Short story writer Kevin Mims is a frequent contributor to this blog site, his essays for us often insightful reviews of the body of work of one great writer in the field or another. This time, he discusses a branch of publishing that has nearly died out—subscription-only book publishing. One of the most illustrious of those publishing services was The Franklin Library Series; it ceased publication in 2000, unfortunately, but as Kevin points out in this post, many of the books can still be found, and some of them are mysteries. —Janet Hutchings
I began visiting various northern California rare book fairs back in the 1980s. Usually I would come away from these having purchased nothing more than a few inexpensive vintage paperbacks. Although I enjoyed looking at signed first editions of works by Hemingway and Chandler, I was never tempted to buy any, because the prices were simply way beyond my means. More tempting were the various collections of fine leather-bound books that had been released in special limited editions, usually via some subscription service such as the Easton Press or The Great Books of Western Civilization series. I liked the look and feel of these books but the serious book collectors I knew tended to sneer at them as objects of bourgeois affectation. This attitude shows up in the 2004 film Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, wherein the title character (whose surname sounds a lot like “bourgeoisie”) tries to impress a woman by telling her, “I’m very important. I have many leather-bound books and my apartment smells of mahogany.” Thus, for decades, I allowed a handful of snooty rare-book dealers to convince me that these were not serious artifacts of the book publishing trade.
But I was wrong about leather-bound subscription-service books, and so were those snooty book dealers. What finally brought me around was the Franklin Library of Mystery Masterpieces. This is a collection of 51 great books in the crime and mystery realm, issued between 1987 and 1990. Five or six years ago, I was visiting my elderly, ailing parents at their home in Portland, Oregon, when I noticed a copy of Mousetrap and Other Plays by Agatha Christie on one of their bookshelves. It was the first title ever released in the Franklin Library of Mystery Masterpieces. My parents had never subscribed to the Franklin Library and they owned no other volumes from it, so I was surprised to see this one. It was probably a gift to my mother from one of her friends. My mother, who died in 2020 after a decade-long struggle with dementia, was an avid reader for most of her life. She was particularly fond of gothic romances and cozy mysteries. My father, who died in 2019, had many fine qualities but he had no interest in novels or short stories. He was an accountant and read mainly The Oregonian newspaper (especially the sports section) and work-related materials. In my youth, I rarely saw my mother with a hardbound book. We were a family of eight, so money was always an issue for us. My mother devoured mainly cheap, mass-market paperbacks, which may be why I am still so fond of that format. This leather-bound copy of Agatha Christie plays seemed seriously out of place in a house filled mainly with tattered paperbacks. I asked my father where it had come from, but he had no idea. I couldn’t ask my mother, because her memory and verbal skills were gone. Thus the book was, in more ways than one, a bit of a mystery. It obviously belonged to my mother, but how she had acquired it, I have no idea. I can’t imagine her ever buying it for herself. I live in Sacramento, California, and am not exactly made of money, so I was able to visit my parents in Portland only every two or three years or so. And each time I saw them, I knew there was a good possibility it might be the last time. With that in mind, I asked my father if I could take the Agatha Christie volume with me. He assented. And just like that, I now had a sort of sentimental attachment to the Franklin Library, a commercial entity I had always in the past considered beneath my consideration.
I took that first book home with me and found myself impressed by how well made it was. I’m not talking about Christie’s skill as a playwright, although that was also impressive. No, I’m talking about the craftsmanship that went into the object itself. Regardless of the quality of the writing inside, this book was a small work of art. And this is true of all of the books published by the Franklin Library. Many of them were published in genuine leather, but even their imitation leather and quarter-bound leather editions are handsome and lovingly crafted. Many are illustrated with drawings commissioned exclusively for the Franklin Library by gifted artists. The books are printed on acid-neutral archival paper, so even forty-year-old editions look brand new when you open them. The pages are not glued to the spine but sewn into it. All sorts of touches—hubbed spine bands, embossed cover decorations, silk moiré fabric endpapers, raised lettering, sewn-in bookmarks—give each volume a satisfying textural aspect. Many well-preserved Franklin Library volumes still give off that new-car smell if you hold them up to your nose. And the leather can feel as plush and luxurious as the upholstery in a new Jaguar XKE.
Over the last few years, when I could afford it, I bought other titles in the Franklin Library of Mystery Masterpieces. My personal collection now includes Thank You, Mr. Moto and Mr. Moto Is Sorry by John P. Marquand, Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy Sayers, A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin, The D.A. Calls It Murder by Erle Stanley Gardner, Laura by Vera Caspary, The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth, The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain, and Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler. What’s more, I began looking into other Franklin Library series and found that some of them also contain books of interest to the crime-and-mystery fan. I bought a copy of short stories by Daphne Du Maurier called Kiss Me Again, Stranger, which was published in the company’s Collected Stories of the World’s Greatest Writers series.
