The Mighty Paperback – It Saves Lives

A paperback is defined as a softcover book with a thick paper cover or paper board cover, the pages of which are held together with glue rather than stitches or staples. Glue is used in a hardback too but here, the pages are sewn together in sections. The hardback is characterized by sturdy boards with a loose jacket cover. The paper used for printing in a paperback is often of lower grammage or thickness than that of the hardback. Therefore, the paperback appears less sturdy, lightweight and perhaps more flimsy. It’s difficult to believe that such an object could save a life. But that’s precisely what the paperback carried in the breast-pocket of French legionnaire Maurice Hammoneau did during the battle of Verdun, in the First World War, in 1913. Hammoneau was shot and lost consciousness. When he regained consciousness, he found that he was alive because the book had stopped the bullet – its last twenty pages had miraculously stopped the bullet from creating a fatal wound. As for the book, we know it well in India. It was the pocket edition in French of Rudyard Kipling’s famous work, Kim. This book can be viewed in the Rare Books Room of the Library of Congress in Washington DC, along with some correspondence between Maurice and Kipling.

Yet another soldier in the Second World War, this time an American, was severely wounded and waited in a foxhole for help which took time coming. Not ready to give into despair in spite of his injury and pain, he reached into his trouser pocket for a book to read and while away the hours before help came. The book was Death Comes for the Archbishop by an American author from Nebraska, Willa Cather. The Saturday Evening Post reported in 1945 that he had grabbed it only just before going into battle thinking it was a murder mystery. He was pleasantly surprised to discover it was not, and to his amazement, he liked it anyway. It helped him forget his pain and did not allow him to succumb to his wounds. There are innumerable accounts of prisoners across the world incarcerated for a variety of reasons keeping their sanity and lives intact by reading a paperback, a product easily portable and transportable and if necessary, concealable too.

The Origins

Classics in Greek, Latin and  other languages printed by the famous Italian publisher Aldus Manutius in his Aldine Press in 1494, now known as the Aldine Paperbacks, helped to make reading more universal and democratic. More importantly, it helped women to read and both access and appreciate literature. It enabled a celebrated courtesan like Veronica Franco (1546-1591) to receive a humanist education and make important contributions in feminism, more inclusive education, a greater emphasis on value, reason and gender equality. Not only was she an author of great repute but her prowess in poetry was so great that she won all her poetry duels with the great poets in Venice. Men flocked to and sought her company but she bestowed her favours with care. Eventually, her reputation resulted in a public trial by a special Papal Inquisitor. But she was acquitted and her life was spared because no one would testify against her and her learning came from the early access to the early classics in paperback.

The Modern Paperback

The dramatic story behind the invention of the modern paperback by the legendary Allen Lane has been termed apocryphal but could well be plausible. In The Life and Times of Allen Lane, Jeremy Lewis has stated that Allen Lane was returning to London after a meeting with Agatha Christie in 1934, when at Exeter Station, he looked for something suitable to read. Terribly disappointed at the fare on offer at the bookstall, he resolved immediately to bring out a line of quality paperbacks that each would not cost more than a packet of cigarettes, which indeed were more readily visible and available. Our sympathies are with Allen Lane. How often have we undertaken a train journey and been terribly disappointed with the books at the bookstall on the railway platform? The only small quibble I have with the story is that Lane as a publisher would obviously have been a reader too. Surely, he would have carried something of his own to read on the long journey?

Apparently, Lane got the idea of a Penguin as the ideal logo for the imprint from his secretary in the office and sent an artist to the London Zoo to bring back sketches of the bird. The first clutch of ten Penguin paperbacks included The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie, A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway and The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy Sayers. The initial cover designs were a masterpiece. Apart from distinct typography, the covers followed a colour coding that emphasised a brand. Orange for fiction, green for mystery and crime, dark blue for biography etc. Above all, the cute bird on the front cover and on the spine was instantly recognisable. While Allen Lane formed his plans for the new imprint in 1934, he could launch the Penguin imprint only in 1935 as he had to cobble up the requisite capital. At the same time, another revolution involving paperbacks happened across the ‘pond,’ in the US. In June 1939, another publisher, Robert de Graff launched Pocket Books, a paperback imprint designed to make the book fit into your jacket pocket. He too had the same idea as Allen Lane; not only should the book fit into the pocket but it had to cost what people could pay with loose change. So, if Lane sold his Penguin paperbacks at six pence, to match the cost of a packet of ten cigarettes, de Graff priced his Pocket Books at a quarter each. If cigarettes had been Lane’s inspiration, in de Graff’s case, it was the toll-booth on the US highways. Americans spent a quarter on getting through toll-booths and de Graff concluded no one would miss a quarter.

The Paperback Goes Universal

The introduction of paperbacks as a publishing format across different subjects created a virtual revolution in making books more portable, more universal, more accessible and more affordable. Europe too joined the Anglo-American world. France had a paperback tradition going back to the days of the First World War as we had seen with the French paperback edition of Kipling’s Kim. They also had their own pocket books, the livres des poches. A pioneering German publisher, Bernhard Tauchnitz started a collection of British and American Authors as early as 1841. These were inexpensive paperback editions of popular English authors and in some cases, print runs were as high as 5,000 copies. Another German publisher, Reclam published Shakespeare’s works in this format in 1857. But it was the publisher Albatross who pioneered the modern paperback in Germany in 1931. Though his innovation and experimentation were cut short with the advent of the Second World War, many of his ideas were incorporated by Allen Lane in his imprint Penguin.

Light, often inexpensive and easily portable, the now ubiquitous paperback has played an important role in making books accessible to all, hence democratising the reading habit. One can find paperbacks not just in high-end book shops but also on small streetside stalls, which often also stock used books that anyone can afford to buy
Photo Credit: Slogan Murugan / Mumbai Paused

The Impact of Paperbacks

Books were now available at a fraction of what they had cost earlier. They were more affordable and far more universal than ever before. Clothes were now being designed so that the pockets could hold a paperback. Whether it was the jacket pocket or the ‘back of trouser’ pocket, it had to be able to hold a paperback. The bulge at the back of trouser pocket indicated whether the wearer was a reader. Perhaps the greatest impact of paperbacks was their visibility. Bookshops found it easier now to stock more books in less space. But the greatest challenge was in places which did not have bookshops. The departments store Woolworth placed an order of 63,500 copies for each of the first Penguin paperbacks. When de Graff published Pocket Books, he found only 2,800 bookshops to stock his books. This was rather inadequate not only for his books but for that of other publishers too. So, paperbacks now became available in newsstands, drugstores, cigar stores (this made Allen Lane happy for he made books available at the tobacconists), lunch counters, and train and bus stations. Fittingly, on 23rd April, on the occasion of World Book Day, Allen Lane’s daughter along with her husband unveiled a book vending machine for Penguin Paperbacks at Exeter Station which had started it all.

The Mass Market Paperback

Mass market paperbacks created a new readership. People were no longer inhibited or intimidated or put off by books. They were now ‘put onto’ books. Carrying a paperback or even reading from it was now a fashion statement. Reading was no longer surreptitious but began to be done openly. If you happened to read one of the more risqué or erotic paperbacks published by the Olympia Press or Tower Books in Paris or even the Midwood series with racy covers, you used discreet brown paper covers and no one was the wiser, In fact, the distinction of the Traveler’s Companion paperbacks were their plain covers. Paperbacks were marked by low prices. These prices could only be sustained by low unit prices in the costing by increasing the print orders. The  print runs for the first clutch of Penguin paperbacks indicated viability at 17,000 copies each but the initial order from Woolworth was a bonanza and print-runs were increased accordingly. As more publishers joined the paperback movement, print runs for paperbacks on both sides of the Atlantic averaged between 20-30,000 copies. While Penguin had as its market the English-speaking areas of the British Empire, US paperbacks found their way here too but the unconventional retail outlets like drug stores and gas filling stations meant that people could pick up a book while getting their prescription filled or putting gas in their cars. And they paid out of spare change.

Paperbacks began to be treated as consumer products and they were promoted as such. Customers were attracted by deals and discounts. Two for the price of one, or buy one and get half off on the next. These continue in airport bookstores today too. Stacking of paperbacks on cash counters led to impulse purchase while the bill was run up but not ‘closed.’ Airports, rail and bus stations were popular outlets for paperbacks. Publishers like Routledge even had special railway editions of popular paperbacks. Some long-distance trains had traveling libraries on the train with paperbacks that were read and completed on the journey and very often left there for the next traveler, much like newspapers.

