BIG LITTLE BOOKS
Pocket editions have caused a revolution in bookdom.. At the price of a good cigar the corner store is selling "whodunits" or Shakespeare by the millions
DO YOU remember the Dimwittes—who didn’t want a book for Christmas because they already had one? Shed a tear. The Dimwittes don’t think that way any more. They now help their fellow citizens of the U. S. and Canada to buy books at the rate of 250 millions every year, about two each for every English-speaking adult on the continent.
Two hundred and fifty millions is a lot of anything; but of books it verges on the fabulous. In an effort to exjffain the phenomenon sociologists and publishers offer a variety of reasons. Some credit tire and gas rationing—people took to reading books in desperation. Others lean to the theory that books offered escape from the tensions of the war. Still others, a learned minority perhaps, think that universal compulsory education may have something to do with it; that after a century of exposing ourselves to it, it is beginning to take hold.
There’s probably something to all these explanations, but there’s another, simpler and more obvious. It can be found in almost any drugstore from Nome to Zoozoo City, Miss., and from Victoria to Baddeck, N.S.-—a rack of paperbacked, pocket-size books attractively displayed beside the cigar stand or soda fountain. The books are well-made, offer a range of titles, from classics to modern mystery thrillers, and sell for 25 cents each, less than the cost of a compact or a pack of cigarettes.
They’re the best reading value ever offered on this side of the Atlantic, and the public voted for them to the extent of buying more than 50 million copies in 1944. With paper restrictions removed the Big Three of the mushrooming business, Pocket Books, Penguin and the soon-to-be-launched Bantam, are looking forward to annual sales of 100 million copies.
Behind the phenomenal success is another of those better-mousetrap sagas that delight the hearts of all lovers of success stories. What Ingersoll did to the watch business and Ford to automobile manufacturing two imaginative and zealous young men, one English the other American, have done to the book business. They have brought books within the range of everyone and, I take it, have been handsomely rewarded in the process.
Oddly the story is not English or American in its origins but European. Long before World War 1 travellers to Europe were charmed by the Tauchnitz and Albatross paper-bound books which could be bought on every station platform. They were wellprinted on good paper, cost around 60 cents, and every traveller who ever bought one wondered why the same kind of books weren’t available at the same reasonable price at home. But English and American publishers claimed their readers bought books as much by looks as content—good binding, bulk, even sheer avoirdupois, were bigger sales factors than authorship or wordage. Paper-bound books were common, read only in the servants’ quarters. There was the difficult and costly problem of distribution.
The publishers, one suspects, were wedded to tradition, and may even have suffered from a trace of snobbery.
Whatever the inhibitions, in 1935 Allen Lane, 33-year-old son of an English architect, decided to ignore them. He borrowed jtlOO, quit his job with his uncle, Publisher John Lane, and set up offices in the crypt below an empty church in London’s Soho. The site was chosen less for romance than because the rent was negligible.
There, with ancient tombstones and sarcophagi for office furniture, the now famous Penguin Books were
born. The first eight titles were put on sale in 1936 in Canada as well as Britain and included books by Maurois, Hemingway, Linklater, Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie. The Penguins were good-looking, printed without abridgment on good paper, scaled to fit into a man’s pocket; but their revolutionary feature was their paper cover. They took their name from the publisher’s colophon or sign, a cheery penguin that appeared on the title page, and they sold for the unheard-of price of sixpence. Before the first six months were out a million copies had been sold, and Penguin Books were well on their way to become a British institution along with Big Ben and mild and bitter.
Since then an over-all total of about 70 million copies has been sold. They invaded the American field in 1942 and are now printed there as well as in England. They arc sold throughout the Empire also.
