The Once and Future Book

L’avenement du livre de poche aux Etats-Unis a commencé en 1939 avec Pocket Books, et c’est la guerre qui, malgré les restrictions, l’a véritablement imposé dans tout le pays. Dès 1947, les “grands” étaient solidement établis et faisaient fortune. Le principe était simple: faire baisser le prix de revient de chaque livre en abaissant le coût de fabrication (matériaux bon marché et très gros tirages), sans oublier de ramener les taux de royalties de 10 % à 4 %.

Résultat: un livre vendu 25 cents dans les kiosques, drugstores, gares routières et ferroviaires ou même (essai très éphémère) dans des distributeurs automatiques…Inutile de dire que ce succès initial des grandes compagnies n’est pas resté très longtemps…Ce n’est pas un hasard si, dans la seule année 1949, se sont fondées pas moins de cinq compagnies de livres de poche ; Gold Medal, Pyramid, Graphic, Checkerbooks et Lion Books.

The advent of the paperback in the United States began in 1939 with Pocket Books, but it was the War, despite its restrictions, that made the paperback go nationwide. In 1947, the “big boys” were firmly established and made ​​a fortune. The principle was simple: lower the cost of each book by lowering manufacturing costs (cheap materials and very long print-runs), and remembering to drop the royalty rate from 10% to 4%.

Result: a book sold for 25 cents at newsstands, drugstores, bus and train stations or even (very short-lived trial run) from vending machines…Needless to say, this initial success of the large companies didn’t stay unnoticed for very long…It was no accident that in the single year 1949, no less than five paperback companies had been founded: Gold Medal, Pyramid, Graphic, and Checkerbooks and Lion Books.

Philippe Garnier. Goodis, la vie en nor et blanc.(Seuil: 1998). p. 202. Translation is my own.

For most people THE ominous event of 1939 was 1 September, when Germany invaded Poland, although it could be argued that World War II began with China and Japan in 1937. Be that as it may, Auden left behind a poem (beautifully explicated by the late Joseph Brodsky). 1939 is the year that paperback editions showed up and threatened (or revolutionized, depending on your point of view) the publishing industry. Cheaply made, inexpensive, and widely available, the paperback was Technology Manifest. The sell-point was portability and democratizing literature, since not everyone could afford hardcovers. It sounds silly because the first paperbacks were hardly “literature.”

Thinking of other technological shifts — Beta versus VHS; vinyl versus 8-track versus tape cassette versus CD; MAC versus PC, Nook versus Kindle; and iPhone and iPad versus numerous Android clones — the  lowly book is searching for yet another incarnation in our lifetime but, while the pundits argue who will win the battle for our eyes and mind and who will set the next breakthrough, and laugh their way to the bank, we keep reading new copies, borrowed copies, and electronic versions. Incidentally, the Big Five are named above, and the updated Big 5 in publishing are Random House, Simon and Shuster, Harper Collins, Penguin, and Putnam.

It had taken from 1939 to 1947 to establish the victors in the war of “the paperback players,” while the victors in that other war became known in 1945, and it took several more decades to clean up the mess, home and abroad, to determine who would be strong enough to have the biggest say and sway in the world. I suspect it will take as many years to find out how we will read books. Your Kindle and Nook might well be the next IBM 5100.

In the interim while the fighting went on at the typewriters and at the publishing houses, the writer lost out. When it was good it was good. For years “the galleys-rate per word was tacitly stabilized around a penny per word” and at the height of pulp the good writers with “brand recognition” got ten cents or twenty cents per word (Garnier, p.167). You could see the dollar-signs incentive for writers to cart out stories by the wheelbarrow. Some prolific pulp writers of the day: David Goodis, Cornell Woolrich, and Baynard Kendrick. “The formidable Paul Ernst of Bucks County, Pennsylvania,  could line up 5,000 words a day. Ernst wrote in one flawless go without one erasure. He didn’t re-read, and sold 90% of what he sent to publishers” (Garnier, p.169). And some of you might say…Paul who?

Might it be a mark of integrity that Dashiell Hammett was so concise with his writing? And when it was really good venues like Collier’s and American paid “between $4000 and $5000 for a story of 20,000 words” (Garnier, ibid). That is a lot of money in any decade.

And when it was bad as it was when paperbacks showed up and comic books fought for the loose change in the Levis, writers got paid piecemeal, saw their royalties cut, and their books republished without much recourse. And how bad was the paperback art? The titillating Ida Lupino was put on the jacket of the Signet edition of Faulkner’s Sanctuary and for some inexplicable reasonable there is a dead soldier on the back cover and a sexy woman on the front of Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front .

