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Collecting mass market paperbacks

by Pam Donaldson

Collecting mass market paperbacks can be fun, rewarding, and often more affordable for beginning collectors. The following is simply a brief history and overview of this vast genre. Although paperbacks had been issued sporadically in the early- to mid- part of the century, the launching of New Pocketbooks in 1939 really led the way to an explosion in mass market publishing. The idea was to issue reprints of classic and popular hardbacks in a small paper format that was cheap, handy to carry, used less paper (a wartime consideration), and to capture audiences that had not been able to afford the original hardcovers.

In the 1940s, other houses also launched publications in the mass market style. Pricing was not the only factor that made the mass market books more accessible. Placement of the books in drugstores and alongside magazines insured that books were available to the general public. In fact, many of the publishers of early mass market books came from magazine backgrounds and thus had distribution channels already available. Publications were successful and in the late 1940s, Fawcett began publishing original works under the Gold Medal imprint. Again, other publishers followed suit and by the mid-1950s approximately a third of mass market titles were original works.

The genres were varied; everything from extensions of the true-confession-type pulp magazines, drugs, juvenile delinquency, science fiction, lesbian and homosexual fiction, westerns, mysteries, detective, and true crime were published. This was also the era of cover art. Books were displayed for maximum eye-catching appeal (even though the contents often did not match the covers in quality).

For collectors, the field is vast and wide open. Many authors began their careers with mass market paperback originals: Ray Bradbury, James Cain, Clive Cussler, John D. McDonald, Philip K. Dick, James Lee Burke, Elmore Leonard, and Erskine Caldwell to name a few. Cover artists are also highly collectible—the most famous being Rudolph Belarski, Earle Bergey, Norman Saunders, Robert McGuire, and Richard Powers. Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s Sirens of Titan (1959) is renowned for being the first paperback original book that was then followed by a hardcover printing.

Besides collecting strictly authors or cover art, collections can focus on genres, as well as collections by single publishers. Pocket Book, Gold Medal, Dell, Avon, Popular Library, Checkerbooks, Ace (especially the Ace Double Novels) are the publishers to focus on. As with any collectible, condition is very important and will ultimately determine the value of the book. Some good reference books I would recommend: Paperbacks, U.S.A.: A Graphic History, 1939-1959 by Piet Schreuders, and Undercover: An Illustrated History of American Mass Market Paperbacks by Thomas Bonn. For pricing, I use various Internet book sites as well as The Official Price Guide Paperbacks by Jon Warren.


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