One of the most neglected areas of popular culture, but one that offers an endless amount of fun and fascination is collecting paperback books. They have always been with us. Most Baby Boomers have grown up with them, and today they exist as a mirror to our youth, our culture - the way we were. They're interesting, exploitive, campy, corny and cool! And lots of people are collecting them.
Paperbacks (or, more accurately, the mass-market paperbacks) were introduced by Pocket Books in 1939. Since that time a horde of various publishers have churned them out in every imaginable genre and subject, from Romance to Science Fiction, to JD (juvenile delinquent) books to Sleaze (late '50's, early '60's soft-core adult novels), as well as more traditional westerns, mysteries, novels, bestsellers, etc.
For Baby Boomers paperbacks have always been a part of life - often there was a paperback at our side, read after class, on the beach during the summer months, transporting us to new worlds of adventure and wonder. However, paperbacks didn't become big stuff until after World War II. Millions of war-weary GI's back from the from were looking for exciting material to read. What they found was Mickey Spillane and his Mike Hammer books, which hit the bullseye, and spawned hordes of hard-boiled, private eye imitators.
One of the earliest of Spillane's, The Big Kill (Signet #915, 1951) is typical of the era and genre. Tough Mike Hammer is always ready to draw his gat, but the tough doll in front of him has the drop on him with her own gun leveled at his chest. Look at the passion, anger, fear and determination is that woman's face. It's all there and more. Will she shoot Mike Hammer? Will the hero of the book be killed? You just had to buy the book and find out, and millions did, making Mickey Spillane and Mike Hammer household names in the '50's, before they ever appeared on film or TV.
The Paperback Writers
Everything form Agatha Christie to the classic novels of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett were found in paperbacks and are eagerly collected today. Some editions are collected for the cover art, some for the fact that they are first appearances in paperback ("PBO's"), but most because Hammet and Chandler wrote great stuff.
Fingerman by Raymond Chandler (Avon #219, 1950), with its sexy girl and use of right colors is a fine example of the pulp-inspired cover art of the early 1950's. Fingerman is also the second printing (the paperback original was an earlier digest) of an original Chandler collection never published under this title. This beauty in "Very Good" condition will run about $30-$40.
The Continental Op by Dashiell Hammett (Dell #129, 1946) is a collection of early short stories about a tough P.I. working for the Continental Detective Agency in San Francisco and has an interesting and elegant Gerald Gregg airbrush cover. Dell #129 is also a "mapback". Dell published hundred of paperbacks in this manner. The back of the book features a colorful map of the scene of the crime or events in the story. Mapbacks were very popular in their day and are popular today with collectors as well. There are some collectors who collect only Dell Mapbacks! Dell #129 in "Very Good" shape is worth about $30-$40.
Some of the hottest paperbacks in recent years and of special interest to Baby Boomers are movie tie-ins (paperbacks based on films or used to tie-in with them) and TV tie-ins (paperbacks about popular TV shows or the '50's, '60's and '70's). There's a ton of these books on every conceivable subject and genre.
Konga by Dean Owen (Monarch #MM604, paperback original 1960) is a great tie-in with the classic AIP film. Its cover shows the typical generic hot-blonde-in-a-red-dress saved by our hero, while the giant Konga looks on, ready to strike. Most effective.
One of the best movie tie-ins has to be King Kong by Cooper and Lovelace (Bantam #3093, 1965) featuring a stunning cover of the mighty Kong coming upon the sacrificed maiden (Fay Wray) on Skull Island. Just incredible!
Many movie or TV tie-in paperbacks have photo covers showing the stars of the films or show. The Unafraid by Gerald Butler (Dell #242, 1948) has an excellent cover showing Joan Fontaine and Burt Lancaster. Another example, this time a TV tie-in, is The Adams Family by John Sharkey (Pyramid #R-1229, paperback original 1965) showing the entire cast of the popular '60's TV series. Either of these books would run you about $20 in "Very Good" shape. For Addams Family fans, there is a sequel, The Addams Family Strikes Back!. The Munsters also appear in paperback at this time. Both of these are exceptionally scarce and can sell from $25 to $75 in almost any shape you find them. Bantam Books published a series of paperbacks collecting Charles Addams' cartoons (beginning with Drawn and Quartered #37, 1946 and continually reprinted over the years), most of them having to do with his famous and macabre family.
