My best English teacher in high school frequently remarked that the entire literary world was turned upside down by the introduction of inexpensive paperback novels. The class yawned as one. Paperback books were all we could afford. Our experience with hard cover books was mostly limited to text books which were expensive and heavy. A simple market disruption, right?
Later in life I began making paperback books, roughly at a time midway between their introduction in the mid 1930s and these present days, so the evolution of the paperback has finally become a subject of some interest to me.
And it turns out that it was much more than a simple market disruption.
My birth occurred during the succinctly named Post War arts movement, and that describes not only what the world had been up to, but also the freedom of knowing that the war had ended and lives could be picked up, dusted off, and even reinvented.
As a card-carrying Baby-Boomer I also know that we Boomers were born into a golden time in arts, science, and prosperity. Our parents survived the Great Depression, the first globe encircling kill-fest, and sat down with a beer in their brand new house in the suburbs and said, “The world is a better place. Let’s have some kids.”
And here we are.
We were born into a world that created a new theatrical art form, the performers on stage much larger than life, not only speaking over a musical background, but displayed gloriously in something called Technicolor. Cars were no longer black or olive-drab with sputtery 4 cylinder engines; they were two-tone, even three tone sparkling behemoths designed to resemble new-fangled fighter jets, sporting snarling V8 engines. Weekly magazines glowed on the racks with pictures from anywhere and everywhere in the world with realism that pulled the reader into the moment. Colorful, modern design washed over us.
As part of the major design trends of those days, paperback books with graphic, sometimes lurid, sultry, or macabre covers were waiting for the GIs when they returned home. These wonders of mid-century graphic design perfectly describe their time, the cultural evolution that created them, shaped by technological advances, improved educational systems, and employment that provided not only discretionary income but also provided leisure time.
It was technology that allowed the chap books of the mid 17th century to become dime novels that began the 20th century. Then with the print industry transitioning to better production methods (photo-lithography), better paper at a better price (enamel stocks print sharper color) and efficient new binding systems (soft cover books), a revolution in book publishing, marketing and design was under way during the time between the wars.
In 1935, Allen Lane left as head of the London publisher Bodley Head to single-handedly establish Penguin Books, publishing literature in an affordable soft cover binding that sold for roughly what a pack of cigarettes cost. His gamble was so successful that for decades Penguin was a synonym of paperback.
Aware of the success of Lane’s venture, Simon & Schuster created the Pocket Books imprint in 1939 headed by Robert deGraff, who immediately issued The Grapes of Wrath as a 25¢ soft cover, versus the $2.75 it took to purchase the hardcover.
Penguin then brought in Ian Ballantine, a grad student from the London School of Economics, to establish the Penguin brand in the United States, but the books they offered were reprints of their English editions with the covers changed to reflect domestic pricing from pounds to dollars.
DeGraff had plunged right in with graphic covers on Pocket Books from day one, forcing Ballantine to surreptitiously begin to redesign the Penguin classics with new splashy covers to compete.
When Lane later discovered the altered covers bearing his company’s name, Ballantine left to establish Bantam Books in 1945 and the three way race to American paperback dominance was on.
This new format probably could not have prospered using cover designs found on hard cover dust jackets. Publishers sold the profitable hardcovers to their traditional book audience, more attuned to works of accomplished writers and who stored their books in cases that lined the walls of their parlor, while the paperback was purchased by readers that just wanted a good read.
Who were these new readers?
Some attribute the birth of this audience as the product of an improved educational system. Literacy climbed rapidly in the first half of the 20th century.
But Uncle Sam also had a role in the explosion of this seemingly new market. Beginning in 1943, the Army and Navy began giving away what would ultimately amount to 123,000,000 books to their forces stationed around the globe. While established literary titles were in the mix, the soldiers preferred the mysteries, westerns and comedies.
Even better, pre-war, most books were sold only in bookstores, but two out of every three counties in America had no bookstore at all. Paperbacks, on the other hand, sold in racks at the local drugstore, grocery store, rail and bus terminals, even gas stations and restaurants. The country was suddenly awash in books.
Competing for sales meant designing covers that had instant appeal, that caught the eye while the display rack was slowly turning. This is the genesis not only of a golden age of graphic artists and designers, but the basis for many a collection of these wonderful books with covers that ran the gamut of outrageous to grotesque.
