Next stop, 1934

There is a delightful, possibly apocryphal, story that in 1935 a man named Allen Lane, an employee at a British publishing house—who was returning from a weekend party at a country house that included Agatha Christie, no less—stood in a train station worrying about the book business. The Depression was on, and books were too expensive for most people. Book sales were weak. However, he noticed that cheaply printed magazines in the station sold briskly.

Junk fiction of the “penny dreadful” type had been around for decades, but anything like a proper novel or work of non-fiction got printed in hardcover. It occurred to Lane that legitimate books could be sold at much lower cost if they were printed on cheaper paper and without expensive hard covers. As he thought about it, he became convinced that there had to be millions of working-class people who would buy books if they could afford them.

His employer wanted none of it, so Lane struck out on his own. He priced his books at about the cost of ten cigarettes, which he decided was within the means of working-class adults and teens and left him a profit margin, albeit a tissue-thin one. His new company, Penguin, began by printing works by writers such as Agatha Christie, Ernest Hemingway, and Dorothy Sayers. Penguin sold millions of the new paperback books, often to people who had never before been able to own a book. (Lane was later accused by Britain’s Conservative Party of corrupting the minds of the poor.)

Now it looks as if cheap paperback books may soon be a memory. Big publishers are making no secret of their desire to convert completely to ebooks, at least as far as the niche once occupied by mass-market paperbacks goes.

Although I think some paper books will survive in the form of over-sized art books and beautifully made, but expensive, hard-cover books for those who can afford them, books for those who must carefully calculate the consequences of even a small purchase may soon vanish.

People tell me that ebooks are cheaper. I fail to see how spending at least as much to merely lease (read your “purchase” agreement carefully and forget about leaving your “library” to your spouse or your kids or donating it to a charity) an ebook that you would have once spent to own a mass-market paperback is cheaper.

I fail to see how a book that can’t be read without the purchase—and frequent replacement due to breakage or carefully plotted obsolescence—of a gadget that costs at least as much as a major monthly utility bill is cheaper than a book that is ready to read as it is.

Book ownership and the example of parents buying books and reading in the home, factors that encourage respect for literacy and academic effort, are about to become too expensive for many families.

About one child in five in my country lives in poverty. In a used-book store I used to frequent, I often observed moms who were obviously counting every penny lovingly buying used paperback books for their kids. We affluent folks are about to take that experience away from those children..

I suppose I need to learn not to think about that the way I’ve learned to avoid thinking about how the nifty laptop I’m using to write this was assembled by someone in a sweatshop so hellish that the desperate people working there often kill themselves. After all, as a writer and someone able to afford ebooks, the end of cheap paperbacks could be a good deal for me. I’ve got mine, to hell with you. Right?



2 thoughts on “Next stop, 1934

  1. I think in general the ebook is a good thing. I’d not really thought about the re-sale end of the market and the fact that a lot of people might not get to read the books, due to the price of the e-readers.

    I still think a lot of back catalogue ebooks by the big authors are too expensive. Too expensive compared to what you’d pay from a market or second-hand store. Maybe if they reduced the price they would sell more of those.

    The price of the e-reader is falling and will continue to drop in future years. Maybe the price of books will fall too. Time will tell. 🙂

  2. I think there is definitely a place for ebooks, but I believe there will be some bad unintended consequences if ebooks sweep the field. In the late 19th century, most families had at least one member who could read music and play a musical instrument proficiently. Recorded music pretty nearly eliminated that entire class of amateur musicians in less than 50 years. The guys selling wax cylinders and platters didn’t intend that, but once people could easily buy recorded music, it was inevitable.

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