A Thumbnail History of Paperbacks By Alan Beatts

Tonight’s guest in our parlor is Alan Beatts from Borderlands Books in San Francisco. Just so’s ya know, I was at his table when he shouted the words, “You! Drop the ferret!” which still stands as one of the most infamous Overheard at the Con reports. Be sure to subscribe to their newsletter. They know & love books—and know quite a few authors personally. If you’re in the market for fantasy, sf, horror or something rare give them a call or a click. They’re nice people. I promise. — J.F.

First published in Dispatches from the Border, The Newsletter of Borderlands Books, March, 2008

A Thumbnail History of Paperbacks

By Alan Beatts

Something that I love about working in my field is being part of a history that goes back hundreds of years (actually, thousands of years — the first booksellers were in Egypt before the common era and their original stock was copies of The Book of The Dead). Bookselling in general has been around for a very long time and is full of some of the oddest traditions, characters and incidents. But more than that, the science fiction, fantasy and horror field has been around for quite a long time as well. And it has its own odd traditions, strange history and remarkable persons.

It would be a foolish game to try to spot when science fiction, fantasy or horror first started. One can make a solid argument that science fiction started with Jules Verne in the middle of the 19th century but there are other arguments to be made. However horror has been around much longer. Varney the Vampire also dates from around the same time as Verne’s work but there were ghost stories, both written and oral, many, many years earlier. And, if you’re willing to call mythology the father of the fantasy novel, you can easily go all the way back to the ancient Greeks (and yes, much of those stories were religious in nature but many of them were simply entertainment with only a hint of religion).

But, there is a point where I’m pretty comfortable saying that original SF and fantasy in novel form as we know it first sent down roots in the US. And there are some remarkable people who did it.

Before I go on there’s one basic premise to mention — SF and fantasy at novel length in the US is a product of small size, softcover books; what you probably think of as “paperbacks” and what we in the book trade call “mass market paperbacks” (as distinguished from the larger “trade” paperback which is essentially a hardcover book without the hardcovers). SF, fantasy, and horror in the 20th century has always been light entertainment. That’s not to say that there haven’t been some important books written within those fields but the genres in general are entertainment. Much like television and movies before television, popular entertainment needs to be cheap and accessible. The flood of novels that started appearing in the 1950s and continue today were a function of the low price, easy distribution, and accessibility of mass market paperbacks. SF, fantasy and horror were not the only beneficiaries of mass market paperbacks — the growth of romance, westerns, crime, mystery . . . virtually all the forms of “genre” fiction can be traced to paperbacks.

The paperback as we know it was first tried by a German publisher, Albatross Books, in 1931 but it was not a success until the idea was picked up by Penguin Books in England. Allen Lane launched Penguin in 1935 and was shortly imitated by Robert de Graaf in the US in 1939. De Graaf’s imprint, Pocket Books, was part of Simon & Schuster and was the first to include illustrations on the covers of their “pocket” books. His other innovation was to distribute the books to newsstands and other mass market outlets instead of only focusing on bookstores. Shortly thereafter other US publishers including Ace, Dell, Bantam and Avon started their own paperback lines.

But, paperbacks were always reprints. A work would be published as a hardcover and, if it seemed that there was a market for it, it could later come out in a cheap paperback edition either from the original publisher or from another publisher who had “bought the paperback rights” (i.e. paid the original publisher a lump sum or a commission for the opportunity to print the paperback). As a result, no book ended up in paperback if a publisher had not already decided that it was worth the financial risk to publish in hardcover and therefor the paperback market was merely a subset of the larger book market without any identity or character of its own.

It took a real character (with a desire to slip through a contract loophole) followed by two visionary publishers to change that.

If publishers like Lane and de Graaf came to paperbacks from the lofty castles of publishing, then Roscoe Fawcett come to them from the basement. Fawcett got his start in the business of words during World War I working on “The Stars and Stripes”, the official newspaper of the US armed forces. After the war in 1919 he started publishing Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang, a magazine of sorts filled with racy poetry, dirty jokes and tasteless puns.

