Yellowbacks and W.H. Smith

Posted on February 7, 2013

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Yellowbacks became popular in the Victorian era and this popularity marked an important period in book and publishing history. Described by Richard Altick as “the most inspired publishing invention of the era,”[1] they were known as ‘mustard-plaster’ cheap novels sold in bookstalls owned by W.H. Smith at the railway stations in Victorian Britain. Their covers were designed by a wood engraver named Edmund Evans who used a yellow-glazed paper background printed with distinctive illustration. The back covers usually listed  commercial advertisements which helped to reduce the cost of printing. Their eye-catching yellow covers made them gain the nickname ‘yellowbacks.’ Designed for the travelling public and came as a response for the growing of reading habit in the mid 19th century; yellowbacks cost only one or two shillings. They began to appear in 1850, yellowbacks were circulated for the mass reading public between 1850 and 1900. Yellowbacks’ sizes were very portable and easy to be fit in the coat pocket. The early yellowbacks were in a small format “foolscap octavo, approximately 6 5/8 inches tall; the later book in the large format, that is, 12 mo. approximately 7 1/8 inches tall.”[2]  Most of the yellowbacks were reprints of popular fiction by established English, American, and European authors of the time. Through yellowbacks, the authors gained much success by reaching the mass audience. Authors such as Robert Louis Stevenson, George Augustus Sala, Edmund Yates, Douglas Jerrold, Rudyard Kipling, James Grant and Anthony Trollope were published in yellowbacks.

One of the positive impacts of the industrial revolution was the development of the railway which made travel easier. Many people moved from densely populated town to the nearby city and were commuting everyday. Commuting became a tradition and commuters needed something to read for their journey. Thus, yellowbacks were the answer, “[they were] the airport lounge novel[s] of its day.”[3] To fulfill this demand and need, W.H. Smith opened many of his bookstalls in railway stations to sell yellowbacks. Inherited from his father, who started his business in 1792 by opening a small newsstand in Little Grosvenor Street, London, W.H. Smith opened his first bookstall at Euston in 1848. Later he also opened bookstalls in other stations and took advantage of the ‘railway mania’ in Britain. These bookstalls became outlet and popularized yellowbacks for railway travellers.

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Hotten, Chatto & Windus, Ward & Locks, George Routledge, Frederick Warner, Longmans, Green & Co. and Ev. White & Co. were Victorian publishers who published yellowbacks. Among these, George Routledge was considered the most famous yellowback publisher. Routledge had created the Railway Library series, which began to be published in 1848. Railway Library, the term itself became a marketing tool of the publisher to encourage readers to buy the whole series to create their own library. Routledge’s Railway Library series was at its peak of popularity in 1850s-1860s. Routledge worked together with the author Edward Bulwer Lytton in 1853 and agreed to pay 20,000 pounds for the right to publish Lytton’s work entitled My Novel. The work sold very well: 26,000 copies of My Novel were sold within the first year. The cover of My Novel was amongst Edmund Evans’s earliest works for Routledge. The Railway Library series was ended in 1899 with No.1, 277. Routledge then “continued to issue occasional yellowbacks: a couple by Nat Gould in 1899 or 1900 in red, blue, green, and black; several titles in the Sportsman’s Library of Fiction at 2/0 boards, 2/6 cloth in January 190; and several more in 1904, and that concluded yellowback saga for Routledge.”[4]

Considered “a revolution in book marketing,”[5] yellowbacks marked “the book’s coming of age in a world of mass production.”[6] Yellowbacks were a great invention of business and marketing from Victorian publishing houses. W.H. Smith, who took advantage and received benefit from railway books through his bookstalls, helped them to be circulated. Yellowbacks and W.H. Smith’s bookstalls had fulfilled their function for the travelling public and the growth of the reading habit in Victorian Britain.

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(Image “Dracula” was taken from:  http://www.emory.edu/EMORY_REPORT/stories/2010/11/research_yellowbacks_acquisition.html)

(Image “W.H. Smith” was taken from: http://www.whsmithplc.co.uk/images/history_1.jpg)


[1] James, Elizabeth. Yellowbacks. Aspects of The Victorian Book Website (2012), http://www.bl.uk/collections/early/victorian/pu_yello.html

[2] Topp, Chester W., Victorian Yellowbacks and Paperbacks, 1849-1905, vol 1, 1993, p. vii

[3] Eliot, Simon. From Few and Expensive to Many and Cheap: The British Book Market 1800-18900. A Companion to the History of the Book (2009), 239.  

[4] Topp, Chester W., Victorian Yellowbacks and Paperbacks, 1849-1905, vol 1, 1993, p. x

[5] Eliot, Simon. Rev. of W., Victorian Yellowbacks and Paperbacks, 1849-1905,vol 1, George Routledge by Chester W. Topp. RES New Series, Vol XLVII, No. 185 (1996): p. 103-104

[6] Eliot, Simon. Rev. of W., Victorian Yellowbacks and Paperbacks, 1849-1905,vol 1, George Routledge by Chester W. Topp. RES New Series, Vol XLVII, No. 185 (1996): p. 103-104

Bibliography:

Eliot, Simon. From Few and Expensive to Many and Cheap: The British Book Market

1800-18900. A Companion to the History of the Book. Ed: Simon Eliot and Jonathan Rose. West Sussex: Willey-Blackwell, 2009. Print.

Eliot, Simon. Rev. of W., Victorian Yellowbacks and Paperbacks, 1849-1905,vol 1, George Routledge by Chester W. Topp. RES New Series, Vol XLVII, No. 185 (1996)

James, Elizabeth. Yellowbacks. Aspects of The Victorian Book Website, 2012. Web. 11 May 2012. http://www.bl.uk/collections/early/victorian/pu_yello.html

Topp, Chester W., Victorian Yellowbacks and Paperbacks, 1849-1905, vol 1, Denver, Colorado: Hermitage Antiquarian Bookshop, 1993

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