Production Yellowbacks
Aspects of the Victorian Book
  Production   Publishing

Yellowbacks are a distinctive category of cheap books which began to appear in the middle of the nineteenth century, at about the same time as W. H. Smith's first railway bookstalls. Described by Richard Altick as 'the most inspired publishing invention of the era', their eye-catching glazed paper covered boards, and revolutionary low price of one or two shillings, were deliberately designed to appeal to the growing reading and travelling public.

In appearance, yellowbacks were startlingly different from other books of the time. They were typically small crown octavo, bound in thin strawboard cases covered with coloured paper (usually yellow) which had been block printed with pictures using a technique perfected by Edmund Evans. Between 1855 and about 1870, often described as the golden age of yellowbacks, well-known artists were commissioned to provide vivid front cover and spine designs, while the back covers carried commercial advertisements which helped to subsidise the cost.

Most yellowbacks were reprints of popular fiction by best-selling authors of the day, who generally welcomed the opportunity to find new purchasers in the mass market. They included a large number of American writers, whose work was conveniently unprotected under British law until the last decade of the century. A few publishers, such as George Routledge whose Railway Library dominated the genre, also experimented with new books and non-fiction, especially educational handbooks and a wide range of works inspired by topical events.

Yellowback publishing was at its height during the 1870s and 1880s. By this time they were larger in size and increasingly uniform in appearance as publishers began to economise on their design costs. Although yellowbacks continued to appear into the early years of the twentieth century, they were gradually overtaken during the 1890s by a reduction in price for new novels on the one hand, and the arrival of the sixpenny, or even threepenny, paper-covered reprint on the other.

Elizabeth James

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