Wallaby Brought Good I.uck
OVERSHADOWING Penguin in sales are the six-year-old American Pocket Books, founded by 44-year-old Robert Fair de Graff, a tall, dynamic, blond New Yorker of Dutch extraction. The De Graff colophon Is a wallaby named Gertrude, whose stuffed form reposes with humorous dignity in Pocket Books’ sleek Radio City offices. . Like the Lane penguin, the De Graff wallaby seemed to stand as a lighthearted symbol of protest against stuffiness and the pomposity long associated with books. Like Lane, De Graff broke into the cheap reprint field the easy way—because he wanted to. He was in the automobile business before World War I and discovered that he liked selling. After the war his cousin, Nelson Doubleday, offered him a job with Doubleday, Doran & Co. “If you can sell books you can sell anything,” said Doubleday. De Graff disposed of 300,000 copies of a fancy offering, “Birds of America,” at $3.98, and moved up to become head of the Garden City Publishing Company, a Doubleday subsidiary devoted to $1 reprints. De Graff helped develop an entirely new book-buying public by using drugstores as Continued on page 42
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outlets for nonfiction for the first time, then saw it fade away completely in 1930 and ’31. The rebuilding process was fascinating hut baffling. That a reading public existed was obviops. It w-as buying newspapers at the rate of 44 millions every day and magazines at the rate of 25 millions every month. But book publishing remained one of the wilder gambles in all business. In spite of the circulation figures of best sellers, half the books published in the United States sold—and still sellless than 2,500 copies; perhaps one in 20 more than 20,000. The Book of the Month Club and the Literary Guild attacked the problem by building up combined meml>erships of more than 1,300,000 habitual book buyers, hut they did nothing to lower the cost of books appreciably or reach the immense, untapped audience.
Cost was one of the important factors. Even a 49-cent reprint is outside the magazine price range, and 49 cents was as low as a publisher
could go. Selling 15 millions stiffbacked reprints at 49 cents to $1.49, Garden City reported profits of $70,000 —less than half a cent a copy. And every bookseller still insisted that the public still bought books by weight, binding and title in that order.
There were other problems besides manufacturing and merchandizing. Unlike newspapers and magazines, unsold books were not returnable. If the retailer didn’t sell them he was stuck, so he protected himself with a markup of 40 to 50%. And in all the United States there were not more than 3,000 outlets. Book manufacturing had gone ahead with the improvement of the printing press, but the science of exposing this product to the customer was still in the stage coach era.
De Graff knew that attractive reprints could be made to sell for 25 cents, provided they were made in sufficient quantities and had paper covers. The only question was: would the public take its literature in paper covers?The old Tauchnitz story said yes, as did Penguin success in England, ln 1938~Robert de Graff decided to
find out how the U. S. felt about it.
His first experiences weren’t too encouraging. Making the rounds of his publishing friends to secure reprint rights, he invariably met the same response. “Sure, you can have any reprint rights you want,” they said. “We’ve just been waiting for someone to prove it can’t be done.” Only Simon and Schuster thought differently. They had already made one fortune blasting trade traditions (The Crossword Puzzle Books, Income Tax Guides, and $1 pamphlets) and were prepared to back De Graff to make another. The publishers bought into his venture to the extent of 49% and offered to place all their facilities at his disposal.
The Pocket Book Is Born
Had he wanted to, De Graff was now in a position to splurge. Instead, with his close associate, Wallis Howe, and two secretaries, he went quietly to work. From the first he seems to have been hung with diamond-studded horseshoes. His initial move was to copyright the term “Pocket Books,” which since has become a name applied loosely to all such books. His next was to circularize a mailing list of 10,000 persons and secure 2,000 replies to the question: “Why don’t you buy more books?” The answers boiled down to two: “Because they cost too much.” “Because we haven’t time to read them.”
Next came an experimental printing of the first Pocket Book, 2,000 copies of Pearl Buck’s “The Good Earth,” then at the top of its vogue. Looks and portability were the governing considerations. The book was made compact enough to fit in a man’s pocket or a woman’s purse. Laminated “Cellophane” on the paper cover gave an arresting air of freshness. The cover could be folded back without cracking, impossible in a board-bound book. On the title page Gertrude the wallaby appeared, demure but confident.
Proceeding with the same deliberate technique, De Graff next mailed 2,000 “Good Earths” to those who had replied to his questionnaire. Along with the books went two new questions: “Would you pay a quarter for this book?” and “Have you any changes to suggest?” Replies revealed that everyone would pay a quarter—many did in fact—but that they thought the cover could be a little heavier. With this encouragement Pocket Books went to town in earnest.
The first 10 titles were placed on sale in 75 carefully selected New York City outlets on June 19, 1939, a Monday: 10,000 copies each of best sellers like James Hilton’s “Lost Horizon,” Thorne Smith’s “Topper,” and Dorothea Brande’s inspiratiomd “Wake Up and Live.” Along with the books went counter racks, 18 inches square, in which they could be displayed in competition with other alluring whatnots in drugstores, newsstands and cigar counters. The only other promotion was one full-page advertisement in the New York Times, costing $2,000.
The job of launching over, Bob de Graff, aide Wallis Howe and a brace of secretaries retired to Pocket Books one-room, one-telephone office to await results. At best they expected to learn how things were before the week was out. The answer came much sooner. At 11 o’clock that morning Liggett’s Drug Store in Grand Central Station telephoned to say they’d had a sellout, and would Mr. De Graff please send over some more books. From then on the telephone rang continuously, and along about one o’clock messengers began arriving. All told the same story. The big town
had gone overboard for this new type book.
In the first three days Maey’s, the biggest department store, sold 4,163 copies. Sales were high everywhere. Offhand it looked as though the case for Pocket Books was proved. Originator de Graff didn’t feel too certain. New York City isn’t the U. S., as visitors from the hinterland frequently point out. The big metropolis is given to wild enthusiasms but can cool off just as quickly. Its hordes of train-riding, print-consuming commuters were not typical of other cities. The situation seemed to need another test. De Graff made it in Boston one week later. The New York success was duplicated. Fie then took his courage in his hands and plunged into the wilderness of the U. S. A.— and for publisher, “wilderness” is the right word. Of 3,072 U. S. counties, 897 have no libraries; of 982 cities over
10.000 population, 40 have no bookstores; of America’s 132 million people, 32 millions could not buy a book except by mail even had they wanted to.
From this point on the story reads like Horatio Alger. Pocket Books sold five millions in their first year, 1940; 10 millions in the second, 1941; 20 millions in the third, ’42, and nearly 40 millions in the fourth, ’43. Paper rationing, which affected ’43 sales slightly, held 1944 to 30 millions. By midsummer of 1945 the 125 millionth Pocket Book had found its purchaser.
The explanation of the zooming sales record is very simple once you have the key. Where there were no more than 3,000 book outlets in the U. S. in 1939, Pocket Books now has 70,000. Where a large conventional publishing house employs a dozen salesmen, one Pocket Books’ jobber alone has 680 continuously on the road. They sell to drugstores, newsstands, train butchers, stationery shops, cigar stores, chains, all important five-and-dime stores. Writers and publishers, wary at first, soon became enthusiastic. The more expensive volumes are selling better than ever and although reprint royalties are small—half to three quarters of a cent —authors are compensated by becoming known to people who never would have read them before. In Canada Hugh MacLennan has become immensely popular because his “Barometer Rising” became so well known in cheap form.
It is estimated that no more than
500.000 books were sold in Canada in any year before the war. Last year that number was hopped up to nearly eight millions. There is wide variance in the types of books in demand. Two of Pocket Books’ best sellers are a cookbook and a Shakespeare. “Kitty,” a White Circle novel of eighteenth century London, already has sold
400.000 and is expected to top 500,000 when the present edition is sold—a per capita record for North America. Sales per capita are consistently higher in Canada than in the U. S.
In 1936, when Collins of Canada began distributing the Penguin and Pelican series here, these books sold at 15 cents. Later the price was raised to 25, but they had no outstanding sale at either price level. They were distributed in the usual way, through the 400 recognized bookstores. Highest yearly sale was Penguin’s 140,000 just before the war.
