Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 06 May 2017

Print them cheap and pile them high

When I first started buying books in anything remotely like a systematic way – or maybe the word ‘enthusiastic’ is better than ‘systematic’ – I didn’t have much money. To be honest, the nature of the edition I could buy was less important to me than simply having the title in my possession. That did lead me to buy some copies of books that were, how can I put this, less than aesthetically pleasing. Paperbacks falling to pieces, old and cracked Victorian hardbacks with print so tiny you really have to read them with a magnifying glass and editions that left their print on your hands for the rest of the day.

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Even in my state of relative student penury I was aware that a lot of these were mistakes – they didn’t make me feel good about the book or about the effort I’d put into finding them. Many of them sat on my shelves glowering at me and the outside world until, inevitably, at some point further down the line I simply got rid of them again.

Shopping at the cheap end of the book market wasn’t all bad though and I owe a substantial debt of gratitude to the books published by The Reprint Society which seemed to find their way into second hand shops in vast numbers. These compact hardbacks were undoubtedly cheaply produced – the paper is course and the binding glued rather than stitched – but the titles they reprinted were the best sellers and modern classics of their day. Not much money was spent on the jackets and the book boards were never the finest cloth to say the least but they were entirely functional and if you wanted a more substantial upgrade from a grotty paperback they were the ones to go for.

The Reprint Society traded under the logo name of ‘World Books’ and was established in 1939 under the stewardship of Alan Bott who later masterminded the Pan paperback imprint. It operated with a pretty august editorial board that included big name publishers like MacMillan, Hart-Davis and Collins. The Society operated on a postal membership basis and at its peak in the 1950s could boast something like 200,000 subscribers for its selections – which have sometimes rather sniffily been dismissed as ‘middle-brow’. This success clear accounts for why so many copies still haunt the selves of second hand and junk shops across the country,

The rationalisation of the printing and bookselling industry that started in the 1960s saw The Reprint Society being bought-out by W.H.Smith and Doubleday and, in the process, given a make-over and rebranded as Book Club Associates, with a new logo that is still seen today on a regular basis in second hand bookshops.

The postal book club market was not without competition. The Reprint Society’s main rival – The Readers Union – was the other reprint I looked out for and which claimed the more ‘high- brow’ literary end of the spectrum. The goal of Readers Union was described by The Spectator magazine in these terms:

Its .. object is to give a second lease of life to' books of merit which have not in the opinion of the Readers' Union, found the public which they. deserve. 

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This quite noble aspiration did, I think, sometimes result in the reprinting of some pretty obscure titles – titles you could well argue deserved their obscurity.

Both The Reprint Society and Readers Union were in retrospect a godsend when I was younger – for literally pennies it was possible to pick up and take away books I’d heard of but had no real knowledge of and read them or not without having to make a significant financial commitment. They allowed me to make plenty of mistakes ( if only I’d stopped making mistakes !) and to discover what I didn’t like as well as what I did.

Terry Potter

May 2017