Here’s a little perspective: In 1939, gas cost 10 cents a gallon at the pump. A movie ticket set you back 20 cents. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the year’s bestselling hardcover book, was $2.75. For a nation suffering 20 percent unemployment, books were an impossible expense.
But in just one day, Robert de Graff changed that. On June 19, 1939, the tall, dynamic entrepreneur took out a bold, full-page ad in The New York Times: OUT TODAY—THE NEW POCKET BOOKS THAT MAY TRANSFORM NEW YORK’S READING HABITS…
If paperbacks were going to succeed in America, they would need a new model. 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.
These days we have a money problem but we also have an attention problem, and I think it'll help if the average person can read any book on his or her phone. At least I hope so.
Catherine Ryan Hyde says
I really think it's helpful to go back into history a bit and see how many times we've been here (or someplace similar) before. I still remember when audio (Books on Tape at the time) was the newfangled monster that would kill the book forever. New technologies historically add to the book as we know it, rather than displacing and destroying it. Thanks for this post.
Matthew MacNish says
Great stuff, thanks, Nathan.
From the article, regarding authors publishing originals directly as paperbacks:
Hardcover publisher Doubleday’s LeBaron R. Barker claimed that the concept could “undermine the whole structure of publishing.”
Haven't we heard that in the recent years, related to some electronic means of reading books? 🙂
This might sound really bad, but I never embraced paperbacks. I never liked reading them or holding them and I would never…NEVER…put them on my bookshelves in public in my home for anyone to see. I would say I actually find them as offensive as fake plastic flowers.
D.G. Hudson says
Wider audience availability=more sales? Perhaps, to a certain audience.
Not everyone has an iphone/ipad or some type of ereader, however, as those have associated costs (the service) and the books downloaded may have another cost to factor in (unless they're free).
The ease of getting the ebook to the reader now, seems more beneficial to the author than to the reader, if that reader doesn't have access to the new tools.
Hopefully, libraries will rally to fill in this gap, and provide an alternative to those who can't justify spending the money.
Mirka Breen says
And things keep a changin'…
Pocket editions of popular literary works were popular long before that in Europe.
Jabotinsky reminisced about loving to carry and read pocket editions on long train journeys in the introduction he wrote for "A Pocket Edition of Several Stories, Mostly Reactionary" (1925).
Bryan Russell says
Loved the article.
And the trade paperback is still my sweet spot…
Matt Bird says
I prefer paperbacks to hardbacks not only because they're cheaper, but they take up less space and are lighter. However, I'm not a fan of eBooks. There is just no beating the feel of paper or the thrill of holding a fat book in your hands!
If I’m in a rush, I will grab a burger. If I want a steak, I will set down and eat a steak.
I love that quote about how we Americans are "schooled from infancy to disdain even the best product unless it is smoothly packaged and merchandised". Ouch! Always fun to see what others think of us.
Peter Dudley says
"Baked into the equation" is the perfect phrase to describe the reasons behind how traditional publishers are acting these days.
It's also an awesome mixed metaphor.
It's like someone has pointed out to publishers that they could just make ten be a little louder, but the publishers are all saying, "But this one goes to eleven."
It's interesting, because the cost of the readers throws a wrench in the equation, but all in all a fantastic metaphor.
I love this "historical" post! Thanks for finding and sharing.
I agree with Catherine Ryan Hyde at 7:56a.m.
I totally disagree with anonymous at 8:52a.m.. If not for paperbacks, I'd never have been able to afford to read thousands of books. While I may not display all my paperbacks on my bookshelves, I certainly keep my favorites there. Many awesome books never make it to hardback and that shouldn't detract from the magnificent story between the paper covers.
Interesting…not the first major change in how people read books though. You can just look to the printing press, but especially all the broadsides, pamphlets, and yes the "pocket books" sold in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. From precious, painstaking illuminated manuscripts, hand-copied by scholars, to mass production on cheap paper. Over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries books started to be differentiated again, with the production of "hardback" books. I always take the long view on these kinds of trends! 🙂
These posts make me nervous 🙂
I'm in a financial low and I have no e-readers, nooks, kindles, iphones, ipads, ipods,etc etc. I feel like I'm really hurting myself in terms of future chance to be published or something. But I try to look at what I have and work within it. So pen and paper. And go from there 🙂
I definitely agree with you, Nathan. Every technological change shakes things up, and everyone gets really worried, until suddenly, it's the way it's always been done.
Nice comparision, interesting article!
Karen A. Chase says
The comparison and insight is good. There are some disproportionate comparisons in the cost increases, however. In the 1930s, the cost of a movie was 20 cents, and the hardback book was $2.75 so it's understandable that a 25¢ paperback would be needed. The cost of a movie now is $20, but hardback books are not $275, and paperbacks are between $9-15, not $25. Now eBooks are 99¢. So while the article provides comfort that changes aren't all bad (and I generally like change), I still worry how low we'll go for a well-written book that will inspire us for much longer than a 2-hour film.
Mark Hosack says
Very interesting article. Two weeks ago, my first novel was published by Pocket Star–Simon & Schuster's newest e-book only imprint. I think my book is just the second or third "debut" author ebook out of them.
From what I've gathered, it's all sort of a mad experiment right now — a lot of it is unchartered territory business model-wise — so it'll be interesting to see how things shake out.
Of course, I'd love for my book to be in print too — you reach more readers — but so far the e-book only approach is interesting.
Terin Tashi Miller says
My point, as it's always been, about self-publishing and ebooks in general.
Though not entirely historically accurate, as Penguin introduced paperback "classics" in 1935, and Ernest Hemingway referred to them as far back as the 1920s in France.
As noted with even the history of, say, Contact Books, the "imprint" started by Robert McAlmon with a borrowed (hand, as opposed to "web") printing press owned by Bill Bird and Harry Crosby, with which he deliberately chose to print his friends' books and short story collections, for profit, and the Sylvia Beach publication of James Joyce's "Ulysses," there is a reason Paris was seen as a hotbed of literary foment.
Not only because writers and other artists were drawn there, but why–because there an artist could pursue passions and art out of the mainstream of American puritanical thinking that was anethema to many of the generation that survived The War to End All Wars, and away from the great demonstration of that thinking, Prohibition.
So. Thanks again for proving my point. History is on the side of artists. Of writers and "independents," who find a way to get their work out to the public, hopefully for a little renumeration, but not merely to make a buck.
Amazon, with CreateSpace, BookSurge and the Kindle, has become the McAlmon to writers and would-be writers all over the world.
It's nice to finally have a friend with a printing press, I have to say…