The Circulating Library Novel

What it is andWhere to Sell it

by Charles S. Strong

      The following excerpts are taken from The Writer’s 1939 Yearbook:

There are 40,000 circulating library “stands” in the country buying thousands of books every month.  Here is a market for the writer selling pure entertainment. Charles S. Strong has written and sold 28 books to circulating library publishers since 1932.  He knows the field thoroughly, and offers here some detailed, instructive advice.

    When the average writer or non-writer hears the words “Circulating Library” or “Lending Library” novel, he will almost immediately think of a so-called sex novel.  Three or four years ago, this was an apt description of some of the best books in this field.   Nowadays, however, this is not the case.  Other types of novels have moved into this group, and publishers that would not generally be considered as angling for this sort of manuscript are more than willing to devote at least part of their time to the type of book that finds its biggest sale in the corner cigar store, the local drug emporium, the railroad station, or the neighborhood gift shop.

    With the various rental library companies reaching from 35,000 to 40,000 outlets, the market is worth cultivation from any publisher, larger or small.

    The circulating library type of novel is unique.  To resort to methods of scientific deduction, it may be best to begin by pointing out what a circulating library novel is not.

    First, in most cases, a circulating library novel is not the kind of a novel that you’ll be likely to find on the shelves of a public library.  Some may reach there occasionally, but this is chiefly because of exceptional merit, or because the author has established something of a reputation for himself in his chosen field.  These novels, which will form our basis for discussion, are rented or sold to prospective readers in cigar stores, drug stores, book shops, rural post office general stores, railroad stations, gift shops, on trains by American News Company representatives, and sometimes through local book clubs (which are miniature circulating libraries in themselves).

    As a general rule – without casting aspersions– circulating library novels are not the sort of books to be classified as Literature with a capital L, nor are they intended to be.  True enough, the novels of Charles Dickens and other famous authors were published under an almost identical set-up.

    These novels are not books of the “best seller” type, although occasionally one of them may turn out to be a whirlwind success.

    Occasionally they will be reviewed in the current literary journals, but they will not be considered for the Pulitzer prizes.

    On the other hand they are not as bad as you might think from the above, and they do provide an author with a relatively steady source of income.

    To turn from the negative to the positive, as the photographer says, it may be pointed out that the circulating library novel is a close-knit narrative of 60,000 words.  The length is important, for publishers of these books have a standard size volume in mind and don’t relish bills for extra paper and printing.  The books are designed and planned to fill a longing for light reading in the breasts of those who want to take their books straight, to find them sensational and fast-moving.

    The majority of the lending library novels on the shelves can be divided into four classifications:

    (a) Sophisticated love, which is the modern term for the old sex novel.  However it is wise to note that sex has been considerably toned down with the passing of the strip-tease and the addition of more beads to the night club entertainer’s necklace and girdle.  The subject matter of these books may be provocative, but the sex element must be natural and not over-emphasized.

    (b) Sweet love stories.  These may be compared to stories of the Temple Bailey type, stories by Ruby M. Ayres, Mignon G. Eberhart.

    (c) Westerns.  These stories are not much different than the book-length western novels appearing in some of the magazines.  In fact a good many authors are able to realize additional checks by expanding short novels to the 60,000 word length and placing them with these circulating library publishers.  Many western novels, however, are written directly at the book publishers, and the balance between the two types is in favor of the last mentioned.

    (d) Detectives.  In this classification we find two types of stories; one which may be called the class detective story, by such writers as S. S. Van Dine, and the other, the more popular type which is comparable to the book-length detective novels used by the pulp detective magazines.  Here again we find that a number of writers bring home extra money by elaborating their short novels to the required wordage for sale to these lending library outlets.  In the case of the detective stories, too, however, we find many authors writing directly for book publication, with this latter type on the heavy side of the balance.

    Recently several of the book publishers that cater to the lending library trade either entirely or to a considerable extent have been experimenting with some adventure stories, but whether this is going to prove profitable or not is something that remains to be seen.  If, however, you have a bang-up adventure novel, it may go.

* * *

    Murder at Barclay House is typical of the sort of thing to be found in the detective group of these lending library publishers – although in this field we are also likely to find readers spending their three cents a day for best-sellers like Erle Stanley Gardiner [sic], Dashiell Hammett, George Harmon Coxe, and others of this nature.  I mention the title given, however, so that potential detective novel authors may compare this book, written directly for book publication, with my book-length novel “The Winter King Killings” appearing in the March 1939 issue of Black Book Detective.  This last represents a story essentially written for magazine publication, but will be a good bet in expanded form for the book publishers.    [FOOTNOTE.]

* * *

    The audience for the lending library novel is almost as varied as a cross-section of the population of the country.  Originally the circulating library idea was developed to permit people in limited circumstances, or without employment, to while away their time with light literature at a small fraction of the cost of a new book.  Later it became a convenience which permitted people in moderate and good circumstances to keep in touch with current reading without making a big investment for books.  Many people found, and still find, that out of the thousands of books published each year, the number worth keeping on the family library shelf can be counted in tens.

    This means, therefore, that the combination of people with small book budgets, and those with no desire to pay two dollars for the average lending library book, opens a fertile field for the 3¢ per day type of distribution, and it was only natural, therefore, that publishers should enter this field.

    More specifically, we find that the type of reader interested in the sophisticated and sweet love stories will be the young girls, both home and business, that do not find the time to engage in the glamorous roles that the heroines occupy in their imagination.  These readers are the stenographers, typists, telephone operators, bookkeepers, file clerks, and high school girls.

    For the more masculine interest books in the western, detective and adventure fields, we find a much broader audience, consiting of the whole gamut from primary school lads of the Nick Carter, Jesse James, Lone Eagle, Phantom Detective classification right up to the business men that are anxious to spend a couple of hours in relaxation, without having to delve into literature.  This means, then, that the author anxious to turn out books of this kind does not have to write “up” to his readers, or write “down” to them.  A perfectly natural approach to the subject, a glamoring of some of its details, and an honest effort to put across your characters will give you the right punch.

    There are two types of publishers that capitalize upon the lending library market.  One group of these, which is either primarily or entirely interested in this market includes the following, Arcadia House, Hillman Curl Publishing Company, Godwin Publishing Company, Inc. (all one publishing group, but releasing different types of books ...); The Crime Club (an affiliate of Doubleday, Doran & Company); Greenberg Publishers; Grosset & Dunlap (chiefly reprints); The Gramercy Publishing Company; the Phoenix Press; and the Dodge Publishing Company.

FOOTNOTE:  Murder at Barclay House was a detective novel published by Phoenix Press in 1936.  The stated author was Kelvin McCay, but Allen J. Hubin in Crime Fiction IV reveals that this was a pseudonym of Charles S. Strong.   This was the only work of mystery fiction he published under this byline; there are none listed under his own name.  As Charles Stoddard, however, there are 14 entries to be found in CFIV, most of them covered in Murder at 3c a Day
    The pulp novel Strong refers to, “The Winter King Killings,” appeared under his own name, but if it was rewritten and published as a hardcover novel, the title was changed to another.


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