A Brief History of Paperback Books
It's a good bet that any book that
you can think of is now available in paperback form. Not just at bookstores, but
airports, supermarkets, drugstores, and a variety of other retail outlets. It
will cost you less than a movie and entertain you longer. You can lend it, sell
it, re-read it, or stick it in your pocket or purse and take it wherever you go.
Paperbacks are read at coffee breaks, lunch breaks and relieve the commute
boredom for those on trains, planes, and (unfortunately) automobiles.
Paperbacks had come and gone several times through American history before their virtues were fully appreciated as they are today. As early as colonial times, sermons were often tucked between paper covers, and by 1800; all 190 entries in the "British Poets" series were similarly paperbound. The Boston Society for the Diffusion of Knowledge started its paperback line in 1831 with such mundane titles as 'Discourse Delivered before the Boston Mechanics Institute.' Wow, is it surprising that this rather lofty endeavor failed? In an early effort to circumvent postal rates for books, unbound volumes of all sorts were stuffed between newspaper pages. For a brief time after the Civil War garish "dime novels" were wildly popular.
After paper prices declined in the 1870's, Americans were deluged with cheap editions pirated from British publishers, and by 1885 there were over 5,000 paperback titles in print. With the advent of the international copyright law in 1891 most publishers decided against paperbacks for more honest work.
In 1935 paperbacks made a comeback in England with the launching of the Penguin line, and four years later Robert de Graff, a New York publisher, started Pocket Books. Most publishers saw little threat from these upstart paperbacks and thus de Graff and others were able to obtain reprint rights to hardcover volumes for next to nothing. Among his first ten titles was the industry's first movie tie in. 'Wuthering Heights' was released simultaneously with Laurence Oliver's film. These were soon followed by the 1935 best seller 'Lost Horizons', Agatha Christie's 'The Murder of Roger Ackroyd', Shakespeare's 'Five Great Tragedies', and 'Bambi.'
Production costs were held down with large print runs and cheap glued-on binding. Each Pocket Book, complete with the Kangaroo logo, could consequently be priced at a bargain 25 cents. Even more important was de Graff's innovative distribution system, which placed his paperbacks through magazine wholesalers giving him access to drugstore, newsstands, variety stores, and bus and train stations throughout the country. The days of a special trip to the bookstore for reading material were over.
The publishing industry was astonished at the popularity of Pocket Books, as they practically sold themselves and helped to popularize reading in the United States. Indeed, the self-help classic, 'How to Win Friends and Influence People', became the company's first million seller. Interestingly enough, Dale Carnegie's hard cover edition sold equally well at bookstores for $1.96, demonstrating the existence of two distinct readerships. De Graff's books sold so well that for years to come all paperbacks were referred to as "pocket books."
Penguin, with an American office opened in 1939 by Ian Ballantine, was the foremost among Pocket Books' competitors with imported British Penguin paperbacks. With paper rationed during World War II and hardcover books suffering, several other publishers entered the paperback arena, led by Avon in 1941, Popular library in '42, and Dell in '43. Ballantine switched from importer to publisher when his British supply was interrupted and started illustrating the formerly all type covers. After being accused of perpetrating vulgarity by Penguin's founder, Ballantine quit, established Bantam Books, and chose a red rooster as his logo. In 1946 Bantam issued a dazzling list that featured 'The Great Gatsby', 'The Grapes of Wrath', and 'What Makes Sammy Run?'
Pocket Books was also looking for more business in 1945 when it came out with the first "instant" book, which were written specifically to be published in newspapers. 'FDR: A Memorial' was issued just days after the president's death, and 'The Atomic Age Opens' were issued within weeks of the bombing of Hiroshima. As well as these sold; neither approached the impact of Dr. Spocks' 'The Pocket Book of Baby and Child Care.'
More publishers soon jumped into the paperback game. Names like Signet, Mentor, Fawcett, Crest, Ace, Pyramid, and Berkeley became commonplace and are still popular. Try as they did, none of the paperback publishing houses could hold the line on postwar inflation. The retail price of the books began to creep up in nickel and dime increments despite the economies of large runs, offset typesetting, and low promotional costs.
During the late 40's and 50', as paperbacks competed with magazines on the racks they shared, publishers soon found that sex sold best. Cleavage first appeared on the cover of Bantam's 'Little Women.' The typical steamy blurb on the cover of 'The Web of Days' read: "Seductive as Scarlett - Ambitious as Amber - She was a match for the Devil himself." Ignored in hardcover, Mickey Spillane's notorious 1947 book 'I, The Jury' sold 2 million in paperback. A Congressional committee threatened censorship and cited the industry's preoccupation with the three S's -- "sex, sadism and the smoking gun."
Sensationalism gradually gave way to respectability in the form of the "quality" paperback, with a literary line aimed at the postwar college educated population. Featuring tasteful covers and superior printing and binding, quality paperbacks were carried at bookstores and fetched 65 cents or more. Paperbacks were easily outselling hardcovers by the 1960s. Demanded as textbooks by colleges, the paperback bookstore was born and the dollar price barrier was broken. In 1963 it was reported that 21,000 paperbacks were in print. Consumer Reports remarked, "all in all, it is an impressive list. By buying only paperbacks the reader could amass an excellent inventory of world literature at moderate cost."
Unfortunately, in the '70s "blockbuster mania" struck. Everything suddenly expanded too fast, and for reasons inexplicable to paperback publishers, reprint rights for even mediocre books commanded millions of dollars. In addition, they would sell only if backed by millions of promotional dollars, which most popular publishers didn't have. More and more publishers were either being bought by multi-media corporations or merged with other existing publishers.
In the 1980's high quality fiction appeared as paperback originals and by 1985 there were over 250,000 titles in paperback, with the average price up to $3.50. As you well know, the 25-cent paperback is long gone, and the average rack price is now running between six and nine dollars.