Two-Bit Culture

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Commercial mass publishing has been reinvented a number of times over the past two centuries. The basic idea is to discover what people want, produce it cheaply enough that a great many of them can buy it, and then rake in the profits. It happened with family newspapers and dime novels in the nineteenth century, with pulp magazines early in the twentieth, and then, most visibly to the contemporary eye, with the paperback revolution that began in the United States when the first ten titles Robert de Graff had chosen to appear as twenty-five-cent Pocket Books reached New York City newsstands on July 30, 1939. Like the earlier ventures in mass publishing, Kenneth C. Davis argues, the paperback phenomenon is no longer a revolution; it ended in the mid-1970’s when conglomerates swallowed the individual publishers, cover prices escalated, and the basic goal of cheap books for everyone vanished once more.

Davis has worked for Publishers Weekly and made good contacts inside the trade. His detailed history is enriched with enough anecdotes and quotations to be thoroughly readable. It is also more ambitious than the other recent books on the subject. Mass Market Publishing in America (1982), edited by Allen Billy Crider, supplies individual accounts (with bibliographies) of sixty-eight separate publishers; Under Cover: An Illustrated History of American Mass Market Paperbacks (1982), by Thomas L. Bonn, is more general and much shorter. Two-Bit Culture is the first history of American paperbacks that also attempts serious cultural analysis. The analysis is less successful than the history, partly because the topic is massive and partly because Davis’ own attitude—like that of the mass publishers he most admires—is somewhat ambiguous. He is excited by the idea of reading democratized books but troubled by commercial success that rests on mass taste; he believes that really massive best-sellers may indicate fundamental changes in social outlook but seems to prefer publishers who promote intellectual tastes and avant-garde writers.

Davis does demonstrate convincingly a number of ways in which mass publishing has reflected a time or a trend or an idea. In 1931, the whole of America had perhaps five hundred bookstores that carried any reasonable selection of titles. Even a relatively prosperous middle-class family that believed in education might keep its entire library between a single pair of bookends. Robert de Graff’s decisions about price and format and titles were probably less important than his means of getting books to readers; Pocket Books not only made its own arrangements with bookstores, department stores, and the more important drugstore and five-and-dime chains but also had more than six hundred magazine distributors moving its wares into newsstands, cigar shops, groceries, bus depots, and train stations in virtually every small town and neighborhood in the country.

Davis is very good at explaining the complex relationship of publishing success to social forces, economic realities, cultural changes, personality quirks, enterprise, and luck. The early paperback years coincided with a struggle between the American News Company and the independent magazine distributors (whose original power grew from Moe Annenberg’s control of the racing wire); Pocket Books generated so much income for the independents that American News gave financial backing to Avon Books in order to get a share of the book market. For many years thereafter, the publishers (such as Avon Books) that originated in the magazine trade featured genre fiction—Westerns, mysteries, science fiction, romance—and often depended on writers who had moved over from the pulps. In contrast, Pocket Books and the houses with ties to the hardcover trade were more likely to provide reprints of popular novels or books with proven backlist value.

The war years established the reading habit among men who had passed tedious hours with staple-bound Armed Services Editions in their pockets. Postwar times created a mammoth college generation ready to own books and produced an average of three-and-a-half million babies every year. War and college and economic opportunity and social mobility separated a great many of these babies from the grandparents who might have helped out. Several years earlier, however, Robert de Graff had asked a young pediatrician with psychoanalytic training to come up with something that would be easy to read and could be sold for a quarter. The book was delayed by the doctor’s own military service, but in 1946—at exactly the right moment—Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care began to roll off the presses. De Graff arranged for a hardcover publisher as well, so that medical authorities would supply reviews, but the book was indisputably a creation of the paperback revolution and not simply its beneficiary. It eventually sold more copies than any other book ever printed in the United States except for the Bible. Baby and Child Care is by far the best evidence for Two-Bit Culture’s thesis that “paperback books have been responsible for significant changes in the American consciousness.” It is also a good example of the difficulty in disentangling the social and economic forces, the combination of luck, timing, and distribution, and the...

(The entire section is 2183 words.)