For many of us, the wave of digital change driven by e-books causes turmoil. “How can I succeed in this new world when I am a literary person, not a technology person?” “Should I acquire, market or distribute e-books in a different way to printed books?”
I take great delight when I can find a historical parallel to modern digital dilemmas. The new whizz-kids driving social media and transmedia changes may be creating new technologies, but the humans using them have been the same for thousands of years, which means history lessons can still be useful.
Over 80 years ago a new format caused a revolution in the publishing industry. Paperbacks. In 1934, most books were expensive hardbacks sold through established booksellers. Paperbacks had been invented, but were generally “pulp” fiction romances, comics or westerns. When Allen Lane at Penguin books decided to publish quality literature in paperback format in 1935, he made a leap of understanding about what people wanted. Traditional publishers of the time thought the working classes wanted pulp fiction, not quality literature. Lane ignored this dictum (he had a knack for ignoring society views in many areas) and stunned the publishing world when his first print run sold out through Woolworths. Within a year he had sold over one million copies.
Pocket Books in the USA emulated Penguin’s success. Their first print run of 200,000 quality titles sold out at department stores within 24 hours. By 1960, almost every major publisher had acquired or merged with a large paperback house. Those that did not, did not survive.
Why were traditional publishers in 1935 so wrong about what “the masses” wanted? In 1935, working class people and immigrants from outside the UK/USA were redefining themselves. Tolstoy and Marx had spread the idea that intellectual endeavour could free them from drudgery, and immigrants in particular were keen on education as a way to better their family’s prospects. When quality paperbacks were sold in department stores, people didn’t snap them up as cheap entertainment – they bought them as affordable keys to social elevation.
To succeed in an era dominated by new digital formats, we can ask ourselves questions informed by history. What is it that today’s “masses” want? What department stores are people passing through? I will explore these questions in my next posting.