Skip to content

By Lise Jaillant on

The Return of the Yellowback: Selling Cheap Editions in Railway Stations

Loughborough University lecturer Dr Lise Jaillant explores the literary phenomenon that went hand in hand with the rise of rail travel.

In the mid-1800s, W. H. Smith sold ‘yellowback’ books in railway stations to the increasing number of travellers. The firm is now celebrating its 225th anniversary with a collection similar to these 19th-century editions. Here, Dr Lise Jaillant of Loughborough University explores their popularity.

The yellowbacks were hugely popular because they were cheap and entertaining. Their light weight made them easy to carry around and with bright yellow covers and sensational illustrations, they were designed to stand out in railway stalls and catch the eye of commuters.

The revived paperbacks introduced this year have the same striking format that contributed to the success of their ancestors. W. H. Smith has worked with publisher Vintage Classics to develop the following seven titles: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Hard Times by Charles Dickens, The Warden by Anthony Trollope, Silas Marner by George Eliot, Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle and The Turn of the Screw by Henry James.

The following pictures were spotted at Darlington station:

Tess of the D’Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy
The bright yellow cover is certainly eye-catching.

The 19th-century yellowbacks were sold in a crowded market, as publishers rushed to produce cheap reprints for the mass market. These books were often poorly produced, with thin paper and even advertisements in the margins.

The first decade of the 20th century saw the rise of a different class of cheap reprint series. The World’s Classics and Everyman’s Library offered well-produced little books. Readers were encouraged to collect as many titles as possible and display them as part of a library. Despite their robust hardcovers, books included in the World’s Classics series and Everyman’s Library were sufficiently small to be put in a pocket. “Wise travellers carry the convenient-sized WORLD’S CLASSICS,” declared one advertisement.

Jonathan Cape’s Travellers’ Library series appeared in 1926.

Other cheap reprint series explicitly targeted travellers. In 1926, the publisher Jonathan Cape launched his Travellers’ Library. In this advertisement, potential customers are reminded that “a friend who travels” is in need of books. A train can be seen in the background. Long after the yellowbacks, Travellers’ Library books were presented as ideal companions for the railway traveller.

To find out more about ‘yellowback’ books, take a look at University of York student Tom Shillam’s blog ‘The Yellowback: Sensational Stories on the Railways‘.


About the author

Dr Lise Jaillant is Lecturer at Loughborough University. She is the author of two books on cheap reprint series: Modernism, Middlebrow and the Literary Canon: The Modern Library Series, 1917-1955 (Routledge, 2014) and Cheap Modernism: Expanding Markets, Publishers’ Series and the Avant-Garde (Edinburgh UP, 2017).

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *