Throughout this column’s history, I've looked closely at the authors who imagined the stories, the editors who helped to steer the direction of the larger movements, and the agents who helped to sell the stories to various publications. One thing that I’ve only looked at briefly is how the publishing industry itself began to change over the course of the 20th century, as paperback novels began to take hold. This week, I’m going to shift gears a little and take a look at the bigger picture that helped to shape the science fiction genre by looking at one of the biggest innovations to change publishing: the introduction of the mass market paperback novel.
Up to around the late 1940s, just about all of science fiction could be found on the magazine racks. Magazines, such as Argosy, Weird Tales, Amazing Stories, Astounding Science Fiction, and countless others graced newsstands with their brightly colored, provocative covers. There were some exceptions: Edgar Rice Burroughs had financed the print runs of collected editions of his novels, but this was a rare exception. Science fiction novels really didn’t exist.
Neither did the bookstore, at least in terms of how they are structured today. Prior to the 1950s, books were sold through independent bookstores, which sold books in limited numbers, according to John B. Thompson in his book Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century, “the bookstores tended to cater to an educated and cultivated clientele—the so-called ‘carriage trade.’ ” These stores were frequently located only in major cities, and largely focused on books as upscale commodities for a consumer base which could afford such luxuries. Science Fiction pulps weren’t sold through bookstores, nor were other genres like Westerns, Mysteries and Romances. The magazines carried with them a certain stigma, to the point where people were afraid to be seen with them. Weird Tales and Astounding author C.L. Moore concealed her name not to sell books in a male-dominated market, but because she was worried that her employer would find out that she wrote for pulp magazines, a format they disapproved of.
In 1935, a new innovation in publishing began to change everything: the Penguin paperback book. English publisher Allen Lane found himself waiting on a train platform, where he found little to read beyond magazines and poor-quality reprinted novels. He believed that there would be a market for a line of high quality paperback novels and nonfiction, sold in places where books weren’t typically sold. Once he returned home, he and his partners began to plan out a new imprint to publish paperbacks. They hit the streets, looking to sell their product to the unconventional locations, eventually landing a contract with Woolworth’s, a major department store. As Kenneth Davis notes in his work Two Bit Culture: The Paperbacking of America, “there had been numerous paper-covered books produced in England, going back as far as a series called British Poets, published by John Bell in the 1700s.” What set Lane’s Penguin books apart was different from the style of cover: It was the price and distribution that ultimately allowed his books to sell in vast numbers. The line grew immensely, allowing Penguin Books to become even more successful, and the low cost of the paperbacks required Lane to print in huge volumes—hundreds of thousands of copies. As World War II began to restrict paper supplies in England, Penguin was granted larger paper rations and managed to survive as its competitors floundered, unable to meet demand or compete. After surviving the war, Penguin thrived well into the second half of the 20th century.
The paperback novel concept didn’t remain within the U.K.: In 1939, it came to the United States when publisher Robert De Graff founded Pocket Books in partnership with hardcover publisher Simon & Schuster. He took out a full page ad in the New York Times on June 19, 1939, proclaiming that his new line of books would “Transform New York’s reading habits.” Like Lane, de Graff bypassed traditional bookstores and went to magazine distributors who already had the network and infrastructure in place to put books in drug stores, newsstands, grocery stores and numerous other locations. De Graff’s paperbacks were cheap. Compared to hardcovers, which sold at $2.75 ($46.72 in 2014 dollars), a Pocket Book would sold for merely a quarter ($4.25 in today’s dollars, well under the current price for a mass market paperback).
