paperback originals

by Bill Crider

The paperback original as we know it was born in 1950. Even at that time, of course, there was nothing new in the idea of original fiction in paper covers, as those familiar with Beadle's nickel, dime, and fifteen cent novels know. Beadle's books first appeared nearly one hundred years before 1950. And even in the 1940s novels appeared in paper covers without first having gone through higher-priced, cloth-bound editions. Many of these, however, were published by small houses, were digest size (HandiBooks, for example), and did not really resemble the reprints being issued by Pocket Books, Bantam, Avon, and others.

The new history of paperback original publishing began quietly in late 1949 with a brief article in the December 3 issue of Publishers Weekly, stating that "Beginning in February [1950], original fiction including westerns and mysteries will be published at 25 cents in a pocket-size format by Fawcett Publications." The series, to be called Gold Medal Books, had actually already begun with two "experimental titles," both anthologies of material culled from two Fawcett magazines. The titles were The Best of True Magazine and The Best of Today's Woman.

This announcement does not seem to have caused any undue excitement, and there was no further news of Fawcett's venture in Publishers Weekly until May 13, 1950, when another brief article appeared. This article said that Fawcett books were "similar in appearance and cover allure to many of the paperback reprints, but the story material [was] original and not reprinted from regular editions." (The key word here is "regular." "Regular" editions were cloth-bound. Pocket-size books were re-prints of "regular" editions. Therefore paper originals could never be "regular.") The authors of these fiction originals were to be paid a $2000 advance against a guaranteed first printing of 200,000 copies. The May 1950 Fawcett releases, actually the first four Gold Medal novels, were Stretch Dawson by W. R. Burnett (author of Little Caesar), Nude in Mink by Sax Rohmer (creator of Fu Manchu), I'll Find You by Richard Himmel, and The Persian Cat by John Flagg.  Burnett's book was a western; the latter three books were mystery/adventure novels.

Such a publishing method seems natural, almost inevitable, to us now, when original paperback novels make up some of the greatest successes of the publishing year (such as Pyramid's best-selling and widely imitated Bicentennial series by John Jakes, or Avon's Wicked Loving Lies, a romance which sold close to 300,000 copies in its first month of publication).  In 1950, however, paper-covered books existed primarily to reprint the higher-priced hardcover editions, and it was not long before what Publishers Weekly called a "spirited debate" broke out between Fawcett and the other publishing houses, most notably Pocket Books, a pioneer reprint firm.  Freeman Lewis, executive vice-president of Pocket Books, said that "Successful authors are not interested in original publishing at 25 cents.'"  Mr. Lewis went on to say that while many works were no doubt available for original publishing, these were "mostly rejects, or substandard books by usually competent writers."

There was also a financial side to the debate. From the 25-cent originals, the author got the entire royalty.  If his book was first -published in a "regular" edition, the author had to split the reprint royalty 50-50 with the hardcover publisher.  Of course, as these publishers were quick to point out, the paperback writer was left without the normal royalties paid on the hardcover edition and whatever book club rights he might have received.  There was also a strong implication by the hardback publishers that paperback writers would be unlikely ever to make a movie sale. Fawcett responded that its original novels were equal in quality to other 25-cent books (i.e., reprints) and mentioned that among its authors were many who had first published with some success in hard covers, including Rohmer, Burnett, MacKinlay Kantor, and Octavus Boy Cohen. As for finances, Fawcett felt that the author's reward came much more promptly from original paperback publishing than from the hardcover firms.

In addition, at least one original had. already "been sold to the movies," thus increasing the author's benefits. (That exemplary title was The Violent Ones by Howard Hunt, a best-selling writer of the late 1940s and 1950s, who wrote paperbacks under his own name and several pseudonyms – Gordon Davis, Robert Dietrich, David St. John – and later achieved fame in other areas.) All in all, Fawcett concluded that there were plenty of action, adventure, and western manuscripts to go around and that its original-publishing operation was "no threat" to the reprint or hardcover firms.

This was clearly not the view of LeBaron R. Barker of Doubleday, who felt that original paperback could "undermine the whole structure of publishing."  The "spirited debate" grew even more acrimonious. Donald MacCampbell, a literary agent, wrote in a letter to Publishers Weekly that one publisher "threatened to boycott my agency if it continued to negotiate contracts with original 25-cent firms."

What was all the shouting about? For one thing, Gold Medal titles were selling quite a few copies. As Ralph Daigh, Editorial Director of Gold Medal, put it, "In the past six months we have produced 9,020,645 books and people seem to like them very well." Gold Medal was a success, and its output increased from thirty-five titles in 1950 to sixty-six in 1951.  It was obvious that the other publishers saw that Gold Medal was both cutting into their market and creating its own market. They seemed both envious and resentful, and most soon realized that they would have to meet the competition.

Publishers Weekly reported in May 1952 that Avon had included three originals in its April 1952 releases and was "looking for more manuscripts." Dell was "thinking about some systematic program of original publishing." Lion Books had "a definite original publishing program in the works." Graphic had begun "publishing originals on a systematic basis almost a year ago." Bantam, Pocket, and NAL stood firm, saying that they would "not be competing in this field." (It is interesting that Arnold Hano of Lion Books saw fit to respond to this article with a letter stating that "The original publishing program of Lion Books is a supplement, and merely a supplement, to our reprint program.")

One clever attempt to circumvent the original/reprint controversy was made in 1952 by lan Ballantine, founder of Ballantine Books. His idea was "to offer trade publishers a plan for simultaneous publishing of original titles in two editions, a hard-cover 'regular' edition for bookstore sale, and a paper-cover, 'newsstand' size, low-priced edition for mass market sale."  One of Ballantine's first, and very successful, titles was Cameron Hawley's Executive Suite.

Another unique development in 1952 was the A. A. Wyn company's series, Ace Double Novel Books.  Each Ace Double Novel included two books, one reprint and one original work, and had two "front" covers and two title pages, a bibliographer's nightmare come true. These books sold for 35 cents. The first Ace Double featured The Grinning Gizmo by Samuel W. Taylor (reprint) and Too Hot For Hell by Keith Vining (original).

In 1953, Dell finally announced its plans for Dell First Editions.  Dell had for some time been planning the expansion of its paperback program, and had previously announced that "originals [would] play a large part in the expansion."  Early titles in the series included Walt Grove's Down, Frederic Brown's Madball, and Charles Einstein's The Bloody Spur, later filmed and reprinted as While The City Sleeps. Dell's program, like Fawcett's, was very successful; the practice of publishing paperback originals was well established.

Paperback Originals: A Reader's Checklist

Killer Inside MeJim Thompson  
Thompson is first on my list because he has written the best (ask anybody) paperback original, The Killer Inside Me. First published by Lion in 1952 and later (c. 1966) reprinted by Fawcett, this classic has even been the subject of a scholarly article by R.V. Cassil, himself a writer of originals.  (The article is in David Madden's Tough Guy Writers of the 'Thirties and is called Fear, Purgation, and Sophoclean Light.  Don't let that bother you, though.)  None of Thompson's other books that I have read, and even after five years of diligent searching, I don't have all of them, are as fine as The Killer Inside Me; but all are good, notably The Kill-Off and The Getaway.  His two latest books, I regret to say, are (1) a novelization of a John Wayne movie, The Undefeated and (2) a novelization of a TV series, Ironside.  He can do better.

Eliott Chaze  
I have only one original by Chaze, but it is a dandy. The title is Black Wings Has My Angel, and it is what originals were, at one time, all about – a fast-moving story, strong sex, an amoral anti-hero, some fine descriptive writing, an armored car robbery.  This one has it all.

Norbert Fagan  
"Who?" you ask.  That's what I'd like to know.  Surely this is a pseudonym.  Anyway, Fagan did two really good books for Gold Medal, The Crooked Mile (1953) and One Against The Odds (1954).  Both are about horse racing, and both are very nearly good as Dick Francis.  I've never found anything else by Fagan.

You'll Die NextHarry Whittington  
Whittington did it all, and lots of it – mysteries, westerns, and "straight" novels, most of them very good.  My personal favorites (again, I haven't got them all) are You'll Die Next! (Ace, 1954); Brute In Brass (GM, 1956); and Hell Can Wait (GM, 1960).  Whittington also did a number of dillies for Handi Books, Graphic, and Avon.

Richard Wormser  
Wormser gets in sort of by default.  The only 1950s original I have by him is good (The Body Looks Familiar, Dell, 1958), but no one should miss Perfect Pigeon (GM, 1962), Drive East On 66 (GM, 1961), or my favorite, A Nice Girl Like You (GM, 1963).  Or, for that matter, his latest:  The Takeover (GM, 1971).

Marvin H. Albert  
But not under this name, under which he's done mostly westerns and about three million movie novelizations (though his novel of What's New Pussycat? is better than the movie).  Look instead for Nick Quarry (try Till It Hurts) or Albert Conroy (try The Mob Says Murder) or Anthony Rome (The Lady In Cement is better than the movie, I promise).

