Half a century before e-books turned publishing upside down, a different format threatened to destroy the industry.
Hereâ€™s a little perspective: In 1939, gas cost 10 cents a gallon at the pump. A movie ticket set you back 20 cents. John Steinbeckâ€™s The Grapes of Wrath, the yearâ€™s bestselling hardcover book, was $2.75. For a nation suffering 20 percent unemployment, books were an impossible expense.
But in just one day, Robert de Graff changed that. On June 19, 1939, the tall, dynamic entrepreneur took out a bold, full-page ad in The New York Times: OUT TODAYâ€”THE NEW POCKET BOOKS THAT MAY TRANSFORM NEW YORKâ€™S READING HABITS.
The ad was timed to coincide with the debut of his newest endeavor, an imprint called Pocket Books. Starting with a test run of 10 titles, which included classics as well as modern hits, de Graff planned to unleash tote-able paperbacks on the American market. But it wasnâ€™t just the softcover format that was revolutionary: De Graff was pricing his Pocket Books at a mere 25 cents.
Despite its audacity, de Graffâ€™s ad wasnâ€™t brazen enough for his taste. A former publishing exec whoâ€™d cut his teeth running imprints for Doubleday, de Graff wanted the ad to read THE NEW POCKET BOOKS THAT WILL TRANSFORM NEW YORKâ€™S READING HABITS. His business partners at Simon & Schuster were less confident and forced the edit. Even though some European publishers were making waves with paperbacksâ€”Penguin in England and Albatross in Germanyâ€”New York publishers didnâ€™t think the cheap, flimsy books would translate to the American market.
They were wrong. It took just a week for Pocket Books to sell out its initial 100,000 copy run. Despite industry skepticism, paperbacks were about to transform Americaâ€™s relationship with reading forever.
Photo by Patrick Hoesly.