The Smithsonian published an interesting article tracing the lineage of paperback novels way back to the moment when soon-to-be Penguin Founder Allen Lane was searching for a good read in a train station after spending the "weekend in the country with Agatha Christy" during the Great Depression. Lane's failed search combined with his worry about the hard hit publishing industry, and the still sizzling memories of his weekend with Agatha (okay, so the sizzle part wasn't in the Smithsonian article) inspired Lane to come up with the idea of a 'dimestore' novel. Wallah! The paperback book was born.
The article explains how Lane's employer, a British publishing house, opted not to back his idea, so Lane started up Penguin with his life savings—creating portable, high quality fiction at a cost that enabled mass market consumption. Lane's concept of printing and distributing great fiction for the "price of a pack of cigarettes" took off. Authors like Hemingway and Christy enjoyed widespread audiences and more and more people found reprieve from trying times by reading great fiction. As the constraints of the Great Depression faded, the portable paperback industry continued to flourish even as war wreaked havoc on the international scene. The article cites a touching 1945 Saturday Evening Post report of an injured World War II soldier reading Willa Cather in his foxhole.
The publishing world and the public have reaped the benefits of Lane's inspiration ever since and, the article points out, our century's sequel to the Great Depression has also inspired a profound publishing incarnation—the paperless book:
"Allen Lane stated that he “believed in the existence…of a vast reading public for intelligent books at a low price, and staked everything on it.” Seventy-five years later, we find ourselves in a situation not unlike Lane’s in 1935. Publishers are facing plummeting sales, and many are attempting to launch new models, chasing the dream to be the next Penguin. New e-readers have been unveiled recently, including the iPad, Kindle and Nook. Digital editions are cheaper than paperbacks—you can buy the latest literary fiction for $9.99—but they come with a hefty start-up price. The basic iPad costs $499, and the two versions of the Kindle are priced at $259 and $489. Not exactly the price of a pack of cigarettes—or, to use a healthier analogy, a pack of gum."
The Smithsonian article makes a very good point: the cost of electronic gadgets required to read electronic books doesn't fit the mass distribution model of Lane's inexpensive paperback and really fails to offer any substantial change to publishing in our own dismal economic times. Although I had hoped that Apple's iBooks application would open up the book world to the masses, in much the same way the paperback did, despite heading up a company whose March 2010 stock market value surpassed $200 billion, Steve Jobs has opted to keep his iBooks application to himself, and those who can afford the IPad's hefty price tag. Maybe Jobs needs a sizzling weekend with Agatha for more inspiration.
Read the Smithsonian Article for more...
11 months ago