Then supplies from England stopped and Collins decided to print its own cheap books, calling them “White Circle” for a similar line published by Collins of Glasgow. They started
printing in 1942 and began using the drug and cigar store outlets, thus reaching far more readers. At the same time the American companies (Pocket Books, Dell, Avon, and Popular Library) started distributing their wares in Canada.
Sales skyrocketed. Collins sold
793.000 in 1942, 899,000 in 1943,
1.244.000 in 1944; and anticipates sale of 2,600,000 this year. Last year Pocket Books sold nearly four millions in Canada. Dell, Avon and Popular Library had a combined sale of two millions. All now print Canadian editions.
Canadian sales run about 10% of those in the U. S. For example, The Pocket Cook Book has sold 75,000 copies in Canada; “Life With Father” and “The Magnificent Obsession,”
53.000 each; “Jalna,” 41,000; “The Lost Horizon,” 40 to 50,000. Minimum printings are 150,000 in the U. S., around 25,000 in Canada.
G.I. Joe is Tops
The biggest seller to date has been “See Heie, Private Hargrove”—more than two million copies. Close to 15 other Pocket Books have topped the million mark. A majority of the 300 titles P-B had published up to October, 1945, were reprints, hut in the list are also original works, such as the cookbook. Most interesting of the original books was the tribute to the late president “Franklin Delano Roosevelt A Memorial”—which was compiled, edited, printed and distributed in one single week of stupendous effort. Original publishers until now generally have been willing to sell reprint rights of any book for a reasonable sum: usually one cent a copy royalty, half of which is paid to the author.
The reasons original publishers held reprint rights so lightly were these: the cheap books do not compete with original editions but stimulate new sales. Also, reprint royalties were regarded by publisher and author alike as a minor byproduct.
On this basis the one cent royalty was regarded as satisfactory—until the Authors League of America issued a Report on the Economics of Lowpriced Reprints. The Report said an edition of 150,000 copies produces $37,500, which is divided up as follows:
Retailer v............................... $8,000
Wholesaler ............................ 6,750
Paper, printing & binding ............ 9,150
Overnead and promotion .............. 2,700
Reprint publisher’s profit ............. 8,400
Original publisher .......... 750
Author ................................ 750
According to the ALA reprints soon ; will climb to 120 million copies annui ally, worth $30 millions. Under present arrangements reprint publishers would take $6,720,000, authors $600,000. The Authors League would like to see a deal under which the split would be $3,720,000 to the publisher and $3 millions to the authors.
This argument is still in its early stages, with reprint publishers protesting that the League must have plucked its figures out of a hat. Meanwhile another possible trouble spot appeared.
A few months ago Marshall Field stepped into the reprint field by buying an interest in Pocket Books. Simultaneously he bought into Simon and Shuster. It looked like a strong combination, but competition came immediately. Four old and dignified publishing houses—Harper and Bros.; Scribner’s; Little, Brown and Co., and Random House—joined hands with The Book of the Month Club and the Curtis Publishing Company (Saturday Evening Post and Ladies Home Journal). This new alignment of strength bought Grosset and Dunlap, one of the oldest and largest standard reprint houses, and will reprint its own titles under the name “Bantam Books.” Nation-wide distribution facilities of the Curtis company will be used.
Other combinations of publishers, printers and distributors are said to be eying the new field with interest, among them Doubleday and the Hearst magazine group. In addition to the j leading reprint outfits—Pocket, Penguin, Popular, Avon, Dell, Collins, and, it is assumed, Bantam, the betting is that the next few months will see at least a dozen groups fighting for the public’s small change.
What it all adds up to is anybody’s guess. It definitely means a scramble among publishers for books worth reprinting. It also may make 25-cent reprints a glut on the market, but Robert Fair de Graff doesn’t think so. He says that, unlike every other business, books continuously widen their own market and create appetites for more and more books.