T he best selling film in history opened in Atlanta, GA, on December 15, 1939. A ticket to Gone with the Wind that day cost 20 cents. By comparison, the hardbound book on which it was based cost $2.75. Adjusted for 2012 dollars, that’s a choice between a $10 movie ticket or a $150 book.
Not many people bought books in 1939.
That all changed when Robert de Graff released the first paperback book. Like any revolutionary change, it seems simple in retrospect. But the entrepreneurial de Graff pulled off a minor miracle by altering business plans that seemed cased in stone to publishing insiders. The key, as with many advancements in business, was economy of scale, made possible by a radical expansion of distribution outlets. This wonderful article outlines the entire history.
The article is worth a read. It illustrates a variety of fascinating attributes on navigating change successfully. Here are five lessons:
1. Keepers of conventional wisdom seldom see the new.
As the article states, “New York publishers didn’t think the cheap, flimsy books would translate to the American market.” That’s a nice way of masking highbrow hubris. Book buyers had to date trafficked boutique literary stores in major cities. de Graff’s model depended on selling books “in newsstands, subway stations, drugstores, and other outlets to reach the underserved suburban and rural populace.” That was crazy talk. Nobody believed this audience wanted books. As it turns out, they did. Nobody had ever seriously investigated the possibility. Instead, everyone relied on conventional wisdom.
What untapped audience are you not currently reaching? What is the conventional wisdom about why you can’t reach them?
2. New audiences require new communication methods.
Perhaps you have seen older books. Hard bindings prior to this publishing revolution had “stately, color-coded covers … which lacked graphics other than the publishers’ logos.” de Graff knew that slightly less literary audiences could be aided by graphics and color. While keeping the text the same, he presented paperbacks with visual appeal.
As de Graff’s Pocket Books took off, competitors got in the game. One such businessman stuck with plain covers, trying to maintain the traditional style in the new arena. He believed there was a market for literary yet frugal buyers. He failed miserably. As one publisher wrote to another, “The general intention of our covers is to attract Americans, who, more elementary than the Britishers, are schooled from infancy to disdain even the best product unless it is smoothly packaged and merchandised.”
It’s facile to adopt highbrow hubris at the thought of moving down the literary food chain on purpose. But if someone with a less advantaged history discovers Shakespeare for the first time, what trouble is it that the cover is tawdry? Or is it “dumbing down” to engage someone at what you believe is a “more elementary” level? (Nevermind that the indigenous language of the mind is not glyphs but images.)
3. Insiders often stand by or actively resist successful change…
… even when that change proves beneficial.
After the war, the paperback business took to the stratosphere. As the article says, “Hardcover publishers watched nervously as these new players chipped away at their market share. For the most part, their only stake in the new paperback houses lay in the reprint royalties they split with authors. ‘If other publishers had any sense, they would combine against them and suppress them,’ George Orwell once said of paperbacks, which he considered a ‘splendid’ value.”
Orwell’s magnum opus 1984 appeared in 1948, the height of the paperback bull run. Yet his inclination was to resist the very change that propelled his success.
Prior to the advent of paperbacks, a successful, nationally released hardbound book might sell 10,000 copies. Bantam Books started in 1945 and specialized in reprints of hardbound books such as The Grapes of Wrath and The Great Gatsby. Print runs of initial titles were often 200,000 or more, and almost every title sold out. They released one title every week.
As for those highbrow attitudes, illustrated covers aside, it’s hard to argue with the overall increase in literacy America experienced with the flood of books into the market. I still have a paperback edition of 1984 I acquired in high school.
How might engagement with new communication forms aid status quo purposes?
4. The first era of a new medium emulates the best of the previous medium.
Early paperbacks such as Bantam’s were almost exclusively reprints. Without a license agreement to reprint hardbound books, Fawcett Publications was forced to innovate to survive. Their solution? Original paperbacks. Publishers again scoffed, including this time fellow paperback publishers. The business plan wouldn’t support the higher cost of goods, they said. Authors would turn their nose at lower royalties.
The same thing had happened in the advent of the printing press. In the latter half of the 15th century, most new books were reprints of scrolls. Most printers saw no market in anything else. It wasn’t until the 16th century, when the reprint business waned, that the resulting need created the concept of an author. Similarly, early films locked the camera on the center chair of the seventh row of the theater while actors entered and exited the stage. It took an innovative director to see past the proscenium arch.
What are the new form’s distinctive features? How might you be missing out on the possibilities of a new form because you are using it like you did the previous form?
5. New mediums, initially considered lowbrow, gradually garner legitimacy.
For a period, original paperbacks were indeed stigmatized. Most “dime store books” were genre westerns and romances shunned by serious authors. But again, innovation found a way. “Trade paperbacks” found a middle niche between traditional, highbrow hard bounds and the newer, lowbrow paperbacks:
Anchor’s trade paperbacks were larger and more durable than mass-market paperbacks … Their attractive covers, illustrated by fine artists such as Edward Gorey, immediately distinguished them from the grittier pulp paperbacks, and they appealed to a more ‘intellectual’ market. As a result, they found a nice middle ground in price.
Generally, change starts at the bottom and moves up, in books, music, worship, technology, industry, and so on. The first mass market automobile was the model T. Fans booed Bob Dylan on electric guitar. The first social network was mySpace. (ew.) Those with the least investment in the previous form are the most free to create the new form. As large scale innovation assimilates, it moves up the socio-economic scale.
How might these five lessons inform your current work?