Beck Center English Dept. University Libraries Emory University
Emory Women Writers Resource Project Collections:
Emory Women Writers Resource Project

The "Yellow-Back" Novel

by Harry Rusche

date: 2005
collection: Genre Fiction

The "Yellow-Back" Novel

Harry Rusche

The mid-nineteenth century witnessed a revolution in the world of publishing. Anthony Rota notes in Apart From the Text (1998) that if "one had to describe in one word the books that transformed not only series publishing but all publishing in the last half of the nineteenth century, it would be 'yellow-back'" (p. 221). In the earlier half of the century the most popular form for the novel was the "three-decker" published in series. Then Simms and McIntyre, a Belfast publishing firm, introduced cheaply produced novels, usually with covers of glazed yellow and illustrations--sometimes lurid and garish--on the front of the book. These were sold in railway book stalls for passengers looking for a way to wile away the time on journeys. The price, several shillings, made the books affordable and the stories made them popular. Simms and M'Tyre called their series of novels The Parlour Library with almost 300 titles published between 1846 and 1856.

Money was to be made on these cheap books and soon most publishers issued their own series for the railway-passenger market. Routledge entered the field with their Railway Library and by 1900, when the popularity of the novels with their low standards of production and their dubious content declined, Routledge had over 1,000 titles in its inventory. The yellow-back never quite disappeared; it was simply replaced by other forms of reading matter that were of higher quality in both printing and content.

Emory University added significantly to its collection of yellow-back novels in the 1960's when the Library purchased a large collection of more than 500 titles from Harold Mortlake, an English book dealer. Emory regularly added to the collection until the Library's collection of these cheap Victorian novels was outranked only by the two major collections in the United States: the Sadleir Collection of the University of California, Los Angeles, and the New York Public Library. A part of Emory's collection of yellow-backs are available on-line as Emory's library publishes as e-texts the novels written by and about women. The digitized yellow-backs are part of the Lewis H. Beck Center's project, Women's Genre Fiction.

For a brief history of the yellow-back and its place in publishing history, the source for the information in this brief introduction, see Anthony Rota, Apart from the Text, Oak Knoll Press (1998), pages 221-26.