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About Soft Paperback

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I just realized it wasn’t too long ago that we ordered books by mail. A lot of those pocket paperbacks are lost to the current generation of readers because they are out-or-print or forgotten. The advantage of digging these books at the used bookstore is to (re)discover authors that I have never heard of. I’m certainly on the look-out for Jack Higgins and Charles McCarry.

In 1939, Robert Fair de Graff realized he could change the way people read by making books radically smaller. Back then, it was surprisingly hard for ordinary Americans to get good novels and nonfiction. The country only had about 500 bookstores, all clustered in the biggest 12 cities, and hardcovers cost $2.50 (about $40 in today’s currency).

De Graff revolutionized that market when he got backing from Simon & Schuster to launch Pocket Books in May 1939. A petite 4 by 6 inches and priced at a mere 25 cents, the Pocket Book changed everything about who could read and where. Suddenly people read all the time, much as we now peek at e-mail and Twitter on our phones and iPads. And by working with the often gangster-riddled magazine-distribution industry, De Graff sold books where they had never been available before—grocery stores, drugstores and airport terminals. Within two years he’d sold 17 million.

Ironically, much of the literature published in pocket book editions are not available in electronic version, sothe only way to gain access to them is to seek them out in used bookstores.

3 Responses

  1. Allen Lane of Penguin Books England was the first publisher to establish the small paperback, good authors for the price of a paperback in 1935. It was such a runaway success other publishers followed suit. However Penguins were not sold in the USA due to copyright. But the idea was taken. He even had vending machines in train stations that would dispense your books. The Penguin Book history is long and intereting and if you’re interested in this history much is online or through the Penguin’s Collector Society publications (of which I am member.)

  2. I heard somewhere that the small size was first done so soldiers could carry a book with them in World War I. Might have been II which would work better with your date of 1939.

    Lots of now classic literature was published in this size, too. You should see some of the racier covers for William Faulkner’s work.

  3. The covers on some of these out-of-print economy paperbacks are off the wall. I’m assuming they were designed to appeal to readers at that exact moment in time, and they haven’t aged well. Timestamps like that are fun, and make that particular book seem more individual.

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