The move was far from a certain success. As Davis explains, there had been other attempts throughout American history, with even some successes, but no line of books had lasted for very long, for a variety of reasons. In his memoir, The Time of Their Lives: The Golden Age of Great American Publishers, Their Editors and Authors, Al Silverman notes that “[i]n the post-Civil War period, paperbacks in various shapes and sizes were published again, north and south. But toward the close of the century, when business flopped throughout the country, paperbacks mostly disappeared—until the 1930s.” Now, they were back, and De Graff’s secret to success came not in the content which was available, but for his ruthless cost-cutting. He sought out reprint rights from hardcover novels, which publishers gave him for next to nothing, believing that this venture would have little impact on their own hardcover lines, all the while he planned massive print runs to bring the cost of each copy down to an unimaginably low price.
Technological innovations helped as well. Silverman explains that “in the new century, the opportunity for mass-market paperback books emerged again as a result of the introduction of the high-speed roll-fed printing press.” This allowed publishers to print books far more cheaply than ever before, and combined with their distribution methods, Pocket Books was a success. Davis recounted that the publisher’s new books “practically sold themselves. Aided by an enthusiastic reception in newspapers and magazines across the country, de Graff and company did not have to go to the mountain because the mountain was coming to them.” The major publisher’s perception that their products were only valued by the wealthy was a self-fulfilling idea: The masses didn’t buy hardcover books, while the wealthy did. However, hardcovers were expensive and out of reach for most Americans, especially at the end of the Great Depression, and thus only available to those with money. Pulp magazines, a refuge for science-fiction stories, which were bought in larger quantities by the poor and middle classes in America, were largely thought to be of lesser quality, in terms of the physical book, but also that of the content. Now, with an outlet for cheap books, the American public came out in droves to purchase them.
Part of this demand was fueled by the end of World War II as soldiers began to return home. Beginning in 1943, American publishers started a program to supply deployed soldiers with reading materials. The new paperback books that could be printed were cheap. The Council on Books in Wartime was stood up, and issued an ambitious proposal: Books would be given out to soldiers, printed with two columns per page (usually each of a different story). According to Yoni Appelbaum writing for the Atlantic, “the real innovation was less technological than ideological. The publishers proposed to take books available only in hardcover form, and produce them in this disposable format.” This shift in attitudes toward books was major. No longer were books being broadly considered an upscale commodity.
The program was a huge success during the war. The Armed Services Editions were popular with soldiers, who could fit them in pockets and often passed them around their units. The program included some science-fiction novels as well: novels from H.G. Wells, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe and Bram Stoker were distributed. By 1946, the Council distributed 122.9 million copies of books to soldiers, helping to establish an enormous base of readers who returned home along with major governmental programs such as the Montgomery GI Bill. The growing US economy and growth of an educated middle class helped to construct a new generation of readers, helping create demand for books.
This shift in the marketplace didn’t go unnoticed by publishers, and over the remainder of the 1940s, other publishers began to open paperback lines. Earlier in the decade, Allen Lane had hired Ian Ballantine to start a line of paperbacks in the United States, who did just that, producing a line of Penguin reprints throughout World War II. Ballantine added illustrated covers to his books to compete with other paperbacks, prompting Lane to force him out of the company. Undeterred, Ballantine went on to found Bantam Books along with his wife, Betty, Sidney Kramer and Walter B. Pitkin, Jr., which also focused on paperback books. He would stay there until 1952, when he was eventually fired after a number of issues with his own board of directors. Following his departure, he and Betty founded Ballantine Books with a new idea in the works: They would partner with a hardcover publisher to release the hardcover and paperback editions of a novel simultaneously.
The new publishing house worked to publish genre-specific books, such as Westerns, mysteries and science fiction. Davis explained that “quickly, the genre that became almost synonymous with Ballantine Books was science fiction. Until this point, science fiction had no significant place in paperback publishing. In fact, it barely existed in book form at all. It was viewed by publishers as a sort of fringe genre that they knew or cared little about. The field belonged principally to the magazines and pulp publishers who flourished from the 1920s through the 1940s.” One of the publisher’s first major hits came in 1953 with Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and over the years, would become a dominant player in the paperback sci-fi market.
