Boy Vereecken
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When first introduced, mass-market paperbacks had sparked a publishing revolution. “They’re as handy as a pencil, as modern and convenient as a portable radio—and as good looking,” said Robert De Graf, founder of Pocket Books. De Graf borrowed the idea from Anthony Lane, founder of Penguin Books, who had the idea for disposable novels when he found himself on a train with nothing to read. Rather than limiting his business to bookstores, Lane realised he could find readers much more easily in drugstores, newspaper stands, and anywhere the threat of boredom might be dispelled by an impulse buy. At about the cost of a pack of cigarettes, Penguin Books could be purchased as an afterthought at the checkout counter.

Pocket novels were meant to pass the time, not to edify or enlighten. Critics despised mass-market paperbacks as lowbrow diversions, but this assessment had no impact on their popularity. Even the American military approved. To fill those long intervals between moments of terror, Armed Services Editions were created to fit snugly in the pockets of soldiers’ uniforms. More than a hundred million copies were distributed free to troops during World War II. For veterans, the habit stuck, and in 1947 around 95 million paperback novels were sold in the United States. Three years later, in 1950, that number rose to 214 million, netting 46 million dollars in revenue for publishers.

But even though the scale of mass-market paperbacks made other publishing ventures look paltry by comparison, the business model barely worked. With prices so low, the books needed to sell in incredible numbers to make a profit. As time passed, publishers began to wish for more comfortable margins, which could be as low as half a cent per book.

Part of the problem was that paperback marketing relied almost entirely on lurid cover art. As genre fiction proliferated, publishers needed to find ways to make their books as eye-catching as possible. An industry norm emerged, whereby most of the novels were wrapped with images of women in provocative settings and states of undress. Many readers were duly provoked to purchase, but by the time Bisson started packaging books at Berkley, all that bluntly recurring allure had lost its sway.

While paperback novels grew indistinguishable from each other, an opposing theme of essentialism was asserting itself in grocery stores, under the banner of No Frills. The brand presented food and household goods in unadorned packaging, without any fuss or fanfare. It was as if the very intention to sell had been excised from the label: two horizontal stripes running on either side of the rectilinear, all-caps brand name, and underneath a terse declaration of contents—SALAD DRESSING, FRUIT PRESERVES, MAYONNAISE, LAUNDRY DETERGENT, PEANUT BUTTER. No Frills. stripped out the cloying appeals of traditional marketing and replaced them with a candid offering of canned beets and corned beef, pure and plain.

Editing and Design

Contribution

Published by

Boy Vereecken

Mark Mann

La Loge and Sternberg Press