paperback writer

Forget the paperback writer. Its the vehicle that the paperback novel represented which surpassed the content value….

Art Chantry ( ):

The paperback book existed before WW2. however, it was not a big seller, not an important item so much as a cheap novelty. The war changed that significantly. First, the popularity of the cheap, portable, disposable paperback was extremely popular with the troops. Their experience with the paperback in the field acclimated the American popular culture to the idea of a paperback novel like never before.

The other big innovation in the paperback was the quantum leap in printing technology. Inexpensive (often army surplus) sophisticated presses became abundant. Inks took on richer pigmentation and durability and standardization (all military improvements). Combine that with a hungry plentiful source of trained labor (returning soldiers) and a burgeoning new prosperous peacetime society and the paperback exploded and dominated the book printing world.

But, it wasn’t given any respect. The hard cover book efforts of the literary culture world still controlled the sales and the reviews. In fact, the humble paperback was actually ghettoized into a separate ‘sales’ (and ‘best seller’ lists) category from the hard bound cover. The novels and entire genres relegated to the cheaply produced paperback were an “unfortunate’” source of income for the industry and kept the all-around more expensive (but elite) hard cover book alive for a long time. It probably wasn’t until the development of the “trade paperback” (larger format paperback that closer mimic the hard cover standards) that books released in paperback for the first time were reviewed and noticed as actual literary efforts.

art chantry:i don't think she screams before that, yes. i think this may be a publicity still rather than a film grab. she was naked when she screams. and the lighting is all wrong. same with the back cover shot.

All the derision and ignoring of the paperback novel did nothing to distract the business heads from exploiting them unmercifully. Entire genres of writing (science fiction, horror, romance, western, detective, crime) developed into sophisticated cannons of great literary dialogs unnoticed until their deep maturity. Now they are often usurped by the elite world of the literati as within their reach and appreciated all along, even though they were ignored as trash for decades. So it goes.

The history of the paperback cover art is equally as interesting. It developed into a vast field of major artists and genres and styles. Enormously important careers were started executing the humble paperback cover for a few hundred dollars a pop (if they were lucky). It became a traditional starting point for many fledgling and later impressive careers.

Of course, the crass and exploitive and wonderful world of advertising (which never misses a beat of our cultural dialog) spotted the paperback cover as a ubiquitous presence for promotion very early. Often you would have advertisements in the back pages, then blown in to the inner pages, then on the back cover, then on the front cover, and eventually, the entire book itself would be little more than an large advert for a product. The entire book , from written inception to printed finish would essentially be a big ad – like for a movie. You actually carry this advert around with you in your POCKET and look at it again and again! Amazing!

When I was younger, I used to collect cool old paperbacks largely for their cover art. The “movie tie-in edition” would usually be overlooked or discarded early because of the advert cover. These covers usually consisted of a photograph from the film combined with lettering from the movie ad campaign and a tag line or two (“now a major motion picture starring….”) obviously uncool and not worth saving. Most of the time the “novel” inside the covers was written shortly before publication by some anonymous hack after the movie started making a large profit. In other words, junk.

The other version that I encountered often of was a reprint for a classic story by a cult (or even famous) writer – simply repackaged to

as a movie tie-in to advertise the film from the paperback book stand (a billboard). These versions i would often pick up to read because it was the only way that this particular story would be available without paying antique or collector prices for the thing. Either way, it was a bombardment of cheezy adverts that one really couldn’t avoid.

As the years has gone by, I’ve taken a second (and third and fourth) look at these cheezy covers. I think I’ve changed my mind. Yes, these things were blow-offs by hack staff designers (usually new-hires low on the totem pole hierarchy of the art department) just making a buck. but, you can never really underestimate the impact of the quick instinctive design effort. sometimes these covers depict and illustrate and explain the experience of the story, even the movie, better than anything else i’ve seen.

Take a look at this cover for the ‘movie’ edition of the Robert Bloch story “psycho”. Beginning with the Saul Bass film title (how many times has that beautiful elegant simple design solution been copied outright? think: punk) to the inexpensive photograph (a publicity still and a screen grab, both furnished for free and SO MUCH cheaper than hiring an illustrator – even at those ridiculously low period rates. Economy and promotion was the calling here.

But, the interesting colors, the CHOICE of photos used, the utterly strident stark and downright self-righteous in-your-face visual assault of this cover really puts other, more creative artistic efforts for this same seminal film to shame. This is a great design that solves the communication problem better than the work of the entire promo campaign for the movie itself. They should have used this cover for the film poster. It would have a been a classic all by itself.

I have a small collection of really wonderful movie tie-in paperback covers that I cherish. They are the work of early stage, struggling creative artists hungry to make their mark. The results are often so much better that the calm trained professional eye they later become.


Art Chantry: movie posters are pretty dreadful in general these days. once in a great while a particular poster will stand out, but, in general, i can’t think of a more spectacularly visible and/or lousier resulting quality forum for graphic design (outside of dvd covers and broadway show posters – yeesh!)

i once (in my youth) sent a letter to stephen spielberg suggesting we work together and do memorable and great movie posters unlike the crap being done these days. he sent me back a really sweet letter informing me that he actually worked on the designs of most of his own posters. (ulp!)

he also said he’d send my letter and samples along to his art director at whatever studio he was connected with back then.

of course, that art director sent me a letter calling me everything in the book (and a few more things that he invented on the spot). basically, he saw me as the young upstart idiot dork that i was and reamed me out for my pretensions. it was embarrassing. i tore up his letter and hid it at the bottom of my garbage can for fear somebody would read it.

however, i kept speilberg’s letter. i guess his autograph is worth $25!!

ah, youth!

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