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Our 50 Years of Two-Bit Culture

June 15, 1989|JOCELYN McCLURG | The Hartford Courant

Color television, the Pill and the paperback: three products that have revolutionized Americans' lives in the past 50 years, according to Consumer Reports.

The paperback?

You bet. That pocket-size convenience once cost a quarter and made readers out of a nation.

It was a revolution fueled by:

--Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People," Pocket Books' first million-copy-selling paperback.

--The publication in paper of Dr. Spock's "Baby and Child Care," which has sold more than 33 million copies for Pocket Books.

--Ground-breaking or record-shattering paperbacks such as John Hersey's "Hiroshima," Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique," Grace Metalious' "Peyton Place," J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye," and manuals such as "The Last Whole Earth Catalog" and "The Joy of Sex."

--The "instant" book.

First American Paperbacks

This month, Pocket Books is celebrating its 50th anniversary as America's first modern paperback publisher. For the "paperback generation," it is hard to imagine a time when readers couldn't find virtually any book they wanted in soft-cover.

And it may be equally difficult to envision an era when we were a nation of magazine readers because books were inaccessible and too expensive for most Americans.

But that was the situation in the United States during the Depression.

In his thorough 1984 history "Two-Bit Culture: The Paperbacking of America," Kenneth C. Davis sets the stage for the mass-market paperback revolution:

"Before these inexpensive, widely distributed books came along, only the rarest of books sold more than a hundred thousand copies. . . . Bookstores were for the elite 'carriage trade' of sophisticates, mostly in big cities; public libraries, few and far between, were not much better. Overnight, the paperback changed that. Suddenly, a book could reach not hundreds or thousands of readers but millions, many of whom had never owned a book before. Universally priced at 25 cents in its early years, the paperback democratized reading in America."

Paperbacks had been published in America since Colonial times, Davis writes, but they had never been successful the way European paperbacks had been. Across the Atlantic, one of the big success stories was Penguin Books, a paperback publisher founded in 1935 in Britain.

An American publisher named Robert de Graff was impressed by Penguin Books and believed America was ready for a convenient, inexpensive way to read. He planned to succeed where others failed by reducing costs (slashing royalties and reducing discounts to dealers) and increasing volume. De Graff took his idea for Pocket Books to Richard Simon of Simon & Schuster; a partnership was struck, with de Graff retaining a 51% share.

Variety of Titles

On June 19, 1939, in New York, Pocket Books published 10 diverse titles, all for 25 cents, or "two bits," and all reprints. They were: "Lost Horizon" by James Hilton, "Wake Up and Live" by Dorothea Brande, "Five Great Tragedies" by Shakespeare, "Topper" by Thorne Smith, "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" by Agatha Christie, "Enough Rope" by Dorothy Parker, "Wuthering Heights" by Emily Bronte (also the first movie tie-in), "The Way of All Flesh" by Samuel Butler, "The Bridge of San Luis Rey" by Thornton Wilder and "Bambi" by Felix Salten. Only 10,000 copies of each title were printed, not nearly enough.

In its first year, Pocket Books sold 1.5 million paperbacks and could barely keep up with demand. One of the company's strokes of genius was getting newsstands to carry its portable books (which screamed "Complete and Unabridged" to doubting readers).

By the 1950s, paperback competition had become so fierce that sexy covers were vying for reader attention on the racks, earning paperbacks, for a time, a sleazy reputation. But still they sold--200 million copies in 1950. Another change came that year: a price increase. New American Library began to sell longer titles at 35 and 50 cents, Davis writes.

The price climb has continued. Today mass-market paperbacks cost $3.95 and up, and trade paperbacks often cost more than $10. As Davis notes, many paperback publishers today print hard-cover originals, and virtually every hard-cover publisher has a trade paperback imprint--a situation that has contributed to the homogenization of book publishing, he believes.

"The spirit of risk-taking and innovation that characterized the paperback revolution seems almost extinct, except in some of the smaller independent publishers," Davis writes. "The concept of 'Good Reading for the Millions' . . . has been replaced by 'Fast-Food Reading for the Millions.' "

There have been innovations in the paperback field since Davis wrote his book five years ago. Paperback originals have brought fresh young voices such as Jay McInerney to a wide audience. Just this spring, Saul Bellow decided to publish his novella "A Theft" as a Penguin paperback original because he wanted to reach more readers.

Consider that you can pick up a paperback copy of Larry McMurtry's "Lonesome Dove" or Tom Wolfe's "The Bonfire of the Vanities" for the price of lunch at McDonald's. Is that such a bad deal?

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