Half a century before e-books turned publishing upside down, a different format threatened to destroy the industry.
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.
The ad was timed to coincide with the debut of his newest endeavor, an imprint called Pocket Books. Starting with a test run of 10 titles, which included classics as well as modern hits, de Graff planned to unleash tote-able paperbacks on the American market. But it wasn’t just the softcover format that was revolutionary: De Graff was pricing his Pocket Books at a mere 25 cents.
Despite its audacity, de Graff’s ad wasn’t brazen enough for his taste. A former publishing exec who’d cut his teeth running imprints for Doubleday, de Graff wanted the ad to read THE NEW POCKET BOOKS THAT WILL TRANSFORM NEW YORK’S READING HABITS. His business partners at Simon & Schuster were less confident and forced the edit. Even though some European publishers were making waves with paperbacks—Penguin in England and Albatross in Germany—New York publishers didn’t think the cheap, flimsy books would translate to the American market.
They were wrong. It took just a week for Pocket Books to sell out its initial 100,000 copy run. Despite industry skepticism, paperbacks were about to transform America’s relationship with reading forever.
The New Books on the BlockIf 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. But if Pocket Books were going to sell, they couldn’t just stick to the highbrow. De Graff avoided the stately, color-coded covers of European paperbacks, which lacked graphics other than the publishers’ logos, and splashed colorful, eye-catching drawings on his books.
Even with the success of Pocket Books’ test run, hardcover publishers scoffed at the idea of paperbacks for the masses. Still, they were more than willing to sell Pocket Books the reprint rights to their hardcover titles, if only to humor de Graff. “We feel we ought to give it a chance—to show that it won’t work here,” an anonymous publisher told Time shortly after Pocket Books’ launch. For every paperback sold, the hardcover publisher would receive a penny royalty per copy—which it split fifty-fifty with the author. Pocket Books would also make about a penny in profit for each copy sold.
Since de Graff offered refunds for unsold copies, carrying the books was a no-brainer. In 1939, de Graff told Publishers Weekly that he’d been deluged with requests from “out-of-town dealers.” And from the get-go Americans devoured every 25-cent paperback de Graff could feed them. By the time Pocket Books sold its 100 millionth copy in September 1944, its books could be found in more than 70,000 outlets across the U.S. They might not have had the glamour and sophistication of hardcovers, but paperbacks were making serious money. It wasn’t long before other publishers decided to jump into the game
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