Personal Finance: Pulp fiction from the age of steam

`Yellowbacks' were the `airport novels' of Victorian times. Today, they can be like gold

Next time you browse in a second-hand bookshop, look out for Victorian railway "yellowbacks" - the nickname given to the two-shilling fiction bound in colourfully illustrated covers made from glazed yellow paper- on-board that were first sold from station bookstalls during the railway boom 150 years ago.

Though less familiar than "penny dreadfuls" or "shilling shockers", they have become the most rapidly appreciating collectable in the book market.

Why? Is it because, as cheap books sold to a newly-educated public, they made publishing history? Or because they are must-haves for collectors of all editions of authors such as Dickens, Trollope or Eliot? Or because their covers have artwork by famous illustrators such as Dickens's "Phiz", John Leech and Charles Keene?

Yes, to all of those; but their greatest value - a sign of the times, this - lies in their condition. That sounds like stating the obvious; after all, every collector knows that condition counts. But yellowbacks are collectable only in pristine condition; not just as books, but as ephemera that has miraculously survived - touchy-feely artefacts as fresh as the day they were bought to while away a journey on a puff-puff from Euston to Crewe. Displayed on shelves, their still-bright colours look as if they have just been delivered by time-travel.

Brian Lake, of the London bookdealers Jarndyce, who specialise in yellowbacks and will be offering them at next month's Chelsea Book Fair, says: "Yellowbacks that are merely `good for their age' are no good. They've got to be crisp and bright, with no rubbing. That's where they score, both visually and financially."

A scuffed yellowback can be worth as little as a tenth of the value of one in tip-top condition. He proved that in 1990, when he issued a catalogue of 258 pristine specimens and sold 95 per cent of them. These days, most prices are in the pounds 50-pounds 150 range - double his 1990 prices. The top prices, for a rare detective story or a rare original publication in yellowback, are between pounds 400 and pounds 500; again, double.

The bottom-line for a yellowback illustrated by Phiz is pounds 50-pounds 60 (in perfect condition, of course). Combined with a well-collected author, the price can soar above pounds 100. Interestingly, Mr Lake, who has a private collection of yellowbacks, would sell a Dickens for pounds 50-pounds 100 but would pay over pounds 100 for one that his collection lacks.

Who else is buying them? National collections such as the British Library - which is embarrassed by its old habit of re-binding acquisitions, now that collectors have recognised that the binding is part of a book's history. The British Library ruined stacks of yellowbacks by re-binding.

Next month, yellowbacks will be spotlighted when the bookseller WH Smith celebrates the 150th anniversary of its railway bookstalls. There will be promotions and a booklet, appropriately titled Time Traveller, which will explain the role of yellowbacks in publishing history.

Back in 1848, William Henry Smith II was awarded sole rights to the London and North Western Railway's bookstalls. He opened his company's first railway bookstall at Euston and soon had contracts sewn up with various other railway companies.

Yellowbacks were not sleaze. WH Smith II was known as "Old Morality" and he won his railway bookstall contracts because he promised to clean them up. Previously, they had been seedy cabins run by handicapped railway employees or employees' widows that sold unsavoury literature and dog- eared newspapers.

Yellowbacks were mostly popular fiction - romantic novels, detective stories - but they were also non-fiction such as guides to butterflies and moths, hints on etiquette, even advice on do-it-yourself taxidermy. WH Smith II was a force behind yellowback publishers such as Routledge - a pioneer in the yellowback market - Chapman and Hall, Blackwood and Bentley, buying up authors' copyrights and presenting them to the publishers for reprinting. He made available George Eliot's Felix Holt to railway passengers - and the fact that a novelist called Disraeli was published in yellowback probably had something to do with the fact that WH Smith II became secretary of state for the navy in Disraeli's government.

Crucially, yellowbacks at 2s were much cheaper than cloth-bound books that cost 7s or even 11s. Having been introduced in 1847 as The Parlour Library by the publishers, Simms and M'Intyre, originally based in Belfast, they were copied by Bentley's Standard Novels and by Routledge's Railway Library, and a publishing war developed. One result was that authors stopped writing three-volume novels that would be uneconomically bulky for railway bookstalls. Another was that illustrated covers came to stay - hence today's illustrated loose paper dust-jackets.

Today's yellowback connoisseurs cite a "golden period", 1855-1870, during which the cover artist - who was, oddly enough, usually commissioned by the printer, not the publisher - was allowed full scope to produce both picture and lettering, both on the cover and the spine. These yellowbacks have a unity of design that was lost when economics forced printers to standardise spine design and cover typography, reducing the artist's contribution to a dropped-in illustration. By the 1890s, yellowbacks were looking tawdry and decadent.

New collectors should be aware that the first editions of literary journalists such as George Augustus Sala, Edmund Yates, RB Brough, Augustus Mayhew and Douglas Jerrold are yellowbacks, as is much early detective fiction. Recollections of a Detective Police Officer by "Waters" (William Russell), published by J&C Brown in 1856, was a bestseller much imitated by other publishers. A "confessions" genre evolved from it that included, in 1860, The Confessions of a Thief, The Confessions of a Horse Dealer and The Revelations of a Catholic Priest.

But if you prefer to yawn and nod off during a train journey, I recommend the Fun Library's "Mrs Brown" series of topical absurdities, published in the 1860s. Mrs Brown is a bore.

Chelsea Book Fair, Chelsea Old Town Hall, Kings Road, west London, Friday 6 November (2pm-8pm), Saturday 7 November (11am-6pm). Entry pounds 2 or free tickets from Antiquarian Booksellers' Association (0171-439 3118). Jarndyce, Antiquarian Booksellers (Brian Lake), 46 Great Russell Street, London WC1 (0171-631 4220).

`Time Traveller' by Roger Williams, Cover Publishing, will be available from WH Smith from 6 November (pounds 2.50)

Independent Partners; Do you need financial advice on your investments, pension or insurance? Book a free consultation with an independent Financial Adviser at VouchedFor.co.uk

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Sport
tennisLive: Follow all the updates from Melbourne as Murray faces Czech Tomas Berdych in the semi-final
News
Sir David Attenborough
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
Young girl and bowl of cereal
food + drink
News
Comic miserablist Larry David in 'Curb Your Enthusiasm'
peopleDirector of new documentary Misery Loves Comedy reveals how he got them to open up
Sport
football
News
i100
Life and Style
Virtual reality headset: 'Essentially a cinema screen that you strap to your face'
techHow virtual reality is thrusting viewers into frontline of global events and putting film-goers at the heart of the action
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Life and Style
David Bowie by Duffy
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
News
advertisingVideo: The company that brought you the 'Bud' 'Weis' 'Er' frogs and 'Wasssssup' ads, has something up its sleeve for Sunday's big match
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
i100
Environment
Dame Vivienne Westwood speaking at a fracking protest outside Parliament on Monday (AP)
environment
Finacial products from our partners
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Money & Business

    Ashdown Group: Market Research Executive

    £23000 - £26000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Market Research Executive...

    Recruitment Genius: Technical Report Writer

    £25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Technical Report Writer is re...

    MBDA UK Ltd: Indirect Procurement Category Manager

    Competitive salary & benefits!: MBDA UK Ltd: MBDA UK LTD Indirect Procurement...

    Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - PHP

    £16500 - £16640 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing Finance compa...

    Day In a Page

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness