So, maybe you haven’t noticed, but traditional publishing is in a kind of a weird space right now. In October, Random House and Penguin announced that they were merging, Transformers-like, into some combinatory RandomPenguinHouse super-publisher capable of doing battle with the evil overlord AmazonPrime and his evil henchmen OptimusGooglus and AppleusSpartacus … or … whatever, my Transformers knowledge is not sufficient to sustain this poor, exceedingly weak metaphor. My point is, there is some serious freaking-out going on. And as it happens, this freaking-out is not without historical precedent.

In 1939, it just so happens that traditional publishers were facing a similar threat. And their reaction demonstrates that “sky-is-falling” freak-outs are nothing new in the world of traditional publishing. On the contrary, such freak-outs seem to be the rule, rather than the exception.

So, 1939. It was the beginning of what would come to be known as the “paperback revolution,” (fascinatingly detailed in a Bloomberg.com article by Ellen F. Brown that appeared earlier this year.) Read the passage below and see if what it’s describing doesn’t sound just the tiniest bit familiar:

According to Publishers Weekly, word spread at the 1939 American Booksellers Convention that “some reckless publisher” was going to bring out a series of paperback reprints of popular novels to be sold for only a quarter a piece. The industry was equal measures aghast at the nerve of such a plan—American readers had proved notoriously resistant to paperbacks—and terrified that it might succeed. Major publishers fretted that, if the books proved popular, the reprints would kill hardcover sales of the featured titles.

Cheap books? Oh, the horror! Get the children into the storm cellar and make sure we have plenty of canned goods … the end of the world is nigh!

But despite the fact that “most booksellers refused to stock the series, unwilling to compete with their existing inventories of full-priced books,” they (of course) sold like hotcakes and that “reckless” publisher’s less-reckless competitors immediately rushed in to launch paperback reprint lines of their own.

For the next ten years, everyone perked along quite happily making a tidy bundle on paperback reprints. Then, in 1949, Fawcett Publications sent everyone running for the storm cellars again when it announced the launch of a new paperback line—a line of paperback originals. Oh my GOSH. Actual original books that had never been published anywhere else before … in paperback.

Mainstream publishers predicted that paperback originals would undermine the entire structure of publishing and threatened to blackball agents who negotiated contracts with Fawcett. Critics said quality authors would never be interested in selling their new work at such a low price and that the series would only be able to offer books unworthy of publication. [Emphasis mine, because seriously, that is the most awesome bit of freaking-out I’ve ever read.]

Again, sound familiar? The rest of the story is just as familiar. The readers loved the low prices, and the paperback originals sold like crazy. While some authors did fret that having their work come out in paperback instead of the more prestigious hardcover would hurt their careers, the reality was often quite different. Writers who probably never would have been published in hardback—edgier, non-mainstream writers like William F. Burroughs and Kurt Vonnegut, as well as dozens upon dozens of now-famous genre writers—found their way into the hands of appreciative readers.

And so, despite all the mumbling and grumbling, did paperbacks kill traditional publishing? Um—no. The old market for books didn’t collapse—instead, it expanded, as new customers who weren’t readers before were lured in by the lower prices and greater availability of paperbacks.

So, there you go. History! Isn’t it wonderful? Like our beloved drunk uncle with all the tattoos who used to serve in the merchant marine, it always has something to teach us. It can even give us a glimpse of what we might expect to see as the digital publishing marketplace matures. Because, it’s important to note, the paperback boom times certainly didn’t last forever:

The new products also had a hard time maintaining their early successes. It’s a simple matter of economics: Delivering a high-quality product at a bargain-basement price is difficult. Once competition heated up in the cheap-book market, signs of strain began to show. Editorial standards slackened, paper quality declined and, in a desperate attempt to catch the eye of readers in the crowded marketplace, many discount publishers resorted to covering their books in lurid images that often had nothing to do with their content. Readers eventually balked at the increasingly shabby products, and publishers were dismayed to find themselves stuck with warehouses of books they couldn’t give away. One firm resorted to burning its excess stock in an abandoned canal outside of Buffalo, New York. By 1969, the New York Times Book Review was asking, “Is the Paperback Revolution Dead?”

Thus, taking History as our guide once again, I suggest you watch this space for a blog post in 2021 examining the burning question that will then be on everyone’s lips: Is Digital Publishing Dead? Until then, I’ll be the author with the lurid covers, selling her ebooks at fine digital retailers nationwide.

Want to read more? Here are some other interesting links:

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