoch went on to make their mark elsewhere in paperback publishing - Kurt Enoch with Penguin in the
Wegner had previously managed Tauchnitz in the period from 1929, when the business had been reorganised into a limited stock company, after the death of Curt Otto. His attempts to modernise the company met with resistance from the Board and he was eventually dismissed in 1931. With the founding of Albatross, as a direct rival to Tauchnitz, he was able to put his ideas into practice, and was stunningly successful in doing so.
Albatross No. 1
The Albatross books are a modern design classic, introducing a number of elements that were later widely copied throughout the industry. They are vastly more attractive than the Tauchnitz Editions that they were in direct competition with, and the contrast would have been evident in every bookshop that stocked both series.
The designer was Hans Mardersteig, at that time Art Director of the Italian printers Mondadori, whose proprietor, Arnoldo Mondadori was the Chairman of the Board of Albatross. He chose a book size of 181 x 112 mm, in line with the ‘golden ratio’ of 1.618 widely used in art and architecture. The same size was later adopted by Penguin Books and went on to become almost the standard size for paperbacks, at least in
Mardersteig also introduced coloured covers, coded to show the genre of the book, with yellow for psychological novels and essays, orange for short stories and humorous works, red for adventure and crime stories and so on. Again they must have looked very striking alongside the off-white Tauchnitz Editions. The credit for the first use of colour-coding to indicate the genre goes to Tauchnitz rather than Albatross, as Wegner had already introduced coloured wrap-around bands during his time at Tauchnitz, but it was at Albatross that he was able to give full expression to the idea. Again the idea was later taken up and developed by Penguin Books.
In typography too, the books were beautifully designed, and became a model for future paperback designers. Writing about Albatross in the Penrose Annual in 1953, Hans Schmoller, the Head of Design at Penguin Books, was still able to say ‘To this day it forms perhaps, from the point of view of design, the pinnacle among paper-covered books.’
As a further innovation, although one that did not endure so long, Albatross introduced dustwrappers for their paperbacks, initially in a transparent material, and from late 1933 in paper, repeating the cover design. This policy too was taken up by Penguin Books and by many other pre-war paperback publishers, but did not survive the paper shortages of the Second World War.
With almost a hundred years start on Albatross, Tauchnitz had built a massively entrenched position in terms of its agreements with established authors and had been able to fight off all previous attempts at usurping its position. It should have been almost impossible for Albatross to attract the best new authors or to tempt more established authors away from Tauchnitz. Yet its first list of 10 books in 1932 included titles by James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Aldous Huxley and by 1934 its list of published authors also included D.H. Lawrence, Evelyn Waugh, Katherine Mansfield, Agatha Christie, A.A. Milne, John Masefield and Dorothy L. Sayers. Amongst the titles it published in this first two to three year period were ‘Brave New World’, ‘Ulysses’, ‘The Maltese Falcon’, ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ and 'Murder on the Orient Express’, new titles at the time, but now almost forming part of the English language.
From late 1934 onwards, Albatross and Tauchnitz were effectively run under a combined editorial policy, but over the period from 1932 to 1939, the Albatross Library is an outstanding record of English literature in the 1930s, in much the same way that the Tauchnitz Editions are for the earlier period from the 1840s onwards. The two series considered together covered a huge proportion of the significant novels published in English over the 100 year period from 1840 to 1940.
In building this achievement, Wegner and his colleagues were helped by the move at the time towards literary agents. Tauchnitz had for many years built direct relationships with authors and the introduction of agents was a challenge to their way of doing business. Wegner had been closely involved in those relationships, but from the start Albatross worked with agents, notably Curtis Brown, whose founder, Albert Curtis Brown (left) had played a key role in bringing Wegner and Holroyd Reece together.
Alistair McCleery in his review of the relationship between Tauchnitz and Albatross, cites the treatment of James Joyce as an illustration of the differing editorial policies of Albatross and Tauchnitz, and of how Tauchnitz had rather lost its way. Joyce had offered ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ to Curt Otto at Tauchnitz in 1920 but it was not published until 1930, after Wegner’s arrival. In contrast, Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’ was published as volume 1 in the Albatross Modern Continental Library in 1932 and later the same year ‘Ulysses’ was published in a special edition. In recognition of its sensitivity, it appeared in plain covers and under the imprint of The Odyssey Press, although it was also allocated volume numbers 43 and 44 in the Albatross series. The same format and imprint was used for ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’, chosen as volume 56 of the Albatross series in 1933.
The Albatross Crime and Mystery Clubs
A further element in the success of Albatross was its recognition and embrace of what has become known as the ‘Golden Age’ of crime fiction. A handful of crime and detective novels had appeared in the Tauchnitz series before 1932, perhaps most notably those of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but there had been little recognition of the growing interest in this area.
In contrast, Albatross not only recognised the importance of crime fiction but after including a small number of crime novels in its main series, established a separate sub-series known as the Albatross Crime Club from 1933, with effectively its own sub-branding and publicity.
In the development of the Albatross Crime Club, and from 1937 also the Albatross Mystery Club, there was close co-operation with the British publisher Collins. Most if not all of the crime titles had earlier been published in the Collins Crime Club in the
The list of crime and mystery authors represented in the various Albatross series reads like a Who’s Who of the golden age of crime fiction, including Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Dashiell Hammett, Ellery Queen, John Rhode / Miles Burton and many others.
Albatross Crime Club (1933) Collins Crime Club (1938)
Albatross and Tauchnitz
Within two years of its launch, Albatross had effectively defeated Tauchnitz as a commercial rival. Tauchnitz was put up for sale, and but for one crucial factor, would have been completely taken over by Albatross. However the Nazi party was by then in power in
There were undoubtedly some difficulties in terms of what could be published in Nazi Germany, and some personal difficulties for both Kurt Enoch, who as a Jew was effectively forced to emigrate, and John Holroyd Reece, who had a Jewish father. However it was still a period of success for the two series, viewed together, that continued until the declaration of war in 1939.