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A Tale of Book Industry Transformation

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A Tale of Book Industry Transformation

by Judith Appelbaum

Publishers are in an uproar about a new format. It offers books at significantly lower prices, makes them much easier to get, and seems likely to play havoc with hardcover sales. Amid generally dire predictions, book-business professionals are struggling to prepare for a future that’s clearly going to differ from the past and is otherwise far from clear.

But wait. The year is 1939. The new format is the paperback. And we know what happened next.

Are the patterns of the past going to repeat? You’re invited to use what follows to draw your own conclusions.

In the Beginning

For an authoritative picture of those patterns, I turned to Kenneth C. Davis. The author of Don’t Know Much About History and other bestsellers in that series, Davis also wrote Two-Bit Culture: The Paperbacking of America. He began the lengthy conversation we had recently by pointing out that “books were rare luxury items” before paperbacks came along.

A study done around the time Pocket Books paperbacks were born found that America had about 500 bookstores, most of them in large cities and most of them serving the so-called carriage trade. Books were sold in department stores too, and via book clubs such as Book-of-the-Month, whose initial offering was in fact one book per month.

“Into this circumscribed and small book world came the Pocket Books idea,” Davis explains: Take the distribution mechanism used by magazine and newspaper publishers, “put books into places where they’d never been before,” and offer them at one low price—25 cents.

All of a sudden, Pocket Books, a startup, was making books available in tens of thousands of outlets instead of hundreds. You could buy them in drugstores, chain stores. train stations, bus terminals, 5-and-10-cent stores, luncheonettes, and stationery stores, among other places. The success of the first Pocket Books list—10 works of fiction, including some genre books, a Shakespeare collection, and James Hilton’s Lost Horizon—was “electrifying, astonishing, instant.” By the spring of 1941, the company had sold 8.5 million units.

Responses varied among America’s handful of established book publishers. Simon & Schuster, a Pocket Books partner, had plenty of reasons to be pleased. Some houses saw danger. The paperback, they predicted, would mean the end of publishing as it was known. With distribution channels that entailed returns, reliance on reprints, and control over title selection and shelf life, it seemed all too likely that editing and great literature would go the way of the dodo. Hardcover books were sure to suffer, and before long nothing but trash would be published.

But some houses decided they wanted a piece of the action, even if they had to hold their noses while dealing with the “rag trade.”

There were at least two ways to get that: Start a paperback house, or sell rights in your books to one or more of them. A group led by Random House created Bantam Books. Players from the magazine world started Dell and Avon. Reprint rights sales became the norm before long. And as transactions burgeoned, secretaries at hardcover houses, who had generally been assigned to handle rights, became prime revenue producers and morphed into rights directors.

Price Points

As Joann Davis points out, the phenomenon of paperback rights sales was one of those “new elements coming into the equation” that publishers—and others—often forget to allow for as they attempt to foretell the future. Another unexpected development: new companies coming from the magazine industry. And the list surely doesn’t end there.

A publishing veteran who has worked at Publishers Weekly, Warner, Morrow, and HarperCollins, Joann Davis stressed the role of unanticipated developments as she talked with her husband and me. “We like our formulas because they work,” she says, “but we don’t know what else will work.”

One apparently fixed formula governed paperback pricing: 10 to 1. Paying a quarter—i.e., roughly a tenth of the cost of a hardcover—clearly appealed to book buyers, and the presumption was that people wouldn’t pay more. While the formula held, longer books couldn’t be published in paperback unless they were abridged.

Predictably, the first house to experiment with breaking the price barrier was Pocket Books. It raised the price of Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care to 35 cents, and so many people were happy to pay the extra dime—a 40 percent hike—that it became the second-best-selling book in American history, trailing only the Bible.

In the beginning, of course, paperback publishers could draw on an enormous backlog of titles. Over time, they found they needed to regularly satisfy demand for recent bestsellers. Competing for these books with four other major reprinters, NAL won the right to reprint James Jones’s From Here to Eternity for $100,000, which, Ken Davis notes, was an astonishing figure. And the house—creator of the “complete and unabridged” 50-cent Signet Doubles—published it as an early “Triple Volume” priced at 75 cents.

And What About Windowing?

As standard practices developed, a year became the normal interval between the publication of a hardcover book and the publication of its paperback edition. And for quite a while, an unwritten rule said the hardcover had to come first, as the story of Baby and Child Care shows.

Although it was Pocket Books that commissioned the book, it was Duell, Sloan & Pearce, a publisher few will remember, that published it first, in hardcover, Pocket having arranged for that edition in the interests of credibility.

Then as now, lag time seemed likely to protect hardcover sales. But would a paperback edition kill the sales of a hardcover? Traditionalists in the industry certainly thought so, Ken Davis recalls, but Pocket Books and Simon & Schuster decided to test the theory with Dale Carnegie’s S&S bestseller How to Win Friends and Influence People. Published in hardcover in 1936, it “very quickly topped the extraordinary million-seller mark,” and it was still selling roughly 800 copies a week, priced at $1.96, when Pocket Books tested a 25-cent edition.

The Pocket Books test was restricted to Texas, then considered a poor location for books, and the Carnegie paperback sold 34,000 copies there in two months without hurting hardcover sales. Convinced that predictions of cannibalization were wrong and that hardcover and paperback editions could profitably coexist, Simon & Schuster okayed national release for the two-bits version, which then sold 700,000 copies within six months.

This Way to an Expanded Market

Whatever their predictions about what paperbacks would do to the book business, industry professionals were generally amazed by the amount of money they brought in, which transformed “the economic landscape of publishing.” For obvious reasons, as Davis notes, the paperback houses began asking themselves not only why they couldn’t publish hardcovers too but also why they couldn’t buy some hardcover houses.

It was the “beginning of integration,” he says. This process featured “the advent and explosiveness of the trade paperback,” an innovation “no one saw coming,” and the first incarnations of what Oscar Dystel, head of Bantam Books, dubbed the mass market hardcover. Eventually, as we know, it led to a book business in which all publishers can make books available in a variety of print-on-paper and e-formats, and retailers of many different sorts can sell some, most, or all of the editions.

“At every stage along the way, there have always been people who say, You can’t do that,” Davis observes, looking back over the history of book publishing. But he is quick to add that there have also always been “visionary publishers who say, Why not? And then try.”

Although “experimentation doesn’t always work,” the Pocket Books experiment with new format, new price points, and new distribution channels “actually gave publishers an extraordinarily expanded market.” Paperbacks moved books “from outlets numbering in the hundreds to outlets numbering in the tens of thousands overnight,” and “the older, hardcover format got healthier.”

So, like many good stories, this tale of book-business transformation has a happy ending. “Dramatically revolutionary in impact,” the softcover book provided what one paperback house called “good reading for the millions.” Instead of suffering because more players were dividing the pie, publishers found themselves with “a much bigger pie” to share.

Judith Appelbaum, the editor of the IBPA Independent, is the author of How to Get Happily Published and the managing director of Sensible Solutions, Inc. She covered paperbacks when she wrote the “Paperback Talk” column for the New York Times Book Review and focused on them in one of the big-picture special reports she created as the managing editor of Publishers Weekly. To reach her, email judithappelbaum@aol.com.



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