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Previous Industry Shakeups: Trade Paperbacks in the 1950s

Industry shakeups are nothing new. My wife subscribes to Shorpy a website which offers classic, high definition photographs. She forwarded this one to me:

Circa 1940: In an effort to generate more foot traffic in his Chicago camera store, my grandfather Edwin Shutan dedicated a section to a book rental library and hired a staff librarian, Miss Michaels (shown). Edwin charged just 10 cents for three days with no deposit or membership required. His library was immaculate and well-stocked with all the latest titles from authors such as Thornton Wilder, Alexander Woollcott and Lloyd C. Douglas, to name a few. View full size.

If you click to zoom in on the picture, you’re immediately reminded of the days before trade paperbacks; every book in the scene is hardcover.

That got me thinking about the trade paperbacks that now form the backbone of most of our stores. The website Mental Floss looked at this 4 years ago:

…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.

In the U.K., things were different. There, four years prior, Penguin Books founder Allen Lane had started publishing popular titles with paper bindings and distributed them in train stations and department stores. In his first year of operation, Lane sold more than three million “mass-market” paperbacks.

Quantity was key. De Graff knew that if he could print 100,000 paperbound books, production costs would plummet to 10 cents per copy. But it would be impossible for Pocket Books to turn a profit if it couldn’t reach hundreds of thousands of readers. And that would never happen as long as de Graff relied solely on bookstores for distribution. So de Graff devised a plan to get his books into places where books weren’t traditionally sold. His twist? Using magazine distributors to place Pocket Books in newsstands, subway stations, drugstores, and other outlets to reach the underserved suburban and rural populace…

[I’ve left a huge gap in the story here, you’ll need to click the link]

…Literary authors and critics weren’t the only ones turning up their noses at paperbacks. Bookstore owners, for the most part, refused to stock them, and students at most schools and universities still used hardcover texts.

Enter the “trade paperback.” Publishers had been unsuccessfully experimenting with larger-sized paperbacks since the 1940s, but it wasn’t until Doubleday’s Jason Epstein introduced Anchor Books trade paperbacks in 1953 that the idea caught fire. The idea arose from Epstein’s own college experience. “The writers we had discovered in college were either out of print or available only in expensive hardcover editions,” he wrote in Book Business. Instead of reprinting last year’s hardcover bestsellers and classics, Epstein envisioned a line of “upscale paperbacks” handpicked for their literary merit from publishers’ deep backlists.

Anchor’s trade paperbacks were larger and more durable than mass-market paperbacks and were an instant hit with high schools and colleges. Their attractive covers, illustrated by fine artists such as Edward Gorey, immediately distinguished them from the grittier pulp paperbacks, and they appealed to a more “intellectual” market. As a result, they found a nice middle ground in price. Epstein’s paperbacks had small print runs of about 20,000 and sold for 65 cents to $1.25 when mass-market paperbacks were still going for 25 to 50 cents. Trade paperbacks also opened doors to bookstores. Within 10 years, 85 percent of bookstores carried the handsome volumes.

In 1960, revenues from paperbacks of all shapes and sizes finally surpassed those from hardcover sales…

Click here for the full article.

I also looked at a 200-page, highly-annotated .pdf copy of a 2007 sociological research paper (thesis) Where Did All These Books Come From? The Publishing Industry and American Intellectual Life by Maro N. Asadoorian.

In 1953, Anchor Books was founded, and many consider this the true starting point for trade paperback publishing (Bonn 1995, 267)… “[I]it was during this time [the 1950s] that paperbacks began to sell in very large quantities, eroding somewhat the big sales of hardbound novels” (Hackett 1975, 116). Though the paperback industry faced some challenges during the late 1940s and early 1950s regarding overproduction and clogged distribution channels (Bonn 1995, 265), the industry grew in both size and power as the Age of Acquisitions drew near. In 1957, Publishers Weekly started a separate bestsellers list or paperbacks, and later separated mass market from trade paperbacks (Hackett 1975, 121). In 1968, “trade paperbacks became a feature of the Model Bookshop” at ABA conventions (Grannis 1975, 96) and throughout the 1970s and 1980s paperback houses published more and more original titles (Bonn 1995, 267). As we will see, this growth in paperback publishing was a huge turning point in the direction and attitude of the industry as a whole. As early as the end of World War II it was clear that “most people understood that a large part of the future lay in paperbacks” (Tebbel 1987, 408).  [pp. 87-88]

So who were the winners and who were losers?

The trade paperback impacted hardcover sales — and related author royalties and bookstore margins — but the increased volume meant many more books were being sold. Mass market (pocket) books were great if large volumes could be assured, but the trade paperback offered a safe middle ground for both original works and reprints.

I suspect that then, as now, certain categories responded to the changes differently. Even today we see a much higher percentage of hardcover cookbooks than we find with hardcover young adult fiction.

One thing is certain in publishing: It’s never a unchanging landscape. As with the music business, technology is always the sidebar to every story; almost always the reason for every sweeping trend.

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HarperCollins Timeline Integrates Its Christian Publishing Divisions’ Histories

In 1817, James and John Harper open the modest printing establishment of J. & J. Harper, Printers, in New York City; which means this is an anniversary year. A BIG anniversary year!

To celebrate, the company has created a special website 200.hc.com which is divided into five sections. Of special interest to readers here is the Timeline page, which includes histories of divisions added through mergers and acquisitions, such as Thomas Nelson and Zondervan. As you’ll see however, Thomas Nelson goes back a long time too, with a history that’s not so shabby. And Zondervan isn’t exactly a new kid on the block.

Title page from the Collins King James Bible, circa 1839.