Also a TV tie-in, Star Trek by James Blish (Bantam, paperback original 1967) is the first book published about the '60's science fiction TV series. The covers shows a young Kirk and Spock with the Enterprise in orbit around a planet above their heads. This book is a collection of adaptations by James Blish of scripts from the TV series. I remember buying this one when it first came out and reading it as soon as I got it home on that hot summer day.
Star Trek was followed by many more fine Blish adaptations, some original novels, Allen Dean Foster's adaptations of the Saturday morning cartoon series, more original novels...and it hasn't stopped yet! The first printing of this book is somewhat scarce and sells for $20-$40, but there are many reprintings you can find for a buck or two.
Juvenile Delinquents, Horror and Sleaze!
The Juvenile Delinquent (JD) paperback is a highly collected genre, as are books having to do with drugs, racial problems, blacks, the 1960's and the counterculture, lesbians, the Beats, music, cartoons, good-girl and pin-up covers. Many of these topics overlap.
Teen-age Mobster by Benjamin Appel (Avon #T-162, 1957) is an excellent example of the tough JD novel, and a good read in its own right. Originally published as "Life and Death of a Tough Guy," the cover art shows a slightly disheveled punk holding a garrison belt, ready for action. There's an inset of a "hot embrace" behind him, just to let on to the prospective 1957 reader just what awaited him inside - "teenage violence and adult vice." This goodie sells for about $10-$25 in nice shape.
One of the most effective (and gross) vintage horror covers has to be the one done by A.R. Tilburne for The Lurking Fear and Other Stories by H.P. Lovecraft (Avon #137, paperback original 1947). It shows a gruesome ghoul among tombstones. This is the first book publication of this classic Lovecraft collection. A "Fine" copy of this gem runs from $50-$100. The Lurking Fear is not often seen in the higher grades.
One of the most interesting, exploitive, campy and sometimes down-right silly areas of paperback collecting is "Sleaze." The are cheesy, soft-core, exploitation and titillation books from the late '50's and early '60's, an era when explicit sex was a no-no, so innuendo and hyperbole ruled. The covers and titles of these books always promise more than they deliver. Being the low-level trash of their day, today they have a certain naivete and charm that attracts collectors in ever-growing numbers. (Tell me about it - Ed.) Many famous writers broke into the writing game churning out reams of this trash under pseudonyms to make ends meet as they learned their craft. Finding their work provides an added incentive to collectors of sleaze.
Sleaze encompasses any genre or subject: Science Fiction, Mysteries, Westerns, but typically it deals with the more lurid topics of the day, such as drugs, rock music, JDs, sex, lesbians, and interracial relationships. Any topic that could be exploited for a cheap thrill was used to make a sale.
Beacon Books was a '50's outfit that published a lot of low-end trash - but what great trash! (See cover gallery, this issue - ed.) Cheating Wives by Barry Devlin (Beacon #B252, 1959) features an excellent, cheesy cover photo cover and proclaims itself "An explosively controversial novel of marital infidelity." Marijuana Girl by the enigmatic N.R. DeMexico (Beacon/Softcover reprint) is a prime example of what happens when you mix a drug book with sleaze. YOu get something that seems to transcend (transcend?) both genres. Marijuana Girl is the story of a young girl in the '50's and her descent into drugs, Greenwich Village, and the jazz scene. Cheating Wives goes for about $15, Marijuana Girl for about $50.
