Reading Robert Polito's biography of Jim Thompson reminded me of just how revolutionary paperback originals were in the 1950s. At first scorned as an outlet for inferior writing, and later accused of de-stabilizing the publishing industry, paperback originals actually created a market that hadn't existed and connected readers and writers in new ways, just as ebooks have done in the last ten years.
I became aware of paperback originals last April, thanks to an article by Bill Crider. He points out that some well-known crime writers such as Lawrence Block and John D. MacDonald, got their start in paperback originals, and he appends "A Reader's Checklist" of less-known authors who compare favorably to them.
Since he was writing in 1971, Crider recommended searching used-book stores for original copies of these mystery novels. Today those copies would be available only from specialty dealers such as Kayo Books.
Checking my libraries (The Mechanics Institute and The San Francisco Public) I discovered new copies of these novels from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Stark House Press has been publishing re-issues of paperback originals for several years now. They offer books by every author on Crider's list and many more.
As I prepare to publish the first of my murder mysteries in the fall, I have to wonder: will readers be attracted to a book about a woman who solves crimes if it's written by a man?
Lots of writers use initials for lots of reasons, one of them being to de-emphasize the sex of the author. For instance, G. M. Malliett, a woman, writes a series about Max Tudor, a man. E. J. Copperman, a man, writes three series in which the sleuth is a woman.
To get a sense of what's going on in the marketplace for the kind of book I write, I went to the website for Malice Domestic, a conference for fans and writers, devoted to the "traditional mystery," a form typified by the novels of Agatha Christie. By making a list I found that about equal numbers of women and men use initials instead of a first name. Some of their sleuths are the opposite sex, some are the same. So there does not appear to be a standard practice for this.
My sleuth is an art historian named Nicole Tang Noonan. Will potential readers be less attracted to a series of books about her if they are written by "Rick Homan?" Would a reader be more likely to give them a try if they are by "R. L. Homan?"
Michael Connelly's latest book runs over 100,000 words by my estimate. Agatha Christie's novels typically run less than 70,000 words. So the present-day bestseller is half again as long as the bestseller of the early twentieth century.
Lawrence Block, recalling the beginning of his career writing paperback originals in the 1950s, says he learned that 60,000 words is a standard length for a novel. Today some publishers of mysteries require at least 80,000 words from a first-time author.
Why? Do mystery readers have more leisure to read longer books? That seems unlikely. Are stories more complicated, requiring more pages to work through all the twists and turns of the plot? Probably not.
Here's a clue: Connelly's latest is really two novellas and a short story (labelled "Part I," "Part II," and "Part III") packaged as one big book and called a "novel."
Some speculate that the traditional publishing industry needs to charge $30 for a hardback in order to pay all the costs of bringing the book to market, and that readers are willing to pay that much if they get a lot of pages for their money.
If so, Ebooks and print-on-demand paperbacks may be the best vehicle for the traditional mystery novel of 60,000 to 70,000 words because the costs of production and distribution are so much less. The ebook can sell for around $2.99, and the paperback for $10 to $12. The revenue to the writer can be more than with a hardback from a traditional publisher.
"The paperback original as we know it was born in 1950," says Bill Crider in his excellent article from The Mystery Readers Newsletter in 1971. That's when Fawcett began publishing its Gold Medal Books, paperback editions of new novels. Up until then, paperbacks were issued only for reprints of books previously available in hardcover.
Fawcett published its paperback originals through the 1950s and 1960s and other publishers imitated its success. Some of the great names in crime fiction learned their craft and launched their careers writing for this market, including John D. MacDonald, Donald E. Westlake, Jim Thompson, and Lawrence Block.
With this new concept, these publishers built a huge audience for what is now called genre fiction: mystery, western, science fiction, and romance. Fawcett guaranteed its authors a first printing of 200,000 copies. It's easy to see a parallel to today's ebook phenomenon: lots of people reading lots of books that otherwise would not have been written and published.
The reaction of the publishing industry to paperback originals also sounds familiar. Crider quotes an executive of Pocket Books, which published paperback reprints, as saying, paperback originals were, "mostly rejects, or substandard books." The traditional publishers also said writers couldn't make a decent income from paperback originals and couldn't sell their stories to Hollywood. These accusations were quickly disproven.
When the success of paperback originals became undeniable, an executive of Doubleday complained that this new format would, "undermine the whole structure of publishing." But soon those traditional publishers were offering their own line of paperback originals and announcing plans to publish new fiction in hardcover and paperback simultaneously, just as traditional publishers now do with ebooks.
Kayo Books, in the photo above, is San Francisco's book seller devoted to collectable vintage paperbacks.