Back in 1939, John Steinbeck’s bestseller The Grapes of Wrath sold for $2.75. Obviously, at a time of 20% unemployment, that was an impossible expense.But in just one day, a man named Robert de Graff changed all that. Paperbacks. At 25¢ a pop. No, he didn’t originate the idea. The Germans were doing it in 1931, followed by Penguin Books in Britain by 1935. Without the Internet, you see, it takes a while for ideas to cross the pond.
They were called Pocket Books. The test run of 100,000 copies included 10 titles – mostly classics plus a few modern hits – was introduced by an ad in the New York Times. Despite extreme misgivings on the part of de Graff’s partners at Simon & Schuster, it took less than a week for every last paperback to leave the shelf. America’s reading habits were forever transformed.Quantity was key. Print 100,000 paperbacks, and the cost could plummet to 10¢ per book. But where to send them? There were only 500 bookstores in the entire country. So de Graff came up with a new twist: he used magazine distributers to place Pocket Books in newsstands, subway stations, drugstores and other non-traditional book venues.
He also realized that for mass marketability, one couldn’t just offer the classics. More pedestrian fare with colorful, eye-catching covers could launch a whole new reading demographic. The operative word being “graphic.”
Racy paperback covers peaked in 1948 with John Erskin’s The Private Life of Helen of Troy, the cover of which featured a woman in a sheer toga, nipples plainly visible. The matter reached the House of Representatives committee on porn, but after four years of hearings, none of the censorship proposals had taken effect. By 1952, you know, politicians had a bigger problem: Communism.Meanwhile, even in light of the paperback’s smashing success, publishers continued to balk at the idea. “It will undermine the whole structure of publishing,” screamed Doubleday. Oh, dear. Didn’t I just say that about e-books?
Well, obviously hardcovers haven’t died out. Likely never will. And as I gaze from a 2” flashdrive (which holds every novel I’ve ever written) to the wall-to-wall bookcases of my home, I can see that I’ll soon learn to curl up with a Nook as well as a book.