Monday, February 04, 2008


Well, the price for one thing.  A new paperback novel averages $7.99 and a really popular author like Stephen King gets $9.99. That's outrageous!  But I don't think price is the only reason. Paperbacks just aren't as attractive as they used to be. 

Check out the 50s cover above where the "cheap and evil" girl is smoked on by the giant green head. Maybe the cigarette is a burning penis. It's beautifully executed but it's also weird, and vaguely supernatural. Weird and supernatural are spices you can add to any genre, the more the better.

I'm digressing here to include a magazine cover (above) from the paperback era. In evidence are girls, guns, an exotic locale, a picture of a real, live lurid girl, and exciting letter styling. What a feast for the eyes and for the imagination! No wonder these magazines sold!

Psychotherapy (above) was a popular subject in lurid paperbacks, maybe because men envied psychiatrists. Readers must have thought, "What a job! You get to put women on a couch and listen to their sex fantasies all day long!"  

Everybody likes to read about crazy people (above) for some reason, and if sex can be added, so much the better. It's sleazy but you have to admit that if this book was lying on a table, and no one was around, you'd pick it up and spot read it. 

There's a genre of paperbacks (above and below) which I call "Swamp Trash" for lack of a better name. Paperbacks readers were obsessed with the idea that hillbillies didn't work and spent their whole day drinking and having sex. Could that be true? If it's not, it's still an appealing fantasy for some. 

It seems to me that paperbacks of the past sold big because they gave the reader what he really wanted, even when it didn't make sense.  They sold stylized hyper-reality, rather than reality. There's a certain amount of pandering in that, but the quality of the writing and artwork was exceptionally good, which means that creative people found the medium congenial, even if they didn't like to admit it.  The weird subject matter lent itself to high style in the execution. 

One additional reason: I imagine that more books were aimed at men in those days and men's weird and sometimes deviant tastes made for more creative opportunities in print. My guess is that most editors today are women, Vasser graduates or the equivalent, and the subjects women choose to publish just aren't interesting to a lot of men.  We need more male editors.


JohnK said...

Hey Eddie, Swamp Trash IS aimed at women!

There was always a book like that folded in half on the edge of the bathtub when I was growing up.

But you're right, we need to go back to the days when entertainers and writers gave people what they want and don't charge an arm and a leg for blandness.

Some Guy said...

Because modern paperbacks are hacky and commercial and stupid. At least the ones from the olds days are fun. Modern ones are self imporant. The Bay has tons of these on display for like $4 each.

And they all have covers like this:

The biggest thing on the cover is the title, and then the author, and then maybe a two-tone shiny picture, always bevelled.

I prefer hardcover books.

Some guy said...

Oh, and also, another reason could be is that people in general read less. I think non-fiction is more popular now.

Modern novels only care about themes and motifs and social statements.

I.D.R.C. said...

...It's sleazy but you have to admit that if this book was lying on a table, and no one was around, you'd pick it up and spot read it.

I might pick it up and spot weld it.

Love that lighting on the crazy babe. Riverboat Girl does a pretty decent Liz Taylor.

I once went into a fairly posh resident's hotel where they had a lurid paperback vending machine tucked into a corner. The title I couldn't resist --"SLICK TRICK HAT CHECK CHICK."

It's funny to think of this stuff as the bygone days of innocence, but compared to what you can download to dispense with your manly urges, it kind of is. It's funny now to think that you would read a book --even if only a few pages at a time --to deal with such a thing. You get to know the girl a little first. It's almost like dating.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

IDRC: LOL! Slick Trick Hat Check Chick is a wonderful name for a book! I'd buy it just for the title!

Some: I couldn't get your link to work!

Stephen Worth said...

Wow! A Cornell Woolrich book I've never heard of before! (William Irish=Cornell Woolrich) He was hands down the best and the most surreal of the noir pulp writers.

See ya

Mink said...

"One additional reason: I imagine that more books were aimed at men in those days and men's weird and sometimes deviant tastes made for more creative opportunities in print. My guess is that most editors today are women, Vasser graduates or the equivalent, and the subjects women choose to publish just aren't interesting to a lot of men. We need more male editors."

Wrong on all counts. Your guesses, I mean.
Just as many women as men read paperbacks(and all novels or "books"-which is a heck of a broad category)in those days. And John's right-both women and men read this pulp. Can you not see how similar these are to the so-called "romance" fiction that's put out in bulk today? Men tend not to be the predominant readers of those.
You seem to really have a low opinion of [educated] women. What dullards they are in your mind. Do you think women editors back then didn't like a little PB sleaze or have a sense of humor? Sure they did(and do)-if it sold! Some actual females painted some of these lurid covers, too-though I'd bet you'd never assume that either.

On another track: weren't these books always disappointing, like the comics of the same period were? In that the covers had a come-on that was usually far, far from the actual content of the story inside? I think a few of these supposedly sex-filled tales were much more dull than their covers suggested.

Kali Fontecchio said...

These are gross.

Lester Hunt said...

I think "some guy" was right: the reason they don't make this stuff any more is that there is little consumer demand for it any longer. Sadly, the people who would have been reading Cornell Woolrich or Jim Thompson are no longer reading books. They are watching TV or doing what I am doing now -- surfing the web!

