Contemporary Fiction

Readers Union (London, UK)
Series dates: 1960-1966
Size: 7.5″ x 5″

The Readers Union book club, established in 1937, was developed by John Baker, as part of the Phoenix Book Company. The Phoenix Book Company had been started in 1928 by publisher J.M. Dent, known for Everyman’s Library and dozens of other book series (and a long and distinguished history of general publishing). The Phoenix Book Company was an innovator in the sale of reprinted books on an installment plan.

The Readers Union was immediately successful, with 17,000 members within a year of its founding in 1937. (Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, vol. 7, p. 241). By 1958 Readers Union had sold in excess of 8 million books across 417 titles from sixty-four different publishers (Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, vol. 7, p. 215).

A few minor mentions of the Phoenix Book Co. in 1930s editions of the Times Literary Supplement: September 26, 1935, and October 22, 1938.

“J.M. Dent and Sons founded the Phoenix Book Company in 1928 to sell books on the installment plan. Headed by Hugh Dent, the subsidiary began with sets of works of Dumas pere, Dickens, and Scott, and later marketed The Encyclopaedia Britannica and The Cambridge Ancient History as well as Everyman’s Library and Penguin paperbacks. Phoenix was, in turn, the parent company of the Readers Union, a book club founded in 1937. It published books by Joyce Cary, Winston Churchill, Forster, Ernest Hemingway, Aldous Huxley, W. Somerset Maugham, Sean O’Casey, Bertrand Russell, John Steinbeck, Dylan Thomas, James Thurber, Evelyn Waugh, Wells, and Woolf at two shillings, sixpence per volume. The early years were a struggle, but the general book hunger during World War II gave the club a boost. By 1947 it had distributed almost two hundred titles and was selling more than four hundred thousand books a year, and by the early 1950s membership was almost forty thousand. The Phoenix Book Company faded away during World War II, but in 1947 it was revived as Phoenix House, a general publishing imprint. In 1970 the Readers Union was sold to the firm of David and Charles.” (Source: “J.M. Dent & Sons.” British Literary Publishing Houses, 1881-1965, vol. 112, 1991)

Advertisements for the Readers Union appear only infrequently in the Times Literary Supplement (August 7, 1948, on the left, and January 13, 1961, on the right, below) as the primary target of the Readers Union were readers who did not consider themselves to be literary, bookstore kinds of folks.

An advertisement from the New Scientist, February 20, 1964, includes a mention of the Contemporary Fiction series, an “associate club.”

David and Charles, Ltd., became F&W Media International Limited in 1971. Books published with the imprint begin to fade in the early 1980s. F&W and the Readers Union were liquidated in 2014 (source).

Contemporary Fiction was a series published by the Readers Union typically in collaboration with the original publishers of books that appeared in the series. These books were part of a book club, sold by mail. At the same time, Contemporary Fiction was a reprint series, situated within a book club.

Titles using the series name often were published with the original publisher’s name in the book, and WorldCat often does not mention the Readers Union in its description of the book publisher. Thus the Contemporary Fiction series appears under the imprint of dozens of publishers. Titles first appear in 1960 and extend to 1966. Throughout that time, the jackets and books do not vary much in appearance.

A copy of James Kennaway’s The Bells of Shoreditch, dated 1965, is shown below. The jacket design for Contemporary Fiction was blocky and in two colors, black mixed with a variety (blue, red, brown, green, etc.) of contrasting colors. A series logo is placed on the jacket spine (CF) and a variation on the jacket front. The series name heads up a statement on the front jacket flap by the series “Literary Adviser and Selector” Walter Allen. The jacket designer is Dodie Masterman. A statement alerts the reader to a book club enrolment form on the rear jacket flap.

Future titles, issued once a month, are listed on the back jacket flap, along with an enrolment form for the book club. A biography of the author fills the back of the jacket.

The book is bound in brown cloth with gold typography. The stylized CF series logo is at the base of the spine.

The half-title page:

Additional titles by the author face the title page. The CF logo appears above the imprint of the Readers Union and Longmans, with a 1965 date.

Copyright of 1963 to James Kennaway heads a statement on the copyright page:  “This Contemporary Fiction edition was produced in 1965 for sale to its members only by the proprietors, Readers Union Ltd, at Aldine House, 10-13 Bedford Street, London W.C.2 and at Letchworth Garden City, Herts. Full details of membership may be obtained from our London address. The book is set in 11 point Linotype Georgian leaded and has been reprinted by Northumberland Press Limited, Gateshead upon Tyne. It was first published by Longmans Green & Co Ltd.”