Raymond Chandler and the Mass Market: The Effects of the Paperback Revolution on Professional Authorship in America

In the years following the Second World War, the rise of paperback publishing led to the broadest changes in the American literary marketplace since the approval of international copyright agreements in the late 19th-century. Scholarly and historical accounts of the Paperback Revolution have focused primarily on its impact on the publishing industry and, to a lesser extent, its effect on the reading public.1 The low-cost of the new format--twenty-five cents for a paperback compared to two dollars or more for a cloth-bound volume--made books more affordable for the average reader. The distribution of paperbacks, which were sold not only in books stores but also in convenient locations such as drugstores and train stations, caused books to be more widely available than ever before. What has been less noted is that the Paperback Revolution had a profound effect on authors as well. Paperback editions increased authors' potential audience and allowed them to keep their books in print long after they ceased to be published in hardcover. These developments rewrote the terms of professional authorship in the United States, giving previously-struggling novelists a new means of earning income from their writing.

One way to gauge these changes is to look at particular cases of authors whose careers were shaped by mass-market publishing. The detective novelist Raymond Chandler is an excellent example of just such a writer. By 1943 he had published four novels and was beginning to receive recognition as one of America's leading mystery writers. The royalties from these novels, however, were not enough to provide him with a comfortable income, so he turned to screenwriting to make a living. The Paperback Revolution, which occurred while Chandler was working in Hollywood, allowed him finally to earn substantial income from his books and made possible his return to novel- writing as a full-time occupation in 1949. The mass-market nature of paperback publishing, certainly, was not without its liabilities, particularly in terms of its effects on authors' literary reputations. Chandler's experiences during the early days of the Paperback Revolution, nevertheless, offer a useful illustration of the ways in which the new industry affected authors' abilities to earn a living from their literary products.

Chandler began his career as a professional author in 1933, when Black Mask Magazine accepted his story "Blackmailers Don't Shoot." For the next six years he continued his apprenticeship, writing for the pulp magazines at the standard rate of a penny a word. Chandler was fortunate to make his start with Black Mask, the most prestigious of the detective pulps, but financially such a beginning was at best problematic. Never a prolific writer, Chandler struggled to earn even a modest living from his short story sales. During 1938, the earliest year for which Chandler's payment records survive, he published three novelettes and earned a total of $1,275.2 He and his wife Cissy kept their furniture in storage, lived in rented rooms, and moved as often as three times a year.

By the end of the decade, though, Chandler's fortunes seemed to be changing. He completed his first novel, The Big Sleep, and it was published by Alfred A. Knopf on 6 February 1939. The novel sold 10,000 copies in the United States and paid Chandler $2000 in royalties.3 Though these numbers hardly made him a bestseller, they were high for a mystery story, particularly for one by a first-time novelist. Knopf had confidence in Chandler's future and offered him a contract for his next novel at the unusually generous rate of 20 percent for the first 5000 copies and 25 percent thereafter.4 Chandler was equally optimistic about his career prospects. In March 1939 he recorded in his notebooks a plan for his future writing. He proposed finishing three more detective novels by the end of 1940--a rate of a novel every six months. Chandler intended to use the income from these three books to finance non-mystery projects, such as his proposed novel "English Summer":

At the beginning of 1939 Chandler was anticipating a fairly easy road to success. His days as a pulp writer were behind him, and his career as a novelist seemed launched.

Chandler's plans, however, would prove more difficult to fulfill than he expected. For starters, he could not match his proposed pace of a book every six months. Farewell, My Lovely, Chandler's second novel, was not published until October 1940-- more than a year and a half after The Big Sleep. The second novel's sales, furthermore, were much smaller than either Chandler or Knopf expected. The advanced sales for The Big Sleep had totalled 4,500 copies, but those for Farewell, My Lovely reached only 2,900. The novel's sales did not improve after the publication date. Knopf released a 7,500-copy first printing-- larger than that of The Big Sleep--but did not reprint Farewell, My Lovely until 1945.6

The sales of Chandler's third and fourth novels were similarly disappointing. For The High Window Knopf released one printing of 6,500 copies. The Lady in the Lake sold a little better, with 6,000 copies in the first printing and a second printing before the publication date.7 When Blanche Knopf expressed concern over these numbers, Chandler replied to her in a letter that suggests he had resigned himself to not earning very much from his books:

Unless he published at least a novel a year, the small sales for each book would not bring in enough money to meet his needs.

