I’m going to . . . take a look at the bigger picture that helped to shape the science fiction genre by looking at one of the biggest innovations to change publishing: the introduction of the mass market paperback novel.
Up to around the late 1940s, just about all of science fiction could be found on the magazine racks. Magazines, such as Argosy, Weird Tales, Amazing Stories, Astounding Science Fiction, and countless others graced newsstands with their brightly colored, provocative covers. There were some exceptions: Edgar Rice Burroughs had financed the print runs of collected editions of his novels, but this was a rare exception. Science fiction novels really didn’t exist.
Neither did the bookstore, at least in terms of how they are structured today. Prior to the 1950s, books were sold through independent bookstores, which sold books in limited numbers, according to John B. Thompson in his book Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century, “the bookstores tended to cater to an educated and cultivated clientele—the so-called ‘carriage trade.’ ” These stores were frequently located only in major cities, and largely focused on books as upscale commodities for a consumer base which could afford such luxuries. Science Fiction pulps weren’t sold through bookstores, nor were other genres like Westerns, Mysteries and Romances. The magazines carried with them a certain stigma, to the point where people were afraid to be seen with them.
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In 1935, a new innovation in publishing began to change everything: the Penguin paperback book. English publisher Allen Lane found himself waiting on a train platform, where he found little to read beyond magazines and poor-quality reprinted novels. He believed that there would be a market for a line of high quality paperback novels and nonfiction, sold in places where books weren’t typically sold. Once he returned home, he and his partners began to plan out a new imprint to publish paperbacks. They hit the streets, looking to sell their product to the unconventional locations, eventually landing a contract with Woolworth’s, a major department store.
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What set Lane’s Penguin books apart was different from the style of cover: It was the price and distribution that ultimately allowed his books to sell in vast numbers. The line grew immensely, allowing Penguin Books to become even more successful, and the low cost of the paperbacks required Lane to print in huge volumes—hundreds of thousands of copies. As World War II began to restrict paper supplies in England, Penguin was granted larger paper rations and managed to survive as its competitors floundered, unable to meet demand or compete.
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The paperback novel concept didn’t remain within the U.K.: In 1939, it came to the United States when publisher Robert De Graff founded Pocket Books in partnership with hardcover publisher Simon & Schuster. He took out a full page ad in the New York Times on June 19, 1939, proclaiming that his new line of books would “Transform New York’s reading habits.” Like Lane, de Graff bypassed traditional bookstores and went to magazine distributors who already had the network and infrastructure in place to put books in drug stores, newsstands, grocery stores and numerous other locations. De Graff’s paperbacks were cheap. Compared to hardcovers, which sold at $2.75 ($46.72 in 2014 dollars), a Pocket Book would sold for merely a quarter ($4.25 in today’s dollars, well under the current price for a mass market paperback).
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De Graff’s secret to success came not in the content which was available, but for his ruthless cost-cutting. He sought out reprint rights from hardcover novels, which publishers gave him for next to nothing, believing that this venture would have little impact on their own hardcover lines, all the while he planned massive print runs to bring the cost of each copy down to an unimaginably low price.
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The major publisher’s perception that their products were only valued by the wealthy was a self-fulfilling idea: The masses didn’t buy hardcover books, while the wealthy did. However, hardcovers were expensive and out of reach for most Americans, especially at the end of the Great Depression, and thus only available to those with money. Pulp magazines, a refuge for science-fiction stories, which were bought in larger quantities by the poor and middle classes in America, were largely thought to be of lesser quality, in terms of the physical book, but also that of the content. Now, with an outlet for cheap books, the American public came out in droves to purchase them.
Link to the rest at Kirkus