THE GREAT AMERICAN PAPERBACK: An Illustrated Tribute to the Legends of the Book.

THE GREAT AMERICAN PAPERBACK: An Illustrated Tribute to the Legends of the Book.

Paul Maliszewski

By Richard A. Lupoff. Collectors Press. 320 pp. $60

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4m 10sec

THE GREAT AMERICAN PAPERBACK: An Illustrated Tribute to the Legends of the Book.

By Richard A. Lupoff. Collectors Press. 320 pp. $60

Mass-market paperback publishing in America got off to a rousing third or fourth start with the debut of Pocket Books in 1939. During the 19th century and then in the 1920s and 1930s, several companies had been drawn to the paperback’s promise of lower costs and higher profits, but they could never sustain their operations. Here, Lupoff, a historian of mass culture and the author of a book on Edgar Rice Burroughs, pays lavish, full-color tribute to the companies that finally made a go of it.

While the publishers’ stories have been told more comprehensively elsewhere— Thomas Bonn’s Under Cover (1982), Kenneth Davis’s Two-Bit Culture (1984), and Piet Schreuders’s Paperbacks, U.S.A. (1981)—Lupoff delivers a sure-footed overview of the history along with more than 400 reproductions of vintage covers. He has also identified most of the uncredited artists who painted the covers, a boon for paperback collectors who are interested principally in the campy, sometimes risqué, but often just silly artwork.

Why did Pocket and others succeed where their predecessors had failed? According to John Tebbel’s magnificent four-volume History of Book Publishing in the United States (1972–81), Pocket combined the advantages of uniform size and price with enticing color covers, inexpensive paper, rotary printing (the technology first used to print newspapers on continuous rolls of paper), and—this is the key—a distribution system that treated books like magazines. Pocket allied with newspaper and periodical wholesale outfits, which placed the new paperbacks in drugstores, smoke shops, fiveand-dimes, newsstands, train stations, and, of course, bookstores. No longer, the company promised, would readers be forced to "dawdle idly in reception rooms, fret on train or bus rides, sit vacantly at a restaurant table."

The first Pocket Books were a shrewd mix: a few classics (Shakespeare, Samuel Butler, and Emily Brontë), a self-help book (Wake Up and Live!), an Agatha Christie mystery, Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Bridge of San Luis Rey, a volume of Dorothy Parker’s poetry, and, rounding out this selection of something for everyone, Bambi. Initially staffed by two people working out of a windowless office, Pocket started distributing in New York City and within a month branched out to most large cities. Within three months, the firm had sold half a million copies of its first 10 books. Shakespeare was the dog that didn’t have his day—"a 574-page loss leader," writes Tebbel—and Wuthering Heights was the top seller, owing not to the reading public’s jones for Brontë but to the recent Laurence Olivier movie.

Within a few years, American paperback publishing houses were quickly and cheaply printing, widely distributing, and steadily selling titles both high and low, new and old. Lupoff sticks mostly with the low and the new. He calls Reform School Girl, whose cover features a tall, blonde woman in a scarlet teddy smoking a cigarette while leaning over to undo her garter straps, "an icon to paperback collectors," whereas Moby-Dick, "masterpiece though it is and despite its many paperback editions, has had no great bearing on paperback publishing history."

High and low, though, is a distinction the publishers themselves didn’t draw. In 1950, Signet published Mickey Spillane’s My Gun Is Quick and Vengeance Is Mine! as well as Vladimir Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark. Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy was sold from spinner racks alongside Horace McCoy’s Kiss Tomorrow Good-Bye ("Love as hot as a blow torch ...crime as vicious as the jungle").

These books were available for one-tenth the price of a hardcover book. Widely available, too: Bonn describes how readers in Columbus, Ohio, in 1941, could buy hardcover books from six places, while a Pocket Book could be theirs at any one of 224 outlets, for a quarter. It’s easy to assume that the paperback revolution was all about campy artwork and cheesy come-ons, but to pay attention mostly to the covers, as astonishing as some of them are, is to ignore the social impact of an innovation that made writing available widely and cheaply.

Today’s mass-market paperbacks are not as inexpensive, even adjusting for inflation; they require more than an hour’s work at minimum wage, the early standard for pricing. Neither are they available as widely. Fewer classics and newer books of value are published in the format. With the advent of Vintage paperbacks in the early 1980s, most serious paperbacks, both fiction and nonfiction, began appearing in larger, pricier trade editions. Probably never again will a prospective reader, someone looking for a book, just something to pass the time, be lucky enough to stand within arm’s reach of both a Nabokov and a Spillane.

—Paul Maliszewski


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