When Pocket Books introduced the paperback to American consumers in 1939, book publishing changed forever. Paperbacks did more than make books affordable to a mass audience; they made books available to readers who did not live near book stores, they helped popularize genre fiction, they turned otherwise obscure writers into best-selling authors, and they ensured a lasting existence for hardback books that went into paperback.
Although there had been many earlier attempts to publish books with paper covers, the modern paperback book can be traced to Tauchnitz Books, a German publisher who began issuing paperbound books in 1841. Tauchnitz published English language editions of American and English books, primarily in non-English speaking European countries, assuming that there were enough American and British expatriates as well as Europeans fluent in English to establish a market for inexpensive English language books on the continent. Tauchnitz attempted to publish only the best literature and voluntarily paid royalties to its English and American writers at a time when most European publishers did not, so it was both flattering and financially rewarding to be chosen for publication by Tauchnitz. Perhaps what is most striking about Tauchnitz books is their complete lack of color or decoration; in contrast with American paperbacks, Tauchnitz book covers carried no illustration, only bearing the title and author in black letters against an off-white background.
For 90 years Tauchnitz had the European paperback market to itself. Its primary competitor, Albatross, emerged in 1931. Albatross was founded by German and English publishers; the name Albatross was chosen because that word is the same in nearly every major European language and therefore the company name would need no translation. Albatross brought one major innovation to the paperback market; it color-coded its books, so that one could determine the book's subject matter merely by glancing at the cover: blue books were love stories, red books were crime novels, and so forth. In 1934 Albatross bought out Tauchnitz and the two houses continued to publish until the outbreak of World War II. Meanwhile, an English paperback publisher, Penguin, largely adopted Albatross's book's appearance for its own publications, using a Penguin as its company logo and color-coding its books as well. All Penguin paperbacks were either orange or green in the 1990s.
Robert de Graff brought the paperback to America in 1939. De Graff had worked in book publishing for 14 years and was convinced that there was a market for inexpensive books in the United States. He said he got the idea of selling books for 25 cents when he was driving to work one day, stopped to pay a quarter at a tollbooth and realized that "Nobody misses a quarter." He named his new company Pocket Books because the books were small enough to fit into one's pants pocket; at six and one half inches high and four and one quarter inches wide, the books were one quarter of an inch shorter than paperbacks.
De Graff faced two key obstacles in the development and marketing of the paperback book. He was determined to keep the price to 25 cents, but experts estimated that it would cost a minimum of 27 cents to produce and distribute the books. De Graff dealt with that issue by lowering author's royalty rates and by using cheaper paper, which is why the paperback has always had a reputation of being "cheaper" than the hardback book, in terms of quality as well as price. The second problem was a lack of cooperation from book publishers, who were reluctant to sell paperback rights to Pocket Books, fearing that potentials buyers would wait and buy the less expensive version. To prove that paperbacks would not harm the sales of hardback books, De Graff arranged for a test marketing in Texas of Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People. When the paperback sold well and sales of the hardback book remained steady, publishers realized that the two formats could co-exist. Eventually it became standard practice to delay the release of a paperback edition for a year or more after the hardback was published.
Pocket Books was launched in June of 1939. Ten titles were published, with a print run of 10,000 copies per title. The selected titles ranged from classics such as The Way of All Flesh to popular literature such as Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. The initial print run sold out in one week, the first indication de Graff had that his new company might be a big success. By the end of the year Pocket Books had sold 1.5 million books. The success of the new paperback format can be attributed to many things. Before the books were printed, De Graff had the edges of the paper dyed red, so that they stood out on a bookrack. He had also insisted that his books be grouped by subject matter, rather than simply divided into fiction and non-fiction, so that a person looking for one specific mystery novel, for example, might see several such novels grouped together and buy two or more. He even insisted that the company's recognizable trademark/mascot, a kangaroo named Gertrude (kangaroos have pockets), had a great deal to do with the company's success. But the most important factor in the success of Pocket Books was distribution. De Graff had managed to have his paperbacks sold in many, many more stores than those who sold hardback books; one estimate was that there were 40 stores carrying paperbacks for every one carrying hardbacks in the United States. Pocket Books were not just available in bookstores; they could be purchased in grocery stores, pharmacies, and candy stores, at bus stations, airports, and train terminals, through Sears, Roebuck and Spiegel catalogs—and at a price of 25 cents. What De Graf had done was make book purchasing an impulse buy, like a candy bar or a pack of gum.
