Y is for Yellowback
The yellowback was first published in Britain in the 1840s to compete with the ‘penny dreadful’. It was a cheap popular novel, usually of an inferior quality, and usually sensational in nature. The name derives from the fact that such books were published in yellow enamelled paper covers with an illustration in blue or green and black ink on the upper cover.
The standard yellowback cost two shillings, much cheaper than the 31/6d charged for the "three-deckers" (the typical three-volume Victorian novel) or the five shillings for the single volume editions. Typically, these were sold to travellers through W. H. Smith's Railway Bookstalls.
Routledges were one of the first publishers to begin marketing yellowbacks by starting their "Railway Library" in 1849. The series included 1,277 titles, published over 50 years. These consisted mainly of stereotyped reprints of fiction novels originally published as cloth editions. By the late 19th century, yellowbacks included sensational fiction, adventure stories, 'educational' manuals, handbooks, and cheap biographies.
Publishers were keen to tap the market for self-education and serious reading and as a result many of the yellowback titles were non-fiction. Hobby enthusiasts, devotees of parlour games, natural history amateurs and even debunkers of spiritualism, all found yellowbacks to their taste. Travel books, such as Innocents Abroad, and A Tramp Abroad by Mark Twain were also popular.
Under the British Copyright Law, there was no requirement to pay royalties to American or continental authors. Uncle Remus, by Joel Chandler Harris, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, by Victor Hugo, and even Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe became yellowbacks, as did many other popular titles.
The most typical yellowbacks were novels of romance and sensation. Their lurid covers promised enjoyable, escapist reading. As in every age there was a rich undergrowth of writers willing to provide material of this sort, often under a bewildering assortment of pseudonyms.
Mary Elizabeth Braddon, the "Queen of the circulating libraries", had fifty-seven of her works published as yellowbacks by 1899. Her name usually did not appear on the title-pages, rather the publishers used the epithet, "by the author of 'Lady Audley's secret'." This novel of adultery, published in 1862, was Mrs. Braddon's greatest success.
Although most of the titles were re-prints, many works, particularly the factual and the humorous items, were produced especially for this format. Apart from the textual and graphic interest in these books, they are a significant example of an important stage in publishing history. They marked a response by the publishers to the greater demand for cheap reading matter resulting from the increase in literacy during Queen Victoria's reign.
If you’d like see more about the yellowback, Emory University undertook a project to digitalize 1,200 yellowbacks which you are able to access HERE