No serious discussion about sleaze would be complete without talking about the digest paperback. Digests are slightly larger that the regular paperback, can be perfect bound or stapled, and again were common is all genres. They're highly collectible today, and are uncommon. Some of the most collectible are the girly or sleazy digests of the 1950s. Two excellent examples: Gin Wedding by Ann Lawrence (Intimate #8, paperback original 1951) sports a sleazy cover photo with the blurbs proclaiming, "A drinking party...a wild wedding...a nightmare which did not end - but only began - when she woke."
Another classic, which is also a great JD novel about tough girl gangs in the Bronx in the '50s, is Girls Out of Hell by Joe Weiss (Falcon Book #28, paperback original 1952) featuring an outrageous "bad-girl" cover by George Gross. A copy of Gin Wedding could run you about $40, a copy of Girls Out of Hell about $75.
In the 1960s, with the boom in Rock and Roll and especially with the advent of the Beatles, sleaze hit a new high (or is that l new low?) with Sex-a-Reenos by Vin Saxon (PEC #N135, paperback original 1966) who is a highly collected author. This one will cost you anywhere from $10 to $50, probably less if you know where to look.
Science Fiction and the Pulps are also highly collected areas. Many paperback collectors come into the hobby as science fiction fans, like books in other genres, and decide to broaden their collecting horizons. L. Ron Hubbard is a highly collected author, and one of his earliest paperbacks is Return to Tomorrow (Ace #S-66, paperback original 1954). This one's not scarce but "Fine" copies are hard to come by, so a "Very Good" condition copy could run you $20-$40.
The old pulp magazines are closely allied to science fiction and comic book collecting. There are many highly collectible paperback series featuring reprints of pulp character novels. Doc Savage (Bantam Books), The Spider (Berkley, and recently eight paperbacks from Carroll & Graf) and many others are available.
The greatest hero the pulps ever spawned was The Shadow. Shadow paperbacks have appeared since that old and rare Bantam LA edition from 1940, right up to the present day. One of the greatest artists to work in the pulp tradition is Jim Steranko. Known for his incredible comic book work in the '60's - remember Nick Fury, Agent for Shield?(Marvel Comics) - Steranko did an outstanding series of 23 Shadow covers for Pyramid Books (and later Jove) in the 1970's
The Living Shadow by Maxwell Grant (Jove #V4576, 1978) was the first novel in the Shadow series, this one a 2nd edition with new Steranko cover art. Pictured is an incredible scene right out of the old oriental-menace pulps form the '30's, a Tong hatchet-man threatening a beautiful girl as the Shadow steps in to save her. The Living Shadow is a perfect example of a more recent collectible paperback, in "Fine" shape running $10.
Can You Spare a Dime?
In 1950, Dell Books began a new publishing and marketing experiment, the Dell Ten-Cent Books. These novelettes were all paperback size, published in thin 64 page stapled booklets. There were 36 Books in the series, and they sold for 10 cents each. The experiment and the books were discontinued after a year or so. Nevertheless, books from this series have become very desirable today with quite a few in the big money category. For example, Universe by Robert A. Heinlein (#36 with a great two-headed mutant cover), Marihuana by William Irish (#11, a much-sought after and pricey drug book) and the rarest of the lot, The Case of the Dancing Sandwiches by Fred Brown (#33, paperback original 1951) with a elegant femme fatale cover by Robert Stanley. Dancing Sandwiches sells anywhere between $50 and $250, depending on condition; Marihuana and Universe sell for $60-$100 each.
Judge These Books By Their Covers
Perhaps the main reason these books are sought after by collectors today is because of their cover art. As described above, it's often intense, exploitive, graphic, sexy, incredible illustrative artwork. Many of the books of the '50's and '60's especially, feature some of the most provocative cover art imaginable by some of the most talented illustrators of the day. some of the art may appear trashy or lurid by today's standards, but that also adds to the charm of these books, and for some, their collectibility. It's certainly not the same style of art you'll see on any paperback today. Cover art (especially from the Vintage Era, 1939-1959) is like a tiny painting of that bygone era, full of raw passion, stark intensity , and realism (at least in the fine work of James Avati and his many imitators) or, conversely, highly inspired by the old pulp magazines, full of bright, colorful images and beautiful scantily-clad women (as done by former pulp artists Rudolph Bularski and Earle Bergey). A good example of early pulp-inspired paperback art is the cover for Tales of Chinatown by Sax Rohmer (Popular Library #217, 1950). It shows a terrified young couple framed by a spiderweb, watching as a horrible, claw-like hand springs out at them from a box. A macabre scene, done in bright colors, and right out of the old horror pulps and tranposed to a paperback cover. Reader loved it then, and collectors love it today. A "Very Good" condition copy of this beauty could run you about $35.