It was hugely successful and by 1923 the magazine had a circulation that almost matched its profits, which were in excess of a half a million dollars. More magazines followed and as part of that, Fawcett moved into distribution and thereby crossed the path of the growing paperback boom. In 1949 Fawcett contracted with New American Library to distribute their paperback lines (Mentor and Signet) to newsstands. As part of the contract Fawcett was prohibited from competing by publishing his own paperbacks. However, Fawcett, seeing that there was money to be made in publishing paperbacks, wanted to get into the market. Though the contract clearly prohibited Fawcett from publishing paperback reprints, no one at New American Library had imagined that anyone would consider publishing original novels in paperback. Fawcett considered it, did it, and got away with it — Gold Medal books was born and both opened the paperback market to original novels as well as adding even more inertia to that growing format.

The stage was set. Paperbacks had a huge presence in newsstands all over the country. You could find them in every train station, airport, drug store, department store — they were everywhere (even in bookstores, which had originally resisted them fiercely since they weren’t “real” books). Paperbacks were so popular that, in a six month period in 1952, Gold Medal alone sold 9,020,645 books.

Ian and Betty Ballantine had been involved with paperback publishing since 1939 when Ian started distributing Penguin Books in the US. In 1945 they started Bantam Books (with Walter Pitkin, Jr. and Sidney B. Kramer) but they made their most enduring mark in 1952 when they founded Ballantine Books. The original basis for Ballantine Books was to “offer trade publishers a plan for simultaneous publishing of original titles in two editions, a hardcover ‘regular’ edition for bookstore sale, and a paper-cover, ‘newsstand’ size, low-priced edition for mass market sale.” It was a radical idea and more importantly it allowed Ballantine to dodge the furor surrounding the “damage” that paperback originals could do (as an example, LeBaron R. Barker of Doubleday was quoted as saying that original paperbacks could “undermine the whole structure of publishing.”).

Acting as a bridge between paperback and “traditional” publishing worked very well for the Ballantines. Their first book, Executive Suite by Cameron Hawley sold over 475,000 copies in paperback in less than a year as well as 20,500 copies in hardcover, proving that paperback sales gave a book more publicity and helped hardcover sales instead of hurting them (does anyone notice echos of the current debate about eBooks and their effect on physical book sales?).

And now we finally get to what this all has to do with SF and fantasy. Ballantine’s 21st book was The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth. In 1954 they started publishing Star Science Fiction Stories, which collected original short fiction by authors who would become some of the giants of the 20th century (for example, the third collection featured stories by Asimov, Clarke, Bradbury, del Rey, Dick, Matheson, Vance, and Williamson) and wrapped them in covers by the legendary Richard Powers. Throughout the 1950s Ballantine published editions (many of them original) of works by authors like Ray Bradbury, Henry Kuttner, Arthur C. Clarke, Theodore Sturgeon, Jack Vance, John Wyndham, Fritz Leiber, Philip K. Dick, Richard Matheson and Manly Wade Wellman.

In the 60s, they continued to publish the best authors that the field had to offer as well as gaining quite a bit of attention due to their rivalry with Ace books for the right to reprint Edgar Rice Burroughs and J.R.R. Tolkien in paperback (in both cases they prevailed, though in the case of Tolkien, Ace did print an edition which prompted a notice from Tolkien himself in the back of the Ballantine editions urging people to buy that edition and to boycott “unauthorized editions”).

Then in 1969 they launched the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, edited by Lin Carter, which brought back into print a number of classic, pre-Tolkien works of fantasy including Lord Dunsany, Clark Ashton Smith, and most importantly, H.P. Lovecraft (who had been almost forgotten at that point). And in 1977 they created one of the first dedicated science fiction and fantasy imprint edited by (and taking a name from) Lester del Rey and his wife, Judy-Lynn. Del Rey continues to be one of the major imprints in the field to this day.

History is, I believe, often just a combination of factors that interact and create a result. The actions of individuals may shift the outcome slightly but most of the time, individual action makes very little difference. But sometimes, especially in business and even more so in creative businesses, one person (or one couple) can have profound, long reaching and dramatic effects. They can shape a medium or a field for decades to come. The secondary and further effects of their presence can be incalculable and unimaginable. Ian Ballantine passed away in 1995. But it’s been my great honor and pleasure to meet Betty Ballantine twice over the past few years. And I’m hoping that the next time I see her I’ll be able to suppress my tongue-tied awe long enough to say one fraction of what I’ve said here.

(Scribble a whisper)

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