FOR 40 YEARS contemporary paperback books have been the disposable container of the printed word. Those that have survived in basements and barns are resurfacing in secondhand shops and other out-of-the-way places. Through their cover designs, early examples of these publications often reveal a freshness or outrageous innocence, which is understood by older generations and fascinates or puzzles the young. It is not surprising that these early pocket-size packages of print are being pursued with enthusiasm today. Magazines for collectors of paperback books, often outgrowths of "fanzines," offer descriptions of the history and nature of early softcover series, provide "checklists" of series, authors, and imprints, and offer collectors of particular writers or genres the opportunity to exchange observations, reviews, anecdotes and checklists.

Beginning with the early almanacs in the 17th century and continuing through dime novels, yellowbacks, Tauchnitz, Little Blue Books, and Penguin, small softcover books -- originals and reprints -- have been fancied by collectors the world over. Today, the American paperback-book industry is a thriving and dynamic part of American culture. Publications first produced in softcover 30 or 40 years ago continue to be reprinted or reissued today. A wealth of fresh insights and interpretations reward the collector who compares today's softcover editions with those of the past.

But because of the ephemeral nature of paperback books, they tend to be disregarded by collectors. They are not valued and preserved as hardcover editions are. However, they are a part of the historical record of a book's publication, and, as such, have their place in the recording of bibliography. More than one bibliographer has been heard to lament the difficulty in locating paperback books for examination. A comprehensive collection of paperback editions of an author or of a publisher's output constitutes a valuable bibliographic record.

Although authorship, content, and imprint are important considerations in collecting, cover art, too, may determine a collector's selection. Familiar books, for instance, are acquired because of the accuracy with which a particular scene or mood is portrayed, frequently because of the way it is distorted, exaggerated, or otherwise misrepresented.

Paperbacks are rarely printed in editions of less than 50,000 copies; first printings often exceed 100,000 and have been known to surpass one million. "Rarity," therefore, is a term not usually applied to softcover editions. Whereas a handful have achieved some modest degree of value, perhaps exceeding $75 or more, the vast majority will seldom be priced over a few dollars and most at much less. Those that are more costly often represent first paperback editions either of collected authors or of science fiction and mystery titles, genres with large and dedicated numbers of collectors. The most collectible titles are often most entertaining to read. Condition, of course, also influences price. Early softcover editions of popular works in fine condition are more difficult to obtain and usually priced above the average . . .

Although true mass distribution of paperbacks did not begin until almost 1941, it is universally recognized that Pocket Books successfully marketed the first mass-market paperback books in 1939. Drawing on his years of experience in the hardcover reprint business, Robert de Graff, principal founder of Pocket Books, printed in late 1938, a 2,000-copy test edition of Pearl Buck's The Good Earth. This unnumbered reprint is probably the rarest of mass-market paperback editions. . .

Since 1939, hundreds of publishing imprints have found their way to wire paperback racks. Some of these imprints are difficult to locate now, because the companies that published them went bankrupt or discontinued the series. Such imprints are a challenge to collectors who want to have a copy of each title issued under those particular imprints. The "Publisher Specifications" section of Robert Reginald's Cumulative Paperback Index, 1939-1959, lists most discontinued imprints, including Eton Books, Bonded Mysteries, Bart House, Bantam (of Los Angeles), Checkerbooks, Graphic, Hillman, Black Knight, Novel Library, Hangman's House, Permabooks, Pony, and Royce. Early Permabooks imprints, published by Doubleday, had hard covers that resembled paperback books rebound with hard covers for libraries and schools. This line of pocket-size books was a successor of sorts to Doubleday's popular hardcover reprint series, Triangle Books, a training ground for Robert de Graff and his successor at Pocket Books, Freeman Lewis . . .

Cover art is often the primary or the most important secondary reason for owning a particular mass-market edition. Because it is designed to appeal to all ages, tastes, and educational backgrounds, early mass-market paperback art ranges from the most imaginative and artful to the most laughable and tasteless. It reflects the time in which it was created, the market it was created for, and the status of the writer whose work it illustrates.

Early paperback covers were generally inspired by hardcover dustjacket design and illustration. Pocket Books, Avon, and American Penguin often issued covers framed with neat borders reminiscent of the dustjackets of some hardcover books. But after World War II designs and illustrations began to change. Cover art became less symbolic or juvenile and more realistic, as in the case of the Signet covers of New American Library, or more like pulp-magazine covers, as in the case of Bantam, Popular Library, Avon, and most others. Then in the early 1950s the realistic and pulp styles merged to create a style that was bold, exaggerated, and often sadistic and sexist. Mass-market publishers were faced with a hail of protest . . .

Because paperback books are relatively easy to obtain, collectors may be tempted to accumulate rather than select. The most interesting collections, however, are those that are built with knowledge and purpose . . . Lasting satisfaction comes from choosing examples that, when put together as a whole, shed new light on previously unexplored areas of knowledge. Knowing what to look for is the foundation of intelligent collecting; it is what distinguishes a book warehouse from a collection.