Ultimately, paperback covers acquired manners. Covers were tamed and having a collection of paperbacks no longer painted one as a literary mutant obsessed with all things seamy or violent. Only the Harlequin romance novels continued to highlight low bodices and passionate embraces.
It’s a different time now. The graphic designers I’ve worked with earnestly study the text for a sense of the story that they can translate into something appropriate.
Where once the front cover of the book on the rack helped to sell the book, Borders and Barnes & Noble (and their regional clones) displayed 90% of their stocked titles in book cases with only the spine exposed. And yes, designers vied to design books with eye-catching spines.
I’m not sure I even see a need to design a cover for an ebook. While there are any number of web sites willing to design one for a price, an ebook cover is to a paper and ink book cover as a CD jewel case cover insert is to a vinyl LP album cover: similar but without a “Wow!”.
More efficient perhaps, but it makes the collecting of old paperbacks with brash, exciting covers all the more enjoyable. They are unique to my time, when I came of age hiding paperbacks from my parents, no matter how innocent the content.
They are a symbol, like flames painted on a deuce coupe, Elvis sinfully gyrating on the Ed Sullivan show, brush cuts grown long and shaggy, miniskirts that announced you were not a bobbysoxer, and the grief and anger that exploded when America’s youngest President was assassinated. They not only baptized us, but marked us as a generation that acknowledged no boundaries.
And we’re still here.
Additional sites show-casing these incredible covers:
Very Sad but Not Surprising
Islamic militants in Iraq looted and destroyed over 2,000 books from the Central Library of Mosul, leaving only Muslim texts on the shelves. Two years ago, the library at Timbuktu was torched by Muslim insurgents but locals had already smuggled the rarest and oldest texts to safety. You know you’re backing the wrong side when ignorance becomes a goal.
TPP and Copyrights
As details of the controversial and extremely polarizing Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) begin to surface, universal imposition of the ridiculous American copyright enforcement period has many nations threatening to walk away from the “secret” negotiations. Thanks, Sonny Bono.
Designing with Fonts & Text
General rules for using type and fonts aren’t set in stone so don’t be afraid to experiment. However, I still find the current use of sans serif fonts in magazines a pain, especially when the type is reversed to white.
Rare Books Left to Princeton
A family’s rare book collection begun 150 years ago has been bequeathed to Princeton University. The collection included six editions of the Gutenberg Bible and was estimated to be worth $300 million.
Speaking of Covers
In the throes of a neurotic, digital ecstasy, a Dutch designer has created a book cover that “reads” the facial expression of the person holding it and then decides whether or not to allow itself to be opened and read. The Dutch seem to have sooo much time on their hands.
Jet.com Opens This Month
The biggest threat to Amazon.com that you never heard of, jet.com, has raised $600 million from investors and intends to open in March. It will compete by using local stores to fill its orders, eliminating warehousing and freight costs. Founder Marc Lore is a former Amazon exec.
Libraries at Airports
I’m surprised that no one ever thought of this before: put lending libraries in big airports. They offer everything from paper and ink books to ebooks, musical CDs, even DVDs and they have been generally very well received.
They Smell so Good
Apparently there are readers who resist ebooks simply because they don’t smell like anything but plastic. One of the joys I had in the shop was watching publishers open that first carton of books, close their eyes and inhale deeply. Leave it to the folks at Abe Books to tell us why books smell so darn good.
This June, issue #666 of Archie Comics will be the last after over seventy years of publication. Archie may return in a new comic book serial, but its content and design are just in the planning stages. Life with Archie folded last year with issue #36.
The New Yorker magazine is celebrating 90 years of publishing. Nine original covers by New Yorker artists will be used on the special edition which became available late in February, each featuring a different take on their monocled mascot. Even Amazon is joining the celebration with a new series entitled The New Yorker Presents.
Family Christian Stores Bankrupt
The largest Christian chain bookstore with 266 stores in 36 states has declared bankruptcy to reorganize. Family Christian said debt that had accumulated during the recession needed to be renegotiated.
“I am eternally grateful for my knack of finding in great books, some of them very funny books, reason enough to feel honored to be alive, no matter what else might be going on.” Kurt Vonnegut