Friday, September 2, 2011

Mass Market Paperback Blues

I started spending a lot of my time haunting paperback book racks around 1963.  I've worked in public and college libraries, and worked in the paperback department of the main Kroch's & Brentano's book store in downtown Chicago from the end of 1976 to late 1985.  For a long time, I had a fairly good idea of what sort of material you could expect to find on mass market paperback racks.. 

This probably isn't an original observation, but the mass market selection used to be a LOT wider.

Look at the mass market racks these days -- unless you're in a large bookstore (and probably even there), mostly what you'll find is romance, crime fiction, science fiction and fantasy, horror, some general fiction, a few classics depending on how close to the start of classes we happen to be, some non-fiction dealing with you-name-the-hot-topic-of-the-day.  That's not surprising -- it was always this way.  There was always a lot of display space devoted to the hottest sellers.  But...

First, a few things that strike me as more than a little weird, and then a brief trip down mass market memory lane.

John D. MacDonald -- probably the king of the paperback original in the 50s and 60s.  Frequently reprinted.  Probably best known for his Travis McGee series and for the excellent suspense novel THE EXECUTIONERS, aka CAPE FEAR.  Following his death, most of his work went out of print; today there's not much MacDonald out there except the McGees and THE EXECUTIONERS, aka CAPE FEAR.  Time was, Fawcett kept a lot of his work available at any given moment, and if you looked at a paperback rack chances were you'd find at least one MacDonald title; he was almost as much a fixture as the rack itself.  The last major run of MacDonald reprints was in the mid 80s.

Ross MacDonald -- author of the Lew Archer series, which has been called the finest series of detective novels by an American.  Bantam went through I don't know how many printings of all the books in this series.  The Lew Archers are back in print again -- but not from Bantam and not as mass market paperbacks.  Trade paperbacks, at twelve to fifteen bucks each.

When a writer put out a new book, the publishers holding the paperback rights to his backlist used to reissue backlist titles so that they'd be purchased by readers who hadn't discovered him until the new title came out.  Take Elmore Leonard, author of numerous excellent crime novels and westerns.  If you were looking for the definitive example of a high-quality-and-mass-appeal writer, a writer made for permanent mass-market availability, it would be hard to find better than Leonard.  He'll publish a new novel, RAYLAN, in January, and this fall a number of his books will be reissued in new paperback editions.  Not mass market editions, though, if I'm reading the Amazon listings right -- trade paperback editions, at  twelve to fifteen bucks each.

And now that fast trip down mass market memory lane.

Among the books I remember seeing (and in some cases owning) in mass market paperback editions:
John O'Hara's novels and short story collections
Irwin Shaw's novels and short story collections
Isaac Bashevis Singer's novels and short story collections; his non-fiction too
All twelve novels in Anthony Powell's A DANCE TO THE MUSIC OF TIME
About a dozen novels by Brazilian writer Jorge Amado (Avon books had quite the line of Latin American fiction in mass market for a while.  In addition to Amado, the novelists whose works were published in this series included Mario Vargas Llosa, Manuel Puig, Julio Cortazar, G. Cabrera Infante, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.)
A few titles by Jorge Luis Borges, including THE ALEPH, THE BOOK OF SAND, and A BOOK OF IMAGINARY BEINGS.
Novels and non-fiction by Anthony Burgess, including RE:JOYCE, his book-length work on James Joyce.
Novels and short story collections by Saul Bellow.
Novels and short story collections by Jack Finney, Gerald Kersh, James M. Cain, Graham Greene and Shirley Jackson
Leon Edel's 5-volume biography of Henry James
Science titles by Isaac Asimov, not just his science fiction
Most of the novels of Don Robertson, Thomas Williams, Thomas Pynchon, and Vladimir Nabokov.
THE COLUMBIA ENCYCLOPEDIA -- yes, there was a mass market paperback of this, in one volume; I carted it around in my book bag for reference use through most of my time in high school.  A very bulky item, and pricey too -- around two or three dollars as I recall, which was steep for a paperback around 1964.

Granted, most of these writers were still active at the time (though they weren't all permanent fixtures on the best-seller lists and this was well before the Nobel committee gave the nod to Singer, Vargas Llosa, Marquez or Bellow), but during that period it was also possible to find mass market editions of work by writers who were no longer actively publishing and work by writers who were never going to achieve the kind of popularity enjoyed by current heavyweights like Stephen King, Nora Roberts, or Lee Child.

And while I saw many of these books at Kroch's and Brentano's and other large book stores, I should point out that I saw work by O'Hara, Shaw, Burgess, Powell, Asimov, Bellow, Greene, Jackson, both MacDonalds, Nevil Shute, Joyce Carol Oates, Nabokov, and that encyclopedia on the paperback racks at Penner's Drug Store at 62nd and Kedzie in Chicago in the early and mid-1960s.  (Penner's had a decent amount of rack space for paperbacks, but the place was primarily a neighborhood pharmacy, not a bookstore.)  Mass market publishing and distribution of the day was putting titles like those in front of casual browsers in general outlets.  But not now.

Outside of used book shops, I don't believe you'll find many of these in mass market editions any more, except perhaps for Marquez's ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE and Burgess's A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, and in some cases it's been over twenty years since publishers issued them in formats meant for mass distribution.

When I was still working in libraries and the bookstore, and still reading magazines like PUBLISHERS WEEKLY and LIBRARY JOURNAL, I thought I understood at least a little of the rationale for some of what went on in the bookbiz.  These days -- well, I don't get it any more, and most of what I thought I knew then was probably wrong.  But it's still the case that the paperbacks that get seen in the most places are the mass market editions; trade paperbacks will be placed almost entirely in bookstores -- people who get their books from the racks in the local WalMart will see only a few of these, and people who buy their books from the local supermarket racks won't see them at all.  Perhaps even trade paperback editions of some titles wouldn't be profitable at all without online sales.

But I can remember a time when publishers used to aim books like the ones I mentioned, and many others, at the mass audience, and the distributors servicing the racks displayed those titles in a lot of places where they could be seen by casual browsers who didn't often go to large bookstores. 

And I miss, more than I can say, looking at the mass market paperback racks and finding the range of material I used to see at the neighborhood pharmacy in the 60s.

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