Other publishers began to notice science fiction as well: In 1942, Pocket Books hired Futurian member Donald Wollheim as an editor, where he published the first sci-fi paperback, the Pocket Book of Science Fiction,in 1943, which included stories from Ambrose Bierce, H.G. Wells, Stanley G. Weinbaum, John W. Campbell Jr. and Theodore Sturgeon, among others. In 1947, Wollheim left Pocket Books for Avon to run their editorial department. From there, he worked to set up a dedicated line of science-fiction novels.
The first dedicated lines of science-fiction from publishers came in 1952. Wollheim successfully set up Ace Books, which packaged two novels together, tête-bêche style, while the Ballantines started their own line, starting with a collaborative novel from Frederic Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth, The Space Merchants (originally serialized as The Gravy Planet in Galaxy Magazine). Additionally, smaller, specialty presses got in on the book market, such as Gnome Press, which had been set up by David Kyle and Martin Greenberg in 1948, who published a number of notable hardcover collections and anthologies pulled from the back catalogs of authors before collapsing in the early 1960s.
Novels were becoming popular, but science fiction still lagged behind the trend. As most science fiction was published in magazines, the entire production end was oriented to publish shorter works. Tor editor David G. Hartwell noted that in the science fiction world, “[t]he biggest money you could make in SF was a serial to the major magazines,” rather than writing a longer novel and splitting it up into smaller parts. As printed books became a new outlet for authors, many would assemble a group of stories into a single work, and release that as a book. Books such as Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and I, Robot, A.E. van Vogt’s Voyage of the Space Beagle,and many others were “fixed-up” to meet demand for stories in this new market. Additionally, magazines were publishing “novels” in each issue: long stories that ranged from 20-25,000 words, which an author could then resell as a reprint into the mass market paperback publishers with some additional padding, resulting in a paperback novel that ranged in length from 170 to 190 pages.
The result was novels that were structured like a series of shorter episodes: each story had their individual plots and climaxes, all serving a much larger story which the author assembled out of individual parts. I, Robot is a good example of this: The stories themselves don’t flow from one to the other as one might expect a chapter, and individually, they largely stand on their own. However, as a total whole, they tell a much larger story of robotic intelligence and the various conundrums Asimov’s Susan Calvin confronts.
This was a sea of change for the science fiction world. During the mid-20th century, authors made the technological leap from traditional pulp magazines to the longer paperback novels. This shift shouldn’t be discounted: the jump from one to the other represented a major change in how science fiction was written, purchased and consumed.
The market would change for authors, however. World War II caused the closure of many outlets, leaving only a handful still in operation by 1944. Others would come and go over the remainder of the 1940s and into the early 1950s, just as new mass market paperback lines were being established. Hartwell explained that at some point, the advance for a paperback novel began to exceed that of a serialization. Authors began to focus on the novel market. As they did so, the stories themselves began to change, becoming longer without the idea that they would be split up into separate installments. According to Hartwell, “Heinlein was the first to break out of that mode—Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers were long books for the time.” Others followed as the paperback science-fiction market became more lucrative. Books slowly grew longer as publishers were able to increase the price for individual paperbacks.
By the early 1960s, sales of paperback books overtook those of their hardcover counterparts, and the way that books were sold began to change as well. In 1961, the first bookstore devoted to paperback books opened in Brookline, Massachusetts, called the Paperback Booksmith. The public perception of paperbacks as a degenerated medium had begun to fall away, and other bookstores began to carry both mass market paperbacks as well as their larger counterparts, the upscale Trade Paperback.
The paperback novel had arrived, and its presence in the publishing world completely upended the industry. Millions of low-cost paperback novels found their way into the hands of readers of all genres. Where science-fiction fans would passionately collect magazines, they began to collect paperbacks.
As the format of the books changed, so too did the means of selling them: This is a topic which we’ll explore in the next installment of this column, where we’ll look at the rise of major booksellers that would become another major influence in the publishing industry, shaping not only how books were sold, but how they were produced.