Pocket Books' success did not go unnoticed by the publishing industry and several competitors emerged in 1941. The most successful was Avon Books, which imitated Pocket Books format slavishly. Avon adopted the same dimensions as Pocket Books, also dyed its pages red on the edge, used a bust of Shakespeare as a trademark and originally called its products Avon Pocket-Size Books. Pocket Books sued; eventually Avon dropped the word Pocket-Size from its cover but retained the logo, the red-trimmed pages, and the size.
When America entered World War II it became difficult for either Pocket Books or Avon to obtain as much paper as they needed to meet the demand for paperbacks and the war did substantial damage to the industry—at least in the short term. In the long term, it might have been the best thing that ever happened to paperbacks. During the war Avon, Pocket Books, and Penguin all printed military editions under the auspices of the Council on Books in Wartime, a government organization. These books were given free to servicemen during the war. Military editions were of different size and shape from the regular paperback; wider than they were tall, approximately five and a half inches across but only three and three-quarter inches high, the books could easily be slid into a shirt pocket if a soldier under attack suddenly had to put away his book. The military editions were extremely popular with American G.I.s and helped create a strong market for paperbacks in post-war America; not only did most of the returning soldiers who had read military editions overseas continue to buy and read paperback books, but many recommended them to their family and friends as well.
In 1943 two more publishers entered the paperback market, Dell and Popular Library. Both companies were founded by magazine publishers and therefore were even more attuned to the popular tastes of the American public than was Pocket Books. Dell's most noteworthy contribution to the paperback format was the "map book"—on the back cover of many Dell paperbacks was a map of the setting of the novel to help readers who might otherwise get confused. Bantam Books, like Avon, closely followed the Pocket Books model of red pages, small size, and mascot, a bantam rooster in this case. Bantam was founded in 1945 by Ian Ballantine, a former Penguin editor who went on to found another company, Ballantine, in 1952. New American Library, also founded by former Penguin editors, was established in 1947. NAL, with its Signet and Mentor imprints, soon developed a reputation as the most literary paperback house, publishing William Faulkner and D.H. Lawrence, among others.
The paperback industry changed again in 1950 with the founding of Fawcett Books, certainly the most influential publisher of paperbacks since Pocket Books and arguably the most important publisher in the history of the paperback. Like Dell and Popular Library, Fawcett had published magazines before entering the paperback market and had in fact distributed paperbacks for other companies along with its magazines. Fawcett wanted to enter into paperback publishing, but was contractually bound from producing paperback reprints of hard cover books. So Fawcett by necessity created what was to be the key market innovation of the paperback industry—the paperback original. Fawcett's Gold Medal line published not reprints of earlier works but brand new novels. This was particularly appealing to customers at the time; many publishers changed the titles of books when putting them into paperback so that buyers frequently got home with books they had already read, but Gold Medal novels guaranteed that would not happen. Each Gold Medal book concluded with this phrase: "The End of an Original Gold Medal Novel. The Gold Medal Seal on this book means it has never been published as a book before. To select an original book that you have not already read, look for the Gold Medal seal."
Fawcett attracted better authors than might have been expected from a paperback house; Kurt Vonnegut, John D. MacDonald, Jim Thompson, and Lawrence Block are among the authors who published early works with Gold Medal. The company paid one thousand dollars upon delivery of a manuscript, which meant writers did not have to wait to collect royalties, and a bonus if the book went into reprints. Fawcett also had a genuinely talented editor, Knox Burger, heading up its paperback line. Gold Medal targeted male readers; their books were mostly crime and western novels with titles such as Second-Hand Nude or River Girl, and their covers were lewd and lurid even by the standards of the paperback industry. They were also very successful and inspired a host of imitators. Dell quickly introduced its line of First Editions and other paperback houses started issuing original novels. New publishers appeared as well, somewhat more disreputable than the older publishers and willing to go even further than Fawcett in using sex and violence to attract a male audience. Paperback houses such as Midwood and Beeline produced hundreds of trashy sex novels, not quite soft-core pornography, in the 1950s. The paperback original boosted sales of softcover books so much that publishers today refer to the "paperback boom" of the 1950s. Ironically, the success of its Gold Medal line led Fawcett eventually to create a reprint line, Crest; the company has published Gold Medal books very infrequently since the early 1980s.
