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Toucan Novels: A Feathered Tale of Paperback Evolution

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The Hutchinson Group’s Avian Adventure

In the wake of our exploration of Jarrold’s Jackdaw Library, it seems fitting to delve into the world of Toucan novels. These two series share a unique bond in more ways than one. Both emanating from the esteemed Hutchinson group of publishers, they not only resemble each other but also bear a striking resemblance to the multitude of new paperback series that emerged in the years following Penguin’s groundbreaking success. Additionally, both collections employ a white circle as their dominant title panel[^1^].

It’s worth noting that Toucan novels were not the only series to adopt avian branding during the period following Penguin Books’ debut[^2^].

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The Toucan’s Flight: Influences and Inspiration

When Hutchinson chose the Toucan as their brand, it’s possible they were influenced not only by Penguin and Jackdaw, but also by Guinness. Just two years prior, Guinness had captured the public’s attention with their famous toucan, exponentially increasing the bird’s popularity[^3^].


In October 1936, when I pondered why Hutchinson felt the need to introduce another paperback series, they already had the Hutchinson Pocket Library, the Hutchinson Popular Pocket Library, and the Crime Book Society series, all launched within the preceding year. Thus, it was particularly perplexing that just four months later, they unveiled yet another series and brand. Was there truly a market niche for the Toucan Novels when they made their debut in February 1937? It remains unclear whether this was a strategic decision to diversify their offerings or simply a lack of coordination within the group[^4^].

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A Delicate Balancing Act: The Toucan’s Flight Path

At the very least, Toucan novels displayed some semblance of coordination, with books sourced from various publishing imprints within the Hutchinson Group. The initial batch primarily came from Hurst & Blackett, with a few titles under Hutchinson’s own imprint. Subsequently, Stanley Paul and John Long contributed to the series. However, like Jackdaw and several other new paperback collections of the 1930s, there was a lull after the initial surge of titles. Readers needed time to adjust to yet another new paperback series, and it took a while for the first print run to sell out[^5^].

After the publication of volume 20 in June 1937, there was almost a year-long hiatus before a small group of titles emerged in the summer of 1938. However, it wasn’t until May 1939 that the series truly gained momentum. Stanley Paul took center stage during this second phase, alongside contributions from Hurst & Blackett and Skeffington & Son[^6^].

Early volumes featured two-color printing to emphasize the Toucan’s vibrant yellow beak. Most of these books sported a crimson-purple hue, with a touch of green on a few. However, volumes 17 to 20, all published by John Long, lacked the yellow highlighting on their covers, although it persisted on the dust jackets. Was this a cost-saving measure, eliminating two-color printing where it would likely go unnoticed by buyers, or was it a mere oversight?[^7^].

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From a Glimmer to a Full Glow

Around volume 32, or even earlier, yellow covers became the norm for Toucan novels. This clever adaptation eliminated the need for two-color printing to depict the toucan’s beak. However, this change did slightly diminish the impact of the earlier designs. Soon afterward, dust jackets were phased out, and prices began to inch upwards, with some volumes temporarily selling at 7d before wartime economic measures took hold[^8^].

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By mid-1940, the pre-war status quo became untenable. The numbered series culminated with volume 62. A few books were sporadically published during the war, though they adhered to war economy standards, with lower paper quality, smaller fonts, and narrower margins. Publishers capitalised on paper rationing. I am aware of two wartime Toucans priced at 9d, but there may be others. Subsequently, several books priced at 1s 3d were released, and post-war editions fetched 1s 6d[^9^].

The Toucan series did not harbor lofty literary aspirations, and few of its titles are remembered today. Its authors remain largely obscure, apart from notable exceptions like Edgar Wallace and, most significantly, Georges Simenon’s two Maigret books. During that period, Simenon’s British fame was so limited that the book covers had to describe him as “The Edgar Wallace of France”[^10^].

As a final curiosity, seven books from the Hutchinson Group’s Services Editions series were casually referred to as Toucan Novels on their covers. It’s somewhat puzzling, as there was no other branding connection to Toucan, and only one of the books had previously been released as a Toucan novel. Furthermore, three of these books hailed from Rich and Cowan, a publisher that hadn’t previously contributed to the Toucan series. This highlights the branding confusion prevalent within the Hutchinson Group at that time[^11^].

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Toucan books were a snapshot of their era, capturing a moment in the evolution of paperback literature. Their significance lies not in their literary prowess but in their role as pioneers of paperback publishing. Although largely forgotten today, their impact on the publishing industry endures as an intriguing chapter in the history of books.

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