Paperbacks got a major boost during the Second World War. British and American publishers collaborated to produce Armed Services Editions of popular titles. Paperbacks trimmed to a size that easily fitted into the pocket of a uniform and meant to be discarded after use were issued to millions of troops free of charge. Discerning readers in the forces could always pick up paperbacks of their choice from the many retail outlets near the service headquarters. It has been estimated that a staggering 123 million paperbacks were distributed to the armed forces, at a cost of six cents each to the respective governments.

Initially, while the first paperbacks were reprints of successful hardbacks, the growing demand and specialised paperback imprints resulted in initial publishing in the paperback format itself. Hardbacks were usually reserved for the library and institutional market. As technology developed, production standards too improved with better paper, distinct typography and a striking cover design leading to an elegant product.

Paperbacks in India

The books market in India too has been in the grip of the paperback revolution. While paperbacks continue to sell in the main from the established outlets like distributors and retail book stores, unconventional experiments have not been uncommon. The myriad and many literary festivals, along with the numerous book fairs have been major sources for paperback sales. The experiments include a series of retail outlets called ‘The Corner Store’ in petrol pumps, piling up of paperbacks on billing counters in leading stores like Westside and Marks & Spencer, and Spring and Autumn festivals for sales of paperbacks. Apart from leading publishers like Penguin, HarperCollins, Hachette, Rupa, Speaking Tiger and Simon & Schuster, an academic and scholarly publisher like Oxford University Press (OUP) has developed an active paperback list called Oxford India Paperbacks (OIPs) which has around 800 titles now and is proving very popular. Paperbacks are now a distinct brand and hold pride of place in retail display.

A.H. Wheeler in the North and Higginbothams in the South provided books for rail travelers in most major railway stations in India. Like Routledge, they too published special railway editions of popular paperbacks. They continue to operate along with publishers of books in Indian languages. A prominent language publisher in Hindi, Hind Pocket Books, took advantage of the paperback revolution to create a range of popular paperbacks that revolutionised reading habits.  

Paperbacks published in the 1930s also carried advertisements – everything from soap to soup to syrup, and much more!

A feature characterising the universal paperback  has sadly been missed out by modern researchers into its history. This was that popular paperbacks published in the 1930s were great means of advertisement for a variety of products. The advertisements reached thousands of homes through the paperback and presumably, some percentage of these homes brought the products too. The paperback editions of popular authors like H. Rider Haggard’s (among the first English authors to be promoted in India) King Solomon’s Mines, Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage, Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond, and John Buchan’s Greemantle were replete with advertisements sometimes running up to ten pages. Products featured ranged from liver pills, cocoa powder, soap, cough syrup, soup tablets, cycles and insurance, all products used by ordinary consumers. These advertisements were an eloquent testimony to the popularity of the paperback and its reach.

As for Allen Lane, who pioneered the paperback revolution and whose Penguins proved so popular  that he had to launch another imprint called Pelicans, now had the distinction of starting an imprint under his own name. But the irony was that the initial books published under the Allen Lane imprint were hardbacks, with paperbacks in non-fiction appearing much later. Did Lane achieve his twin objectives of making a paperback as cheap as a pack of cigarettes and as plentifully available? Yes, to the former but perhaps, ruefully, no to the latter. Lane would have been ecstatic that his beloved Penguin paperbacks were  available through vending machines just like cigarettes. But smokers can be readers too. Sadly, books continue to fight for display space and bookshops themselves are in a crisis. 

While paperbacks do compete for the attention of the reader along with the Kindle, the future of reading has perhaps not been written yet. But one thing is certain. Paperbacks, both in their period of evolution and even now, are not only life-savers but they transform lives too!

-Sridhar Balan

Sridhar Balan has been a senior professional in the publishing industry. His columns have appeared in The Hindu, The  Economic Times, The Indian Express, The Financial Express and The Asian Age. His book Off the Shelf – On Books, Book People and Places was published by Speaking Tiger Books, New Delhi, in 2019.

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