Aside from cover art, there are many other reasons people collect paperbacks. They collect by author, by genre, by a favorite artist, by publisher, by cover topic (all books with skull covers, good-girl covers, etc.) - the list is endless and can be as individual as each collector. Some collectors are genuine scholars interested in the evolution of our society and nation as mirrored in popular culture - in the paperback.
Many vintage era paperbacks were also PBO's (paperback originals) the first time a particular work appeared in print and hence these demand high prices in the first edition and antiquarian book markets. Lee Server in his piece in Boomer (#6, March 1994 issue) has detailed the collectibility of such vintage era boooks by Jim Thompson, David Goodis, and Charles Willeford. These currently hotly collected authors, along with many others, had their books original appear in scarce paperback editions. A Swell Looking Babe by Jim Thompson (Lion Books, #212, paperback original 1954) is a perfect example of a vintage era paperback original that's highly collectible today and that can sell in excess fo $100. And what a great hardboiled cover!
Some books are also attracting very hefty prices at the regular paperback auctions held each month by a variety of specialty dealers. For instance, The Shadow and the Voice of Murder (a rare Bantam LA, #21, paperback original from 1940, illustrative cover edition) was the first paperback to sell for over $1,000 at auction a few years ago. Since that time that figure has been eclipsed by other paperbacks.
Basically, however, paperback collecting is still a small, fun hobby, and is one of the best kept secrets in the collectible arena. It's a hobby where it is still possible to make great finds of rare, collectible, and high-valued editions at flea markets, yard sales, Goodwill stores, estate sales, and even sometimes at that out-of-the-way bookstore that looks like no one's visited it since 1968. Hint: Always ask to see what's in the back room or the basement.
For the advance collector, or the collector with special wants, or a limited amount of time to spare, the best place to find the books you are looking for is at a paperback show. These are held yearly at various locations in the country (See the "Sources for Further Information" page - Ed.), feature dozens of dealers, tens of thousands of books, a nice friendly atmosphere, and often many special guest writers and artists who will sign books. Another way to get hard-to-find paperbacks is through various auctions.
Perhaps the best way to obtain the books you want is through trading with other collectors. Trading "dupes" is an excellent way to get rid of unwanted copies and at the same time obtain something you need or want in return without having to lay out cash for it.
The most important indication of the value of any collectible paperback is the condition of the book. Obviously books that are "like new" or were never read, will command higher prices than books with flaws such as cover creases, bent spines, brown pages, tears, or markings on the cover affecting the art. Condition impacts most heavily on the most highly-collected and expensive items. So a book in what is termed "Good" condition (the average complete but heavily worn reading copy) may sell for $5 while the same book in near "Fine" condition (being "like new") might sell for $50 or more. In some cases much more. Condition, perhaps even more than scarcity, affects value and price. The average vintage era paperback (now 30-40 years old) will not ofter be found in "Fine" condition, and most are collected in a general area of condition that runs the gamut from "Good+" to "near Fine", with the median being "Very Good" - the average used paperback that's in acceptable collectible shape but may have a few minor (or not so minor) flaws.
No look at the paperback collecting hobby would be complete without mentioning the many fine people involved in it through their love of books. It contains some of the most diverse and interesting people you'll ever meet; it's a community that you'll enjoy being part of. Paperback collecting is a growing but still a young hobby, and there's something of interest for everyone.
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