Ironic thing is that paperbacks evolved from “the pulps,” so called because of the cheap paper used for mass-printing. The pulps were populist literature, truly American as apple pie, because it spoke to Depression-era readers. Hardly “high literature,” and dismissed as “entertainments,” but in the serialized fiction tradition of Dickens with themes about the cheapness of life, the low-down forgotten man with a need to get his fix of drink, some cash, and a little dose of love from that dangerous girl in the corner. Stories were about the desperate, the violent, and they reeked of fatalism. The French, when they weren’t fawning over Jerry Lewis,  saw the connection between pulp themes and existentialist philosophy. Truffaut et La Nouvelle Vague.

If pulp was the cradle of “hard-boiled fiction” with Spade and Marlowe shaking the baby rattle and stepping out of the shadows, then noir film was the visual eye candy with its amorally suggestive lighting and shadows. It was a distinct literary break from Agatha Christie’s cottage mysteries and Sherlock’s deductions and exotic explanations. Chandler scoffs at Doyle’s use of curare in The Simple Art of Murder.

Pulp fiction didn’t die out because literary taste alone changed. It evolved, but not before technology dragged in vexing problems. The first paperbacks had lurid, somewhat risqué, cover art. The most “collectable artists” of the pulp era are Earle Bergey and Rudolph Belarski (Garnier, p.168). The George Kelley Collection at the State University of Buffalo offers other online samples of pulp cover art. Comic books also came along. The grandchildren of pulp were the comic books, the modern suspense mystery, the edgy police procedural, and graphic novels. The unspoken step-children was the cover art becoming the “erotica books” in Seventies porn. Harlequin to Dell romances had somewhat cleaner genetics. So pulp found itself on better quality paper and with new generations of practitioners, here and abroad. Look at this list of the Top 100 Crime Novels and you can see new names and old ones that have stood the test of time. The list should be updated for foreign writers. The other downside to the appearance of the paperback and comic book was moving the gossip-society page from the newspaper to chintzy magazines that devoted poisoned ink to celebrities in the film industry. Confidential Magazine.

And film? Noir evolved into the feel-good-have-to-have-a-happy, ending in film and literature in the Fifties, where the Hays Office was even more vigilant after the War, thanks to Uncle Joe (McCarthy and not Stalin). There was no room for moral ambiguity. The Fifties became the Eighties, but ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire.’

And that leaves us with the once and future book…there will be forever among us those who are sensualists and tactile creatures, those who approach a beloved author and literary child the way a medieval scribe understood the artistry of a binding, who marvel at the choice of font, the price of a damaged thumb, and equate the dog-earring of a page with desecration. Our other fellow readers among us might enjoy the finger swipe as the way to turn a page, enjoy the capacity to electronically search text and bookmark a page for a phrase that they’ll share with their friends on Facebook later.

From scriptorum to public library to the now threatened bookseller, there is the Internet of public-domain texts, the great ether library, and the megalopolis without borders, Amazon; yet there remains the one fundamental fact — that the most liberating tool at our disposal is also portable, the ability to read.


About gabrielswharf

gabriel’s wharf is a blog on the random thoughts and writings of author Gabriel Valjan. His stories continue to appear online and in print journals. Winter Goose Publishing publishes his Roma Series.
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2 Responses to The Once and Future Book

  1. Twombly Jules says:

    Earle K. Bergey and Rudolph Belarski art “notorious”? In a world of illustrators who did create pornographic images, you wrongly select these two artists whose body of work defies such a gross generalization. One example you could certainly raise, if desired, is H.J. Ward, with his consistently misogynistic depictions of women being tortured. But to throw two figures under the bus without evidence just because their names are regularly bandied around? This doesn’t make sense, especially given your exceptionally literate and intriguing writing abilities. Bergey and Belarski are most interesting subjects in terms of gender representation, deserving more substantive review.

    • Jules, Thank you for taking the time to read this post and giving me feedback. I realize that the issue is with my choice of words, since “pornographic” is a word with powerful connotations. I modified the post: swapping out my “notorious” and “pornographic” and replacing it with “risque.” I do think that for the era that the cover art was genuinely risqué. I also modified the post to cite the page where Philippe Garnier devotes some discussion to Bergey’s “Helen of Troy” cover. He calls the two artists as the “most collectable.” Garnier’s book is in French. He does not call their art obscene. I also inserted a link to the SUNY-Buffalo Kelley Collection for readers to see other pulp cover art, although the links to Bergey and Belarski have other illustrators of the period. Readers can learn about H.J. Ward whom you’ve cited and discover artists, like Harry Fisk, Stockton Mulford, Cardwell Higgins, John A. Coughlin and others online. Thank you for the constructive criticism and I hope you return to my blog. I wish you a happy 2012. – Gabriel

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