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

MINK: LOL! I disagree with some of what you said about publishing, but writing about it would take more time than I've got.

Were sleaze novels disappointing? Not really. The 50s sleaze novels I've seen (not the very, very sleaziest ones with the cheap covers, but the more mainstream ones) were surprisingly well written. There were some real craftsmen in the field in those days.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

John: I know the bayou country was a staple of 60s and 70s romance stories. Something about all that hanging moss got peoples' libidos stirred up.

Steve: Woolrich had an alias!? That's good to know!

Soos said...

I don't think sleazy books are as popular because it's so easy to get actual porn now.

Also, because reading isn't cool anymore. D:

ted said...

Wha? I disagree with a lot of this post. I think current paperback design is some of the most adventurous we've had in decades. A trip to Borders always makes me wish I had more time to read.

Here's just one of many blogs that discuss cover design.

The all-text/little-photo design you are referring to is still around in the ghastly mass-market paperbacks, the Danielle Steeles and the Tom Clancys of this world. For that, I agree, the design sucks. I wonder why that is?

A lot of the time, those pulp paperbacks didn't give the reader what he or she wanted, as the lurid style was used regardless of the text that followed. The reader may have gotten some pretty decent literature and not known it!

The sleazy stories have graduated from books to TV and magazines and most importantly the 'net. That leaves romance novels (i.e. porn for women), all sorts of pulp genre (horror, crime, spies), and then something called "lit", whatever that means.

I don't think more male editors would mean more male readers. It would just mean...more male editors. They're not going to ruin a cash cow.

BTW, have you seen the giant reprints of The Shadow/Doc Savage, et al currently in Borders (and elsewhere, I guess, but that's where I saw them)?

kellie said...

Hi Eddie, you might enjoy my friend Piet's book on paperback artist James Avati. Did I mention that before? Sudden shiver of deja-voodoo while typing.

Adam said...

Just to add some more misogyny to this post... anyone else notice that novels about women living in the city and being fashionable seem to always have a horribly disproportionate, sickly looking woman on the cover, rendered with minimal detail in Adobe Illustrator. Y'know stuff like this and this.

That stuff is more offensive than 'Swamp Trash' in my opinion. Do women really prefer starving themselves so they can wear high heels with jeans to nightclubs over fooling around in the mud with some muscular farm boy? I hope not!

Pete Emslie said...

Here's a link to some great pulp art from Robert Maguire that's more in the noir vein:

I had also hoped to let you know, Eddie, of a site called "The Painted Anvil", which had about 300 covers painted by the great Robert McGinnis on display. Unfortunately, that site has since been taken down. I'm glad I had the foresight to download all the pics about a year ago!

I've collected a bunch of the crime novels with the McGinnis covers, mostly the "Travis McGee" series by John D. MacDonald. Such wonderful gouache illustrations!

Pete Emslie said...

I checked out the link that Ted posted to contemporary paperback covers. The samples shown may be clever and witty, but they're just graphic designs, and therefore get a big yawn from me. I yearn for that bygone era when illustrators actually PAINTED. I also agree with Adam in regard to those digitally illustrated covers he linked to - pretty depressing and visually sterile. More evidence of the age of mediocrity we live in.

Stephen Worth said...

Steve: Woolrich had an alias!?

Two that I know of... William Irish and George Hopley.

See ya

Rogelio T. said...

The painted anvil site Pete mentioned is available
through the wayback machine.

Some Guy said...

Is anyone here a fan of the those Stratemeyer Syndicate children's adventure paperbacks from the former half of the 20th century? Hardy Boys, Bobbsy Twins, Rover Boys, Tom Swift, and other awesome books, all written under pseudonyms?

Booo Tooons Ltd. said...

When did they change the spelling of 'Marijuana'?

- trevor.

Chip Butty said...

I love how the covers aren't just photorealistic, they're done in an extremely appealing Gil Elvgren illustrative kind of style. Magazine underwear ads of the 40s kind of appealing, thanks to real professionalism.

There's a whole extensive book collection of a certain type of these trash covers, some of them REALLY sadistically violent:

pappy d said...

It's really just the covers I miss.

Chip Butty said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Booo Tooons Ltd. said...

"But you're right, we need to go back to the days when entertainers and writers gave people what they want and don't charge an arm and a leg for blandness".

Of course now, with the market being what it is, people don't know what they want. Not cognisent people, anyway.

My buddy Stan is a music director at one of the top FM radio stations in the country, and I asked him why crap is so popular, and he said it actually isn't. He said people are sheep.

He continued to say that if you give someone three songs to listen to, one which is shit, one which is crap, and one that is anal discharge, most people will say, "Hmm... I like the discharge best".

They keep lowering the standards and people continue to subconsciously justify it, because that means they don't have to think or get angry.

Same could be said for the decline in the quality of these covers, I suspect.

- trevor.

jesus chambrot said...

HeY eddie,

Check out this video on good ole Cuban Cha Cha Cha

NateBear said...

I think it's part of the general blanderizing of everything. Excitement got up and left and is hiding in the underground.