Chandler's difficulty with sales was caused primarily by the nature of the mystery novel market. Despite its image as a popular form, the detective story had little commercial potential before the paperback revolution. In the 1940s the average mystery novel sold less than 2,500 copies in the United States, and only fifteen or twenty books a year sold more than 5,000.9 Unlike the audience for straight or literary novels, readers of detective fiction were reluctant to spend two or three dollars for a hardback book. In both England and the United States, a large percentage of mystery sales were to rental or circulating libraries--businesses operating out of drug stores, book shops, and candy stores. Readers would pay a small fee, usually five cents a day, to borrow copies of books rather than purchase their own. Chandler was quite aware of this practice, which he called "the rental library swindle."10 The result to authors was a large number of people reading a book, but fewer sales and therefore a smaller income.

Between 1939 and 1943 Chandler explored other ways to earn money from his writing. Before the rise of the paperback industry and the explosion in subsidiary rights sales that followed, authors had few options for additional income. Chandler's first agent, Sydney Sanders, suggested he try writing for the slick magazines. His short story "I'll Be Waiting" was published in the 14 December 1939 Saturday Evening Post. After this one effort, though, Chandler decided that the slicks were not a viable market for his fiction. Chandler's reasons for this decision are unclear, but aesthetics were at least partially responsible. In an October 1939 letter to George Harmon Coxe, a fellow Black Mask writer, Chandler commented,

The slick magazines were the highest paying market for fiction and had provided essential income for F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, and many others, but Chandler found himself unable to write the type of stories the slicks required.12

The pulp magazines market also was no longer an option for Chandler. The pay was too low, and he was getting tired of writing short fiction. After the publication of The Big Sleep he wrote only four more stories for pulp magazines. Three of these stories were published in 1939: "Pearls Are a Nuisance" (Dime Detective, April 1939,) "Trouble is My Business" (Dime Detective, August 1939,) and "The Bronze Door" (Unknown, November 1939.) In September 1941 Dime Detective published "No Crime in the Mountains."13 Chandler would write for the pulps no more.

The sale of subsidiary rights, which today dwarfs the income authors earn from hardback sales, was not a major factor before the Second World War. Without a developed paperback industry, the reprint market was limited to a few firms and small print runs. In 1940 Grosset and Dunlap, a house that produced cheap, hard-bound reprints from the original publishers' plates, brought out a one-dollar edition of The Big Sleep.14 This printing was only 3500 copies, so Chandler made less than $200 dollars in royalties.15 Similarly, the sale of motion picture screen rights was an option for authors, but the returns were small compared to today's blockbuster auctions. Chandler was fortunate to begin writing novels at a time when Hollywood was showing interest in hard-boiled detective scripts--an interest largely due to the unexpected success of John Huston's The Maltese Falcon. In July 1941 RKO Pictures purchased the screen rights to Farewell, My Lovely for $2000. A year later Twentieth Century- Fox paid $3500 for The High Window.16 Chandler's share, after splitting the money with Knopf, amounted to $2750--a nice bonus, but not enough to be the foundation of a career.

As was common for many writers during the 1930s and 1940s, Chandler turned to screenwriting to earn the money his novels could not provide. In mid-1943 he signed a contract with Paramount Pictures to work with Billy Wilder on the screenplay for Double Indemnity. He was hired for fourteen weeks at $750 a week, for a total of $10,500 for the one film. This sum, for just over three months of work, was more than his entire earnings to date for any single novel. Chandler would continue working for the studios for the next four years, earning increasingly higher salaries. He would not publish a new work of fiction until The Little Sister in 1949, after he finally broke from screen writing.

