Liverpool John Moores University
My two-week visit to Princeton in April 2004 revolved around the work of Helen
MacInnes, an immensely popular spy fiction writer who from the early 1940s through her
death in 1985 produced novels which regularly featured in the New York Times bestseller
list and sold in the millions internationally. The Princeton holdings of MacInnes' papers
include not only manuscripts but, more important for my work, correspondence, notes,
reviews and publicity for her books. The MacInnes Papers offer a sample of materials -
particularly ephemeral publicity material and unindexed reviews - which are
extraordinarily difficult to obtain without access to the kind of rich archive held at
Princeton. Since papers relating to authors of popular fiction are rarely collected and
preserved, the MacInnes Papers provide a rare insights into mass market publishing.
My aim was to use the case study of McInnes' novels to open up three research
questions. Firstly, I was interested to explore the under-researched area of twentieth
century publishers' publicity, and in particular book covers. Very little has been written
about the way that publishers advertise and publicise their books, with the work that has
been done on book covers emerging primarily from art and design history, and focussing
on exceptional, creative and aesthetically rewarding covers. My hope was to use the book
covers and publishers' publicity included in the MacInnes Papers to map the changing
way in which the publishing industry marketed popular fiction in the post-war period.
Given MacInnes' origins as a Scot, her residence in the US and her world-wide audience
I also hoped to compare publishers' publicity emerging from different national contexts,
particularly the US and the UK.
Among the most interesting materials in MacInnes' scrapbooks of publicity were extracts
from the serialisation of her second book, Assignment in Brittany, in the Saturday
Evening Post. The range of illustrations used alongside the condensed text in this
serialisation, and their divergences from the covers of her novels, underscored the
importance of thinking through the material and visual qualities of publications when
attempting to understanding the meaning and consumption of popular narratives. In
particular, these images highlighted the variable and sometimes contradictory address to
gendered audiences that publishers and marketers adopted in publicising MacInnes'
My second interest during my trip to Princeton was MacInnes' British publisher from the
early 1950s, William Collins and Sons. Collins was one of Britain's largest independent
publishers during this period, yet there have been no detailed institutional histories
compiled of the organisation. The firm was particularly well known for its energetic
global sales practices, and my hope was that the MacInnes Papers would offer a case
study in Collins' use of publicity and marketing. The papers did indeed include some
very useful samples of Collins' advertising of MacInnes and book covers of British
editions, but the correspondence between MacInnes, her British publishers and her agents
was patchy, allowing me a less comprehensive view of Collins than I had hoped.
While I found less official correspondence than I expected within the MacInnes Papers,
one of my most useful discoveries was two hundred fan letters, mostly from North
American readers, responding to her earlier publications. These fan letters gave
intriguing insights into the way that the responses of fans were closely linked to the
packaging and marketing of the novels. Quite a number of writers responded to the
image of the young MacInnes used alongside interviews and reviews, some even
admitting to have written on the basis of author photos without ever having read any of
the novels! These fan letters also highlighted the gendered responses to her novels, and
the way in fantasies of travel and nostalgia for Europe were important to her readership.
A large part of my time in Princeton involved analysing the huge collection of book
reviews compiled in MacInnes' scrapbooks and folders. These reviews provided insights
into the strategies used by MacInnes' US and UK publishers' to promote her work, and
also offer exemplary readings of the novels that I argue play an important role in shaping
the reception of the books. Again, these reviews, and particularly those in US
newspapers, highlighted the role of book covers and associated visual material used to
promote the books in shaping reception of the books. One intriguing thematic bringing
together reviews, book covers and fan letters was the iconography of the mountains, and
the associated description of MacInnes' work as clean and elevated in tone.
My final interest in the MacInnes' Papers was to search for evidence that MacInnes, her
publishers, reviewers and readers saw MacInnes' novels as linked to the booming post-
war tourist industry. The Papers provided me with overwhelming evidence to support
this claim. Prior to my visit to Princeton I had uncovered correspondence between
MacInnes and Billy Collins in which the publisher encouraged the author to set her
novels in European tourist destinations to promote sales. I found similar correspondence
between MacInnes and her US publisher, Harcourt Brace and World.
One particularly overt example of the linkages between MacInnes' novels and the
European tourist industry was a mutually complimentary exchange of letters between
MacInnes and the director of the Swiss Tourist Bureau. More systematic evidence for
this link can be found in the way reviews from the late 1950s began to see describe
MacInnes' novels as travel guides, 'Baedeckers' or travelogues. To my surprise, this
view of the novels emerged earlier and more prominently in North American reviews of
the novels than in British reviews.
The research I undertook has Princeton has already proved to be immensely useful to
several current projects, including a colloquium which I coordinated on popular fiction
and tourism and the development of an edited collection entitled 'Judging a Book by its
Cover.' My research on Collins has been presented at the twenty first annual British Book
Trade History conference in Edinburgh and is to be reproduced in the Print Networks
series, published by Oak Knoll Press and the British Library. I am very grateful for the
financial assistance of the Friends of the Princeton University Library which has enabled
me to undertake this research, and to the generous (and ongoing) help of the staff at the
Rare Books and Special Collections.