How Emily Brontë met Mickey Spillane
January 1, 2015 12:05 PM   Subscribe

Book publishers back then didn’t always have much interest in books as such. They were experts at merchandising. They manufactured a certain number of titles every year, advertised them, sold as many copies as possible, and then did it all over the next year. Sometimes a book would be reprinted and sold again. Print runs were modest and so, generally, were profits.

Then, one day, there was a revolution...
Pulp’s Big Moment
posted by Artw (9 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Then, one day, there was a revolution...Pulp’s Big Moment

They wanted to read what common people do.
posted by Going To Maine at 12:10 PM on January 1, 2015 [8 favorites]

Glastonbury 1995?

(Seriously, all of the covers described in the article sound fabulous and now many of them are in my downloads folder.)
posted by betweenthebars at 12:22 PM on January 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

That "Catcher in the Rye" is the one I pulled from my father's bookshelf and read. And he had many Anchor paperbacks with Edward Gorey covers. All of them with yellowed paper with crumbling edges. It was an interesting article and brings back memories of the hundreds of mildewed Erle Stanley Gardner paperbacks in the basement. My father was clearly a member of the target audience.
posted by acrasis at 1:07 PM on January 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

The cover of "The Private Life of Helen of Troy" wasn't pictured in the article (the paper version, anyway) so I include it here. It is pretty spectacular.
posted by acrasis at 1:13 PM on January 1, 2015 [7 favorites]

The cover of the 1950 Signet reprint

Is indeed the copy of 1984 I've got on my bookshelves.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:04 PM on January 1, 2015

But to be serious, this is missing a lot of history, frex mentioning not at all the real pulps and dime novels before them that were around long before the paperback revolution started, which had provided much of the reading done by people not able to afford 'proper' books.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:06 PM on January 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

It's interesting how much price matters. I co-direct a chapbook publisher in Iceland. We mostly publish debut books of poetry, and in bookstores they sell for about the cost of a latte. Our books sell decently for poetry books, and very well for first books of poetry. Usually these books have been sold at double or triple what ours sell, and those barely move in bookstores. I'd like to think that it's largely because my co-director and I have good taste and provide good editorial support, but I'm sure that the price is a big factor too, especially when we were new and had no track record.
posted by Kattullus at 4:07 PM on January 1, 2015 [4 favorites]

But to be serious, this is missing a lot of history ...
Yes, like a lot of New Yorker pieces, it's really just a review essay of three recent titles masquerading as a general history of the topic. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing, and it's a good read within its very narrow limits, but by God there's so much book and publishing history excluded here. I like Menaud's emphasis on price points and their role in creating new reading audiences, but the post-WWII trade practices written about here were by no means novel. William St Clair has written about strategies developed by the British book trade for marketing cheap editions of public domain works after the elimination of perpetual copyright in the 1770s. There's a good argument to be made that, for instance, Shakespeare's mass appeal in the late nineteenth century came about through a low-price-point marketing strategy, when publishers like John Dicks started issuing very cheap collected editions of Shakespeare's plays specifically aimed at working-class readers in the 1860s. The strategy of cheaply packaging the works of "classic" authors for mass consumption well predates the post-WWII paperback revolution.

Similarly, the practice of selling books in general stores or stands, rather than purpose-built book shops, is really very old. Wilkie Collins, in his famous 1858 essay "The Unknown Public" talks about all the little retail nooks and crannies cheap print popped up in:
walking about London, more especially in the second and third rate neighbourhoods ... whenever I passed a small stationer’s or small tobacconist’s-shop, I became conscious, mechanically as it were, of certain publications which invariably occupied the windows. These publications all appeared to be of the same small quarto size; they seemed to consist merely of a few unbound pages; each one of them had a picture on the upper half of the front leaf, and a quantity of small print on the under. I noticed just as much as this, for some time, and no more. None of the gentlemen who are so good as to guide my taste in literary matters, had ever directed my attention towards these mysterious publications. My favourite Review is, as I firmly believe, at this very day, unconscious of their existence. My enterprising librarian who forces all sorts of books on my attention that I don’t want to read, because he has bought whole editions of them a great bargain, has never yet tried me with the limp unbound picture quarto of the small shops. Day after day, and week after week, the mysterious publications haunted my walks, go where I might; and, still, I was too inconceivably careless to stop and notice them in detail. I left London and travelled about England. The neglected publications followed me. There they were in every town, large or small. I saw them in fruit-shops, in oyster-shops, in lollypop-shops. Villages even—picturesque, strong-smelling villages—were not free from them. Wherever the speculative daring of one man could open a shop, and the human appetites and necessities of his fellow-mortals could keep it from shutting up again, there, as it appeared to me, the unbound picture-quarto instantly entered, set itself up obtrusively in the window, and insisted on being looked at by everybody. “Buy me, borrow me, stare at me, steal me—do anything. O inattentive stranger, except contemptuously pass me by!”
And yes, I'm sure WWII did create a lot of new reading audiences, but it was the First World War that was really "the first great war of words." 1914 was the first year in British history that adult literacy topped 99% and a staggering number of soldiers took books with them into the trenches. There was already a publishing infrastructure back home for producing cheap, portable editions and these were in great demand during the war as more or less disposable trench reading. Here's poet Ivor Gurney requesting some front line reading in a 1916 letter to a friend. Note that it's the format (small editions in particular publishers' series that could fit easily into a pocket or haversack) and price that he's most interested in, not really specific titles:
‘Your offer of parcels is very grateful to me. And books. There is Nelson’s 6d Classics, Cassell’s 6d National Library, and 8d Classics, and Everyman. Also Stead’s Penny Poets—a most useful edition—in which I would like Keats, Shelley, and Tennyson, also Browning and Walt Whitman if you can, but those are out of print I think. Also I want a Supplement to the Golden Treasury in a small edition. There is one in Everyman, but a smaller would be preferred.
It would be nice to read a history of the paperback revolution that took this "prehistory" into account.
posted by Sonny Jim at 7:39 AM on January 2, 2015 [4 favorites]

These are wonderful. Here are some links to a few larger images: the Signet 1984 (is the guy at lower right, peering down the lady's cleavage, Orwell himself?); the Bantam Brave New World; the Lion Books Frankenstein; and the Lion The Deluge (by Leonardo da Vinci).
posted by raygirvan at 8:46 AM on January 3, 2015

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