Although his work in Hollywood effectively halted his literary production, these fallow years were essential to Chandler's career as a professional author. It was during this period that paperback publishing in the United States became a functional industry. The Paperback Revolution had begun in 1939 when Robert F. DeGraff founded Pocket Books. Publishing paper-bound books was not new to the United States. There had been two previous soft-cover explosions in the 19th Century, one beginning in 1842 and the other in 1870.17 Neither of these booms were of major importance in terms of providing income to authors, primarily because of the absence of international copyright agreements.18 During the 1920s and 1930s several publishers, including Alfred A. Knopf and Lawrence E. Spivak, had tried to launch paper-bound reprint lines, but until Pocket none proved successful. DeGraff's books were small (4-1/4 by 6-1/2 inches), printed on cheap paper, and bound in semi-stiff covers. They sold for twenty-five cents. In order to expand their market, Pocket sold its books not only through bookstores but also in drugstores, newsstands, and railroad stations. Two other companies quickly followed Pocket's lead: Penguin Books, which had been operating successfully in England since 1935, opened a U.S. branch in 1939; in November 1941 magazine publisher Joseph Meyers began Avon Pocket-sized Books.19

The industry was slowed during the Second World War, when paper supplies were strictly rationed. After the war, though, at least two dozen firms entered the market, including New American Library, Bantam, Fawcett, Popular Library, and Dell.20 By the end of the 1940s paperback books were available in towns that had never had bookstores and for one-tenth the price of hardbacks. The result for authors was the ability to reach a much larger audience and to receive extra income from their works. The early paperback companies paid only a penny royalty per copy, but with print runs ranging from fifty thousand to several hundred thousand copies, authors often earned more from their paperback sales than they did from their hard-bound editions. The Paperback Revolution, in addition, spelled the end of rental libraries as a major part of the American book market. Readers who once paid five or ten cents a day to rent a book could now purchase one for only a quarter. The penny-per-copy royalty for paperbacks was small, but it was one cent more than they had received when a reader rented a book from a library.

The reprinting of Chandler's works in paperback editions began slowly but gradually increased as the decade progressed. Two American firms, Avon and Pocket, published paperback editions of Chandler's novels during the 1940s. Avon Books released five printings of The Big Sleep in 1942 and 1943. The firm also published three paperback collections of Chandler's short stories: Five Murderers and Five Sinister Characters in 1944 and Fingerman in 1947. Five Murderers was reprinted three times in 1945, and Five Sinister Characters once in 1946. Pocket Books released Farewell, My Lovely, their first paperback edition of a Chandler novel, in 1943, and reprinted it eight more times before 1949. Pocket also brought out editions of The High Window in 1945 and The Lady in the Lake in 1946.21 During the 1950s Pocket would become the predominate American publisher of Chandler's fiction.22

For Chandler, the end result of paperback reprinting was more income. By the beginning of 1945 nearly 750,000 copies of The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely had been sold.23 Four years later, a Newsweek article on the mystery fiction business reported that over three million copies of Chandler's works had been published.24 The inexpensive reprints made Chandler's books available to a much larger audience than had existed when he began his career as a novelist in 1939. Despite the penny per copy royalty, with large sales the returns on the reprints became significant.

As his paperback sales increased, Chandler became resentful of having to give half the royalties to his hardback publisher. In March of 1946 he complained to Blanche Knopf,

Chandler felt authors should receive a minimum of ten percent of the retail price for their paperback sales. Despite his complaints, though, he was earning a substantial amount of money from his reprints. On 8 March 1947 he wrote to James Sandoe,

The reprint royalties alone were not enough to allow Chandler to be independent from screen-writing, but they provided a significant portion of his income and helped accelerate his return to novel-writing as a full-time profession.

Chandler's career as a screen-writer peaked in 1947. His contract with Paramount ended in the summer of 1946, shortly before the release of Howard Hawkes's film version of The Big Sleep and Chandler's Academy Award nomