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The Birth of the Paperback

Via a mailing list: Michael Blowhard on how Gold Medal Books turned the paperback from a wartime fad into the mass-market phenomenon it is today.

As a publishing phenomenon, Spillane was like nothing ever before witnessed. His first novel — the two-fisted, paranoid-macho, hardboiled “I, The Jury” — sold only a couple of thousand copies when it was released in hardcover in 1947. But when Signet released the book in paperback the following year, it stunned the book industry by selling many millions of copies. Former GI’s and flyboys had seen a lot of tough action, and they’d brought back to the States the habit of comic-book and paperback-novel reading. Mickey Spillane’s hard-hitting fiction appealed to them strongly. Was it pure coincidence that Mickey had, before turning to novel-writing, written for the comic-book industry?

Roscoe Kent Fawcett wondered why he shouldn’t cater to the comic-book / pulp-fiction / former-GI market. And why not, he wondered, skip entirely over the whole damn hardcover-publishing ritual and offer readers tough, pulpy, hard-hitting novels in easy-to-obtain, cheap, straight-to-paperback form?

No one would dispute that Gold Medal revolutionized American book publishing. For one thing, Gold Medal represented the first serious challenge to the traditional hardcover-publishing game. In a famous response, Doubleday’s LeBaron R. Barker said that paperback originals could “undermine the whole structure of publishing.”