Al Fray  
Another pseudonym, I'm sure.  Fray wrote some very entertaining books for Dell, especially Come Back For More and The Dice Spelled Murder.

Shroud For JessoPeter Rabe  
Gold Medal pushed Rabe's early books hard, but most of them really weren't very good (STOP THIS MAN! for example).  But Rabe got better.  I think Mission For Vengeance is his best.

Charles Williams  
One of the best.  His latest, And The Deep Blue Sea (Signet, 1971) is good, but suffers by comparison with his earlier books, classics such as River Girl, Nothing In Her Way, Hell Hath No Fury, and A Touch Of Death (all Gold Medal).  Take my word for it.  Anything by Williams is good, even if you don't hear much about him these days.

Jack Ehrlich  
Ehrlich was nominated for an Edgar for his last paperback, The Drowning, but that one can't touch his earlier books, especially Revenge (Dell, 1957) and Court Martial (Pyramid, 1958) which are tighter and better paced. His books for Dell in the 1960s about a parole officer named Flick (Slow Burn, for instance) aren't bad either.

James McKimmey  
Here's a man whose books have been compared favorably to John D. MacDonald's.  What more can you ask?  I like The Perfect Victim and Winner Take All (both Dell) myself.

William Campbell Gault  
Whatever happened to him?  The last thing I saw by him was a "juvenile," a sports book.  Gault did some very good hardbacks and about five paperback originals featuring a detective named Joe Puma (who then went into hardcovers before disappearing).  The originals were all Fawcett Crest books, and are all good.  Try The Wayward Widow, or Sweet Wild Wench, or End Of A Call Girl. They're in the Chandler/Ross Macdonald vein.

Stephen Marlowe  
Marlowe's stories about Chester Drum are all entertaining.  I like The Second Longest Night best, I think.  Also good are The Fall Of Marty Moon (under the name Andrew Frazer) and the "Believe It or Not" mysteries (under the name Jason Ridgway).

Evan Hunter  
Everyone knows that Evan Hunter is the Ed McBain who writes the 87th Precinct stories.  But do you know that these novels started out as a paperback series?  I think that the earlier books (now collected in hardback) are best (The Con Man and The Mugger, for example).  Hunter also did some good paperbacks under other names in the '50s:  I'm Cannon – For Hire (GM) by Curt Cannon and Even The Wicked (Permabooks) by Richard Marsten will do for examples.  Runaway Black, recently reprinted by Gold Medal, was first published under the Richard Marsten by- line for Gold Medal, and later by Pocket Books under the McBain name.  Now it's back at Gold Medal, by McBain.

William Goldman  
I mention Goldman only for the heck of it.  He didn't do any originals in the '50s that I know of.  He did, however, do one in l964 for Gold Medal, No Way To Treat A Lady, under the pseudonym of Harry Longbaugh, which was the real name of the Sundance Kid.  And guess who wrote the movie Butch Cassiday and the Sundance Kid?  William Goldman, that's who.

Shake A Crooked TownDan J  Marlowe  
Most of Marlowe's books were written in the 1960's, and he recently won an Edgar for Flashpoint; but he did start in the 1950s, with Doorway To Death and Killer With A Key (both Avon, 1959).  My favorites, though, are The Name Of The Game Is Death (GM, 1962) and The Vengeance Man (GM, 1966), both reminiscent of Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me.

The list could be much longer, and I should at least mention Vin Packer, Richard Telfair, Ed Lacy, and Bruno Fischer.  I should mention others, but that could go on and on.  And on.  Instead, why don't you stop in at your local used bookshop and see what you can find, before these books have disappeared forever.

Copyright© 1971 Bill Crider


The above article first appeared in The Mystery Readers Newsletter in 1971.

BILL CRIDER lives in Alvin, Texas.  He won the Anthony award for his first mystery novel, Too Late To Die, featuring Sheriff Dan Rhodes.  The most recent book in that series is A Romantic Way to Die.  Crider and his wife, Judy, won the Anthony for "best short story" in 2002 for Chocolate Moose, a Dan Rhodes story.  Crider also writes several other series, one about Truman Smith, a private eye who lives in Galveston, another about a university English teacher named Carl Burns, and one about Sally Good, a community college teacher.  The first Truman Smith book, Dead on the Island, was nominated for a Shamus award. Stand-alone novels include The Texas Capitol Murders, and Blood Marks.  Crider has also written four children's books, the most recent of which are Mike Gonzo and the Sewer Monster, Mike Gonzo and the Almost Invisible Man, and Mike Gonzo and the UFO Terror, the last of which won the Golden Duck Award for best juvenile science fiction novel of 1998.
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