How Paperbacks Transformed the Way Americans Read

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How Paperbacks Transformed the Way Americans Read

Starting in 1939, paperback publishers revolutionized publishing. They slashed costs by ramping up volume, selling in bus stations and newsstands. And they splashed covers with bold, sometimes lurid art.

If paperbacks were going to succeed in America, they would need a new model. [Pocket Books publisher Robert] De Graff, for his part, was well acquainted with the economics of books. He knew that printing costs were high because volumes were low—an average hardcover print run of 10,000 might cost 40 cents per copy. With only 500 bookstores in the U.S., most located in major cities, low demand was baked into the equation.

In the U.K., things were different. There, four years prior, Penguin Books founder Allen Lane had started publishing popular titles with paper bindings and distributed them in train stations and department stores. In his first year of operation, Lane sold more than three million “mass-market” paperbacks.

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.

“The general intention of our covers is to attract Americans, who, more elementary than the Britishers, are schooled from infancy to disdain even the best product unless it is smoothly packaged and merchandised,” Penguin’s Victor Weybright said.

Pocket Books pioneered the business, but soon faced competition, including hardcover publisher Random House, which became eager to get into the business when Graff tried to talk them out of it. Random House president Bennett Cerf said, “When Bob came as a ‘friend’ to give us a talk about why we shouldn’t go into the business, we figured it must be a damned good idea.” Random House was one of the investors in Bantam Books.

This is all echoed in ebooks and indy publishing today, of course. Even after paperbacks became popular, it took years for them to lose their stigma of disreputability. And in a warning to those expecting an overnight revolution from ebooks – paperbacks took 21 years to outsell hardcovers.

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