If you are reading a book these days--and I certainly hope you are -- then the odds are that you owe a debt of gratitude to a man named Robert de Graff, who died last week at the venerable age of 86. For the odds are that the book you are reading is a paperback; and it was Robert de Graff who, four decades ago, began what has since been known in the publishing industry as the "paperback revolution." At his death, the revolution continues; the question now is where it is going next.
In 1939, against considerable skepticism, de Graff left a job with the Garden City Publishing Co. (an outpost of the Doubleday empire) and established a firm that he called Pocket Books. His first list contained 10 titles, ranging from "Bambi" to Shakespeare. The books were bound in paper rather than the customary cloth, sold for a mere quarter, and could fit easily into a purse or a jacket pocket.
The quick and substantial success of that first list proved that de Graff was no fool. Whether by sound business sense or extraordinary good luck, he invented the mass-market paperback at a time when mass education had taken a sure hold and millions of Americans were literate enough to read for pleasure; it was also a time when, thanks to mass transportation, people could read as they traveled to and from work. Further to de Graff's good fortune, a couple of years later the country found itself in World War II; the GI editions that were distributed to American soldiers accustomed them to paperbacks, and therefore opened up a booming postwar paperback market.
Now, 42 years after de Graff's brainstorm, book publishing in the United States is basically a paperback business. Although most serious and not-so-serious "trade" (as opposed to text) books make their initial appearance between hard covers, that is essentially a launching process; it is their future in paperback reprint editions, along with films and other forms of subsidiary rights, that determines whether they will make or lose money for their authors and publishers. Not merely do the sums paid for paperback rights determine the success of a book; they can also determine whether it is published at all, since books with gloomy paperback prospects -- whatever their other merits -- are almost certain money-losers and thus are liable to be rejected by an industry increasingly preoccupied with big bucks.
There are those who feel that, because of this and other repercussions from de Graff's revolution, paperbacks have had a deleterious influence on American publishing. Perhaps so, if it is one's view that writing and reading should be the provinces of a literary elite; for there can be no question that paperbacks have greatly democratized American reading habits and, because the lowest common denominator tends to rise to the top in a democracy, have somewhat debased those habits.
Yet in all the moaning and groaning about the trashiness of mass-market publishing, its critics conveniently overlook the new readers it creates for serious as well as hack writers. Consider the case of Scott Spencer, whose "Endless Love" is one of the best American novels of recent years. It was strongly promoted upon its hardcover publication in 1979 and was very favorably reviewed, yet made only a relatively small splash in the stores. But this year a movie version has appeared -- by most accounts a positively dreadful one bearing almost no resemblance to Spencer's book -- and along with it a "tie-in" paperback edition, sales of which at last report had gone well into seven figures. Scott Spencer is finding the readership he deserves.
For the Scott Spencers and Toni Morrisons and Anne Tylers of this world, as for the Rosemary Rogerses and Harold Robbinses and Judith Krantzes, the paperback audience is crucial. Though "The World According to Garp" was a hardcover best seller, it was the paperback edition that made John Irving, for better or worse, a cult figure on the campuses and in the Wednesday reading clubs. It is the paperback, far more than the hardcover, that enables authors to reach out to significant numbers of readers and thus to have some influence on our literature and culture; more and more, the hardcover is primarily for the libraries, the collectors and, for some reason, the reviewers.
Yet the publishing industry, inherently hidebound as it is, still thinks of itself as a hardcover business. Though costs of acquisition, production and promotion are driving the price of the hardcover book beyond the reach of all except the wealthiest and/or most devoted book lovers, the industry stubbornly sticks to the rule that what worked yesterday is sure to work equally well today and tomorrow. Specifically, the industry refuses to publish new books, as opposed to reprints, in paperback.
I'm not talking about gothics or westerns or romances; the paperback best-seller lists are jammed with original editions of these literary equivalents of Twinkies. Rather, I'm talking about books that deserve to be published but usually lose money: fiction by relatively unknown writers, current-events books with limited lifetimes, how-to books, what have you. In the current system, these books are doomed to sales of three to seven thousand copies, and then instant death. How large, after all, is the market for a $14.95 novel by an unknown writer?
Yet at half the price, that novel might have a chance: in a "trade paperback" edition, one that is larger and more durable than the standard mass-market paperback. A firm in California called North Point Press has been bringing out such books for the past couple of years; they have dust jackets, sewn bindings and acid-free paper, and they sell for around $7.50. Of course there is no guarantee that a book would find a larger audience and be more profitable at $7.50 than it would at $14.95 -- but the price difference surely would lower buyer resistance if other considerations (effective promotion and distribution, favorable reviews) made the book attractive. The French have been doing it this way for generations, and with great success.
To be sure, from time to time there have been tentative experiments with "simultaneous publication," in which a small hardcover edition is published for libraries, collectors and reviewers, and a much larger paperback edition for general readers; the device worked quite effectively for Thomas Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow" and it is to be tried next spring by Bantam Books with Jerzy Kosinski's new novel. But these and a few other such efforts barely amount to putting a toe in the water; the book industry still prefers to go about its traditional business in the traditional way, and the hell with giving authors a legitimate shot at a larger audience -- not to mention giving readers the chance to buy new books at reasonable prices.
Meantime, those prices rise and, along with them, buyer resistance. Too often these days I feel, as I sit down to review yet another $14.95 novel, that almost no one will buy the book and that, as a result, the author's labors and mine are wasted. I think that Robert de Graff's revolution offers a way out of this terrible bind; but since I cannot recall a soul in hardcover publishing who agrees with me, obviously I am dead wrong.