This is post no. 25 of #BlogchatterA2Z.
This includes blogging every day in April for 26 days, except on Sundays. What’s special about it is that every day’s post will be corresponding to each letter of the alphabet.
All my #BlogchatterA2Z posts 2021 can be found here.
Everyone has heard of paperbacks and hardbacks, but have you heard of yellowbacks?
Yellowbacks were inexpensive paperbacks printed and published in Britain during the later half of the 19th century. Today, they are a highly collectible item!
They were hugely popular between 1850 and 1900 and were sold through W.H. Smith bookstalls at railway stations for 1-2 shillings each. (Paperbacks at the time cost 12.5 pence.)
(Does “W.H. Smith bookstall at railway stations” ring a bell? My parents bought me an Amar Chitra Katha or a storybook from one of these stalls for every outstation trip!)
Why were they called “yellowbacks?”
Yellowbacks are so-called because of their distinct cover design created by Edmund Evans, a wood carver.
- He developed engravings in three printings in 1852: one block gave an outline of the image in brown and the other two blocks added color tints.
- He used yellow glazed paper as the background for the illustration. The net effect was an eye-catching, even lurid, cover image.
This cover style became so popular that it was imitated by regular paperbacks and some hardback editions, too.
The first colored pictorial cover by Evans was the wrappered (paper covered) edition of Letters Left at the Pastry Cook’s by Horace Mayhew in 1853. It was printed on white unglazed paper with blue and red tints. Later, he began to use yellow glazed paper.
Yellowbacks were bound in thin strawboard cases and looked distinctly different from the other books of that time. The early copies were of the size 6.5″ x 4.25″.
During the golden age of yellowbacks (1855-1870), well-known artists were commissioned to create the cover designs. The back covers had advertisements to help subsidize the cost of printing. The ads were usually of Pear’s soap or Fry’s cocoa.
In the 1870s and 1880s, yellowbacks became larger in size and mostly uniform in appearance.
What was printed in yellowbacks?
Most yellowbacks were reprints of popular UK fiction paperbacks, whose authors did not mind because they were able to reach greater numbers of people through these cheap books.
Also, since there were no copyright rules for US works in Britain at the time, “pirated” editions of popular US titles were reprinted as yellowbacks.
George Routledge was one of the first publishers to market yellowbacks through a “Railway Library” series between 1848 and 1899. They published 1277 titles over a period of 50 years.
Ward & Lock was another noted publisher.
These publishers also attempted to publish educational handbooks and non-fiction books on topical events.
Did you know that books by Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, Anthony Trollope, and James Grant were published as yellowbacks?
Decline of Yellowbacks
Yellowbacks had once been hailed as an innovation in publishing, but they declined to become synonymous with inferior quality books.
Despite being cheap and attractive, yellowbacks began to lose popularity during the 1890s because:
a) novels had become more affordable and
b) paper-covered reprints costing three-penny and six-penny became available.
Chatto & Windus continued to issue yellowbacks until the 1920s, but their time had long since passed.