The overt sexual nature of many of the paperbacks published in the early 1950s eventually resulted in the threat of censorship. In 1952 the House of Representatives Select Committee on Current Pornographic Materials began an investigation of the paperback book industry. One representative referred to the three S's of paperbacks: "sex, sadism and the smoking gun." Gold Medal was under particular scrutiny by the Committee, due in part to the lesbian novels the company published. The Committee never made any official move to censor, but the industry did began to restrict the sexual content of paperbacks, with many books actually recalled and reissued with new covers. Furthermore, censorship attempts occurred at state and local levels throughout the 1950s.
Few major paperback publishers emerged after Fawcett. Ace, founded in 1952, added its own market innovation with the double novel—after completing an Ace paperback, readers could turn it over and find another entire (though usually very brief) novel. Harlequin, a Canadian publisher founded in 1949, began publishing its highly successful line of romance books in 1964. In 1969 Pinnacle was founded by former 1950s publishers of "adult" paperbacks. Pinnacle specialized in the "series" novel, books with recurring characters that even included numbers on each new novel so that customers could easily collect an entire series. Pinnacle's most successful characters were the Executioner and the Destroyer; the former was a Vietnam veteran turned vigilante and the latter was a former police officer, who worked for a highly secret government agency. The series novel dominated the 1970s, with westerns, military adventures, and martial arts stories being particularly popular. Finally, DAW books became in the 1970s the first paperback house to specialize in one genre; founded by respected editor and author Donald A. Wollheim, the company published science fiction only.
Other trends developed in the 1970s and 1980s. The relative speed with which a paperback could be published resulted in the "instant" book, a quickly produced volume that discusses a current political or social event. The O.J. Simpson trial, Operation Desert Shield, and the Monica Lewinsky scandal all generated instant books, and there have been instant biographies of stars whose fame seemed destined to be short-lived, such as the Spice Girls and Vanilla Ice. The novelization is a book that is based upon a movie or television program, rather than the other way around. Novelizations of all sorts of TV shows and motion pictures were common in the 1970s and at least one, the novel version of Jaws 2, actually achieved bestseller status. By the 1980s, novelizations in the science fiction genre were most common and hundreds of Dr. Who and Star Trek novels have been written, many featuring original adventures of the characters.
The trade paperback, also called the quality paperback and the oversized paperback, has been in existence at least since 1953, when Doubleday introduced its series of Anchor Books, but has enjoyed its greatest success in the 1980s and 1990s. Trade paperbacks are substantially larger than the regular paperback book, now referred to as the "mass market" book. They are almost as large as a standard hard cover book and cost about one half as much. Trade paperbacks seem to have a cachet of respectability that regular paperback novels were never able to acquire and there is undeniably a certain amount of "snob appeal" involved in the publication of a book in a trade edition.
In the 1990s consolidation of publishers left only a handful of companies producing most of the paperback books in America. Prices have risen considerably from de Graf's 25 cents, and six-and seven-dollar paperbacks have become standard. A great emphasis, especially among mass market publishers, is placed on "category fiction"—novels that can be placed into easily identifiable genres, such as science fiction, westerns, courtroom thrillers, or historical novels. There are fewer original novels published in paper.
The paperback book has played an enormous role in the development of literature in contemporary America. Authors as disparate as J.R.R. Tolkien, Benjamin Spock, Louis L'Amour, and Mickey Spillane all reached mass audiences through the paperback medium. The paperback has been a ubiquitous part of our lives; since the first Pocket Books appeared in 1939, almost anybody in America, living anywhere, has been able to walk into a local store and find a wire rack filled with paperback books.
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O'Brien, Geoffrey. Hardboiled America. New York, Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1980.
Petersen, Clarence. The Bantam Story: Twenty-Five Years of Paperback Publishing. New York, Bantam, 1970.
Server, Lee. Over My Dead Body. San Francisco, Chronicle, 1984.