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Authored By: Michele Troy

Edited By: Nicola Wilson

The Albatross Press was, from its inception in November 1931, a boundary-crosser, much like modernism itself. It was primarily funded by British-Jewish interests, specifically, by Jewish copper magnate and arts philanthropist, Sir Edmund Davis; yet it was also backed by prominent Italian publisher Arnoldo Mondadori, who published the first eighteen volumes of its Albatross Modern Continental Library from Milan. While Albatross represented itself in the British press as a British publisher, with British interests at heart – and the behind-the-scenes decision-makers were, indeed, British – Albatross printed and sold its books from continental Europe. Little more than a year before Hitler’s rise to power, its leaders established Hamburg as its operational base, Paris as its editorial center, and Milan as its shared office with Mondadori.

In a time of rising nationalism, Albatross was founded explicitly to wrest control of Anglophone books in continental Europe away from the distinguished German firm, Bernhard Tauchnitz, and to put it back into British hands. In 1841, Tauchnitz had launched its “Collection of British Authors,” an inexpensive paperback reprint series of books in English, and had controlled this market niche for so-called “continental English editions” from Leipzig ever since. By 1934, with the help of clever branding, robust international connections, and an additional alliance with publishing powerhouse William Collins of Edinburgh, Albatross broke Tauchnitz’s decades-long near-monopoly. Rather than destroying the German firm outright, Albatross borrowed from Tauchnitz’s established reputation. While the Reich Chamber of Literature would not allow Albatross to purchase Tauchnitz outright – with the logic that Albatross was a foreign firm with Jewish ties – it did allow Albatross to manage the Tauchnitz Edition and its selections. As Albatross director John Holroyd-Reece later crowed, Albatross had “brought the hundred-year-old rival, founded by Baron Bernhard Tauchnitz, under British control.”  This triumph was not merely economic, but also political, because it secured Albatross access to Hitler’s Germany, which remained the largest English-reading market in continental Europe, worth roughly a third of sales, throughout the 1930s.   

Behind Albatross stood not enterprising British or American publishers, but instead three German-born men, only one of them a British citizen. All three were innovative and headstrong and driven by the “Kunstverlag” ideal that publishing bore the responsibility of putting truly good, affordable books in the hands of as many readers as possible to forge a liberal-minded, educated society.  Ambitious 38-year-old German publisher, Max Christian Wegner, fired as Tauchnitz managing director in December 1930 for selling Edna Ferber’s novel Cimarron without a firm contract, initially sought a partner to help him launch a rival to his former employer. Prominent London literary agent, Curtis Brown, introduced Wegner to the cosmopolitan and roguish John Holroyd-Reece: a German-born man, turned British citizen, who spoke at least four languages fluently and lived in Paris, where he ran the Pegasus Press, a small publishing venture that produced high-end art books for a wealthy clientele. Wegner and Holroyd-Reece then approached Kurt Enoch, a Jewish publisher in Hamburg with family publishing and distribution branches, to develop an aggressive sales and marketing campaign tailored to individual markets in continental Europe. While Wegner and Enoch were critical to the day-to-day running of the firm, it was Holroyd-Reece who maintained the connections to Albatross’s backers, and who thus determined Albatross’s agenda as the 1930s wore on. 

In its heyday between 1932 and 1939, Albatross reprinted roughly four hundred and fifty Anglo-American titles for sale at 6000 venues across the continent. The Albatross Crime Club and Giants series offered tales of mystery and biography. The Albatross Modern Continental Library included an array of what might now be called “middlebrow” fiction, as well as edgier texts that provoked curiosity abroad:  among them D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Albatross also forged a subsidiary, The Odyssey Press, solely to reprint two bad boys of literary modernism:  Ulysses and Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Although it has largely been forgotten, Albatross is historically important as both the largest purveyor of Anglo-American literature in continental Europe in the 1930s, and as the first publishing house to make cutting-edge modernist literature truly accessible and affordable to continental audiences in its original language. Within paperback history, Albatross is further important as a precursor to Allen Lane’s Penguin Books. Holroyd-Reece had enlisted German master typographer, Hans Mardersteig, to elevate the genre of the paperback book, and to create in Albatross a paperback with the aura of quality; not only did Mardersteig arrange that the size of each book would match the proportions of the Golden Mean, held to be beautiful to the eye, but he also saturated the covers in a rainbow array of colors, a different bold hue for each genre. When Allen Lane launched Penguin in 1935, he clearly played off of this format. Less well known, however, is that he also nearly entered into a Memorandum of Agreement with Holroyd-Reece in 1934, to produce a joint imprint. Instead, Lane gleaned from Holroyd-Reece how to develop economies of scale, and was thus poised after the war to challenge the hold which Albatross and Tauchnitz had previously held over the market.

Both Wegner and Enoch had left Albatross in the late 1930s, and with the onset of war in 1939, Holroyd-Reece was forced to retreat to London, directing the French office from a distance. As the war continued, he largely lost control of Albatross operations. The French office was seized under the Occupation, and the German office put under the oversight of the Reich Commissioner for the Handling of Enemy Property, which sold Albatross books to neutral countries for financial gain and also bent Albatross to German propaganda ends.

After the war, Holroyd-Reece made an ambitious bid to relaunch the Albatross series. He partnered with a prestigious publisher in each of the largest continental markets, and the Collins firm in Edinburgh became Albatross’s primary financier. Yet the war had radically altered the continental market for English-language books. Foreign currency restrictions complicated the trade of books across national lines. Copyright agreements disrupted by the intervening years of war were difficult to recover. In the interim, too, the paperback revolution had truly begun, which meant that Albatross faced intense competition. Other publishers of continental English editions slowly chipped away at Albatross’s market, until American and British “cheaps,” paperbacks selling at roughly a third of Albatross’s price, flooding the continental market in the late 1940s, doing away with the model of the continental English edition altogether. As Albatross had overtaken Tauchnitz, other firms now overtook Albatross, making Albatross a victim, in this sense of the revolution it helped launch. After repeated attempts to refinance or to sell Albatross, Collins dissolved the firm in 1955.