INSIGHTS: Unique Christie Publishers: Modern Age Books
Agatha Christie first edition books were primarily published in hardback by The Bodley Head and Collins in the UK. In the USA, aside from John Lane / The Bodley Head publishing her first book, Dodd, Mead & Co. broadly speaking published the rest. There were a few unique publishers of hardbacks in the UK, such as Odhams, but these were atypical. To a large extent the same was true for paperbacks. In the UK, most first printings were either by Collins, Penguin, Pan or Fontana. In the US, most first paperbacks were from either Dell, Pocketbooks, or Avon. However, in both countries there were a few unique publishers.
In the US, we’ve previously discussed ‘L.A. Bantam’, a boutique publisher who publised paperback titles between 1940 and 1941 (link). Of these, only one was a Christie title – The Mystery of the Blue Geranium and Other Tuesday Club Murders.
We’ve also reviewed the UK publishers Todd/Polybooks (link) and Vallancey Press (link). All are now scarce and highly collectible. Yet for all of these publishers, the books they published were custom collections of short stories – unique to them.
Today we’ll discuss an oddity in the world of US Christie paperbacks – Peril at End House.
Published by Modern Age Books under their Red Seal brand, this is the only Christie title they published and the first US edition making it desirable for collectors. Also, unlike the other publishers mentioned, this was an actual Christie novel - not a custom story collection. How Modern Age Books secured the first printing rights for only this title from Dodd, Mead & Co. is unknown. Perhaps their intent was to publish more, but longevity was not in their future.
Modern Age Books - A Short Life:
Modern Age Books was founded in 1937 by Richard Childs in the USA. Based in New York, they were one of the first publishers to produce paperback books in the United States. The titles they published generally had progressive and socialist leanings, but their driving goal was to bring affordable paperbacks to the masses. They followed the model set by Penguin in the UK with a strategy that included an emphasis on inexpensive books with high-quality content and a fresh book design sold through dime stores, drugstores, newsstands, and bookstores.
They claimed that their business model of affordable paperbacks would be achievable through large print runs of ‘thirty to a hundred thousand’ copies so they could sell them at 25 cents to 95 cents. In addition, to save money the books were printed by night crews at the Rumford Press in Concord, New Hampshire.
Initially, the books were placed into one of three series, sorted by price-point: Blue Seal Books, Gold Seal Books, and Red Seal Books. The Blue and Gold Seal Books were new titles, the Red Seal Books reprints. The Blue and Gold Seal Books were available in paperback and hardcover, the Red Seal Books only in paperback. Within a year, the three series approach was cancelled and books just appeared with the branding of “A Seal Book” or “Seal Books”.
In addition, the mass market distribution policy was a financial failure. Modern Age was forced to raise prices on many titles and cut the number of copies in a single printing. It also began publishing titles in cloth under a new imprint, the Starling Press, but this was discontinued in January 1940, along with the practice of publishing the same title in both cloth and paper. In 1941 the firm’s list included forty-seven titles in cloth and seventy-three in paper, but by 1942 Modern Age had abandoned the paperback format entirely. World War II resulted in a loss of employees and the firm discontinued business in October 1942. Its assets were sold to other publishers, including Viking Press.
The Mystery Titles:
During their first two years in production, Modern Age Press only published two new mystery titles and reprinted three. The two new mystery books they printed were Death Slams the Door by Paul Cade and Murder Strikes Three by David MacDuff.
The three titles they reprinted were The Leavenworth Case by Anna Katherine Green, Suspicious Characters by Dorothy Sayers, and Peril at End House by Agatha Christie. While we rarely discuss other authors in my collection, Dorothy Sayers is also an author I collect and enjoy to read. So we’ll discuss her book published by Modern Age primarily to show how cost cutting impacted their print runs from 1937 to 1938.
Dorothy Sayer’s Suspicious Characters was the 14th title Modern Age published – part of their initial year’s release in 1937. Priced at 25 cents (the lowest price in the range) this was considered a ‘Red Seal’ book. Unique to the initial year’s books was a dust wrapper over the paperback’s stiff boards with an artistic, but brand-centric, design.
In 1938, their second year of production, they published Agatha Christie’s Peril at End House. This was the 36th title published. By now dust wrappers had been discontinued and the cover was a plain design – the graphic seals were now relegated to a small logo on the rear (see front and rear book cover images shown earlier).
Values & Scarcity:
Despite Modern Age Books goal of mass production, it appears either far fewer books were published - perhaps 10,000 of less for the Christie title. In addition, it is likely very few survived the paper drives of World War II. Both likely influence the reality that this is a hard book for Christie collectors to find in very good or better condition. However, when one does show up for sale prices are currently affordable – perhaps due to the lack of awareness of it being a true US first paperback printing. A recent copy sold on the US eBay site for $27 with 5 bids. At this time expect to pay $25 - $50 - or what you will given how they don't show up for sale very often. Prior to that, I haven’t seen one for sale for a very long time. As with other one-offs for Christie collectors to find, the hunt is part of the fun of collecting.
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Also, I am pleased to share that I will be a speaker at the 2023 International Agatha Christie Festival in September. My presentation will be about Agatha Christie on Stage - From Playscripts to Programmes - all from a collector's perspective. For information on my talk or to obtain tickets please go to:
IACF "Collecting Christie Live" (link)
I hope to meet many readers of this website and other Christie fans there.