Personal Finance: Pulp fiction from the age of steam
`Yellowbacks' were the `airport novels' of Victorian times. Today, they can be like gold
Saturday 10 October 1998
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)
Tax change lays foundation for self-build boom in UK
Dirty tricks in a divorce can cause some nasty surprises
Simon Read: Frozen in time - the expat British pensioners who deserve a better deal
Pension firms must ask consumers more questions, says City Watchdog
Number of serially under-performing investment funds has increased by a fifth, survey reveals
- 1 Saudi preacher who 'raped and tortured' his five -year-old daughter to death is released after paying 'blood money'
- 2 Michelle Obama highlights harsh restrictions faced by Saudi women after meeting King Salman without wearing a headscarf
- 3 Amal Clooney gives excellent answer to fashion question at European Court of Human Rights
- 4 A bottle of wine a day is not bad for you and abstaining is worse than drinking, scientist claims
- 5 Isis publicly behead man in Syrian town square for 'insulting Allah' as he screams for help
'We would evict Queen from Buckingham Palace and allocate her council house,' say Greens
9 reasons Greece's experiment with the radical left is doomed to failure
Greece elections: Syriza and EU on collision course after election win for left-wing party
British Muslim school children suffering a backlash of abuse following Paris attacks
British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford faces execution by firing squad in Indonesia
Liberal Democrat minister defends comments suggesting immigration causes pub closures
iJobs Money & Business
£23000 - £26000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Market Research Executive...
£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Technical Report Writer is re...
Competitive salary & benefits!: MBDA UK Ltd: MBDA UK LTD Indirect Procurement...
£16500 - £16640 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing Finance compa...
Day In a Page
Hibernate during winter and make your living during the summer at this busy guesthouse with panoramic sea views, in the village of Lynton
A four-bedroom penthouse next to the Tate with direct views of St Paul's from two floors of luxurious living space
A four-bedroom detached home surrounded by spacious gardens and woodland, close to New Pudsey
An 18th-century, three-bedroom home near Langstone Harbour built from ships beams with vaulted ceilings and wood burning stoves
A five-bedroom semi-detached home with a mix of period and modern features in a popular and convenient location
This five-bedroom red-brick beauty overlooks the village green and sits in just under two acres of land
A three-bedroom villa with self-contained flat, minutes from Lake Windermere
A deceptively spacious, beautifully presented Georgian home with 3000sq ft of living space and five reception rooms
A five-bedroom Victorian home with four receptions, superb gardens and paddock in Pembury
An eight-bedroom house on the south side of the The Green with cinema, wine cellars and summer house
This 17th century beauty is full of rustic cosiness, while the detached home office means you can also run a business
Four exclusive apartments in a Grade II-listed former medical school with 2,275 sq ft of living space and 18ft ceilings
A five-bedroom terraced house on the popular Peterborough Estate, ideally located for both Eel Brook Common and South Park
A state-of-the-art farm-building conversion on the former Cliveden Estate, with 11,420sq ft of internal space, cinema and wine cellar
A three-bedroom, 15th-century cottage with original features in the picturesque village of Sissinghurst
A six-bedroom terraced house with large south-facing roof terrace, cinema room and wine cellar
A new seven-bedroom home built in Queen Anne-style with swimming pool and parkland views in Mortimer
A listed, four-bedroom farmhouse in the rural hamlet of Rushall with detached barn, four acres of gardens and paddocks
A first-floor flat with two bedrooms, a spacious reception room and communal grounds in a leafy part of London
A three-bedroom flat with a spacious rootop terrace and balcony, accessed from a private gated courtyard
A Grade II-listed pile with six bedrooms, stables and 39 acres of grounds in Standlake
A two-bedroom flat with boutique hotel-style interiors, close to the foodie haunt of West End Lane
A two-bedroom flat in a beautiful old vicarage, with many original features, close to the city centre
A three-bedroom 16th-century home with an aga kitchen, private gardens and heated outdoor pool, in Hadleigh
A three-bedrom home in sought-after Queen's Gate Mews, with Italian marble-finished bathrooms
Surrounded by glorious countryside in the village of Udimore, sits this impressive four-kiln oast and barn conversion
A five-bedroom house in the picturesque village of Kettlewell, north Yorkshire
An 18th-century former coaching inn with original staircase, open fireplaces and beams throughout
A Grade II-listed Georgian town house with three bedrooms and a south-facing courtyard, near Arundel Castle
Feel on top of the world at this über chic penthouse on the 37th floor of one of Europe’s tallest blocks.
A Grade II-listed Victorian villa with six bedrooms and two further cottages, all with spectacular sea views
A grade II-listed, Georgian cottage with mature 50ft garden, perfect for summer entertaining
A magnificent Georgian pile with turrets, seven bedrooms, a heated pool and four acres of gardens
Fairoak Farm has five bedroom suites, gym, outdoor swimming pool and golf course
Chic two-bedroom river-fronted flat with a private lift that delivers you directly to your home
A spectacular seven-bedroom Tudor pile, once owned by Henry VIII, with 18 acres of land
A seven-bedroom Georgian property previously used as a picturesque wedding venue
A split-level flat in a church conversion with two en suite bedrooms and 1,200sq ft of living space
A three-bedroom bungalow situated behind an impressive stone wall, £645,000
Windsor Castle overlooks this three-bedroom Victorian cottage located on one of Windsor's smartest roads
Chapel House is a former vicarage with nine bedrooms in the beautiful Upper Wye Valley
A five-bedroom B&B and separate owner's accomodation with potential for conversion
Enjoy summer by the Thames in this two double-bedroom converted warehouse in Rotherhithe village