My two favorite series, however, are The Franklin Library of Signed Limited Editions and the Franklin Library of Signed First Editions. From the series of Signed Limited Editions I have purchased various crime-and-mystery-adjacent novels such as The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk, and Deliverance by James Dickey. But the biggest surprise, for me, has been the Franklin Library of Signed First Editions. I had seen these books at rare book fairs for years and assumed that they were using the term “first edition” rather loosely. After all, every book fanatic knows that the first edition of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1976 novel Slapstick was published by Delacorte Press and featured memorable clown-themed cover art from legendary book designer Paul Bacon. Likewise, every fanatic collector knows that the first edition of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s The Death of Methuselah and Other Stories was, like all of his other books, published in America by Farar Strauss and Giroux. I figured that the Franklin Library was referring to its own editions as first editions simply because they were the first Franklin Library editions. But, no, I was wrong about that. Back in the day, the Franklin Library negotiated with various mass-market book publishers for the right to bring out a small privately published first edition of various prominent titles and to mail these books out to subscribers a few weeks before the mass-market edition would appear in bookstores across the country. Thus, books labeled Franklin Library Signed First Edition are, despite what grumpy fine-book dealers may say, true first editions. Look at the copyright page of the Delacorte edition of Slapstick or the FS&G edition of Methuselah, and you’ll find these words in small print: A signed first edition of this book has been privately printed by the Franklin Library.
Many of the books in this Signed First Edition series are crime-and-mystery-adjacent, and some of them are more than just adjacent. Included in this series you will find Billy Bathgate, E.L. Doctorow’s novel about Depression-era gangsters. You will find Tough Guys Don’t Dance, a straight out murder mystery by Norman Mailer. You will find Alice Hoffman’s Turtle Moon, which involves murder and mystery. You will find John Le Carre’s The Honourable Schoolboy, and Graham Greene’s The Human Factor, both of which are spy novels. You will find thrillers such as Morris West’s Proteus and Michael Crichton’s Congo. You will find Ray Bradbury’s Death Is a Lonely Business.
Most of these books have more to recommend them than just the fact that they are signed by the author. The Franklin Library generally commissioned a special introduction by the author, a short essay which appeared only in that edition. Most of these editions feature illustrations. They also contained ancillary material in a small paper pamphlet that accompanied the book (although these are sometimes gone by the time a Franklin Library book hits the secondary market).
Sadly, my about face arrived too late to do the Franklin Library any good. Although its parent company the Franklin Mint still exists and still turns out collectible birdbaths, door-knockers and, ironically, bookends, The Franklin Library went out of business in 2000.
Special limited editions of highly esteemed books have been a hallmark of the book trade for centuries, but they really flourished in the twentieth century, when various improvements in manufacturing and marketing made them more commercially viable. The Great Books of the Western World Series, Colliers Encyclopedia, The Limited Editions Club, Heritage Press, the Easton Press, the Folio Society, The Harvard Classics, The Loeb Classical Library – the list of such series goes on and on. In America these have long been associated with middle-class people aspiring to improve their lot in life. Often immigrant parents with limited English skills bought these books in the hope that they would help their children move up into a higher, more elite social and economic class. According to Wikipedia: “For many families owning a set of Collier’s Encyclopedia became a status symbol.” This was true of many other series of books that were sold by door-to-door salesmen or offered in monthly subscriptions. And, of course, there have also been plenty of series targeted at lovers of particular literary genres. Mystery fans of a certain age can probably recall the Detective Book Club 3-in-1 editions, wherein three complete novels were bound in one volume and sold via subscription. I still see these volumes at used-book stores, garage sales, and flea markets. The Louis L’Amour Collection includes 90 of his western novels and a few dozen of his story collections all bound in (fake) cowhide. Numerous quality book clubs offering a selection of finely bound science-fiction and fantasy works have popped up through the years.
Although these semi-private, subscription-only services still exist, their heyday is long past. Nowadays, many younger people prefer to do their reading on electronic devices, often while commuting to work on a subway or eating lunch at a Subway. The idea of shelling out $30 or $40 for a leather-bound, gilt-edged book that can’t be conveniently tucked into a purse or a pocket probably strikes many of them as absurd, especially when an electronic edition is probably available online at a tenth of the price. And I can’t blame them for that. Those fusty old leather books were made for a slower, less hectic era, when Netflix and Amazon Prime and Hulu and Spotify and Facebook and Twitter weren’t all competing for your free time. Leather-bound subscription-service books hark back to a time when there wasn’t much to do after the dinner dishes had been washed and dried other than to settle down in the living room with a good book. The Franklin Library, like so many other subscription-book services is gone now. But its books are still with us, brightening up homes and used-book store shelves and rare book fairs and libraries and other venues. Decades after Netflix or Twitter or Facebook have run their course and gone out of business, what beautiful relics will they leave behind to remind us of their existence?