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Ebooks Follow The Trail Blazed By Paperback

21 August 2012

From mental_floss:

Half a century before e-books turned publishing upside down, a different format threatened to destroy the industry.

Here’s a little perspective: In 1939, gas cost 10 cents a gallon at the pump. A movie ticket set you back 20 cents. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the year’s bestselling hardcover book, was $2.75. For a nation suffering 20 percent unemployment, books were an impossible expense.

But in just one day, Robert de Graff changed that. On June 19, 1939, the tall, dynamic entrepreneur took out a bold, full-page ad in The New York Times: OUT TODAY—THE NEW POCKET BOOKS THAT MAY TRANSFORM NEW YORK’S READING HABITS.

The ad was timed to coincide with the debut of his newest endeavor, an imprint called Pocket Books. Starting with a test run of 10 titles, which included classics as well as modern hits, de Graff planned to unleash tote-able paperbacks on the American market. But it wasn’t just the softcover format that was revolutionary: De Graff was pricing his Pocket Books at a mere 25 cents.

Despite its audacity, de Graff’s ad wasn’t brazen enough for his taste. A former publishing exec who’d cut his teeth running imprints for Doubleday, de Graff wanted the ad to read THE NEW POCKET BOOKS THAT WILL TRANSFORM NEW YORK’S READING HABITS. His business partners at Simon & Schuster were less confident and forced the edit. Even though some European publishers were making waves with paperbacks—Penguin in England and Albatross in Germany—New York publishers didn’t think the cheap, flimsy books would translate to the American market.

. . . .

Quantity was key. De Graff knew that if he could print 100,000 paperbound books, production costs would plummet to 10 cents per copy. But it would be impossible for Pocket Books to turn a profit if it couldn’t reach hundreds of thousands of readers. And that would never happen as long as de Graff relied solely on bookstores for distribution. So de Graff devised a plan to get his books into places where books weren’t traditionally sold. His twist? Using magazine distributors to place Pocket Books in newsstands, subway stations, drugstores, and other outlets to reach the underserved suburban and rural populace. But if Pocket Books were going to sell, they couldn’t just stick to the highbrow. De Graff avoided the stately, color-coded covers of European paperbacks, which lacked graphics other than the publishers’ logos, and splashed colorful, eye-catching drawings on his books.

. . . .

Bantam’s impact was immediate—its initial printings were usually 200,000 copies or more. Crazier still, almost every title sold out. Each month, Bantam published four new books from the large backlist available via Grosset & Dunlap, and it had no shortage of quality titles, including The Great Gatsby and The Grapes of Wrath (now just 25 cents).

. . . .

“Successful authors are not interested in original publishing at 25 cents,” Freeman Lewis, executive vice-president of Pocket Books said. Hardcover publisher Doubleday’s LeBaron R. Barker claimed that the concept could “undermine the whole structure of publishing.” Hardcover publishers, of course, had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. They were still receiving 50 percent of the royalties by selling reprint rights.

Fawcett silenced the skeptics by selling more than nine million copies within six months. Authors did the math, and writers of genre fiction—thrillers, Westerns, and romance especially—jumped at the opportunity to write paperback originals. Still, “serious” literary writers insisted on staying in the hardcover market for the prestige, and critics in turn declined to review paperback originals. Clearly, the stigma was still there.

Link to the rest at mental_floss and thanks to Meryl for the tip.

Disruptive Innovation

9 Comments to “Ebooks Follow The Trail Blazed By Paperback”

  1. A historical reminder that helps to put things in perspective. Can always count on PG to post something I need to hear. 🙂

  2. Considering the timing…. the thing that paperbacks really shook, though, was the pulp magazine industry. Most people blame WWII – paper shortages – but the advent of affordable books had to have an impact.

    Before the advent of the pocket book, large fiction magazines thrived. “Whole novel in this issue!” Also serialized novels, shorts, jokes, anything you could want to read. DeGraff was right to have his books distributed by magazine distributors: it’s the same audience.

    But it was an invisible audience to the booksellers.

    Is there an equivalent to pulp this time? Maybe. Used books are obvious — that market is invisible to booksellers, and huge, and hungry for inexpensive books. And the internet is a major part of the selling/discovery ground.

    I also think that the internet is replacing television, and as more people use it for the written word, we are sharing more of the TV audience.

  3. I think games (video, online, board, card) also have an impact. The better ones often have entire stories forming the backbones of the game. I know in the fantasy genre, for example, there are entire manuals, maps, class descriptions, weaponry, etc. that form the references for such games. This leads to a player’s interest to delve deeper into topics and, hopefully, translates to a desire for “more than just a manual”.

  4. Historical correction: Robert de Graff was following on the success of Ian Ballantine at Penguin Books, who was publishing paperbacks in the UK in 1936. 1939 was also about the time Mr Ballantine brought Penguin books to the US. Mr de Graff convinced Simon & Schuster to compete, and the disruption was on.

  5. I remember pulps when I was a kid! Would save up to get The Shadow and also Detective Story magazine every time a new one came out. Time flies.

  6. Another thing about the pocket paperbacks is that they fitted in your pocket

    A novel might only be 50-60 000 words. I’m reading ‘Deathworld 3’ at the moment (RIP Harry Harrison) on the bus. It fits quite happily into the back pocket of my jeans. Not many modern paperbacks will do that.

    Though, of course, you can’t actually stick a (current version) kindle in your back pocket either. It really isn’t robust enough. I still think that ‘scroll’ type devices are the logical next step, ‘tablets’ are too easy to break.

    The best thing about ebooks as a form is that they’ve broken down the gate for shorter novels and novellas. Both literary forms that have been in the doldrums for decades.

  7. When I was in high school, shortly after small mammals took over the evolutionary niches left open by the extinction of dinosaurs, my English teacher refused to grade a book report (The Tide Went Out, by Charles Eric Maine) because it was a paperback original, and therefore trash.

    I don’t think she used the word trash, but she did say that good books were never paperback originals, just stuff like science fiction. I swear her lip actually curled a bit. I was instructed to find a book that had first been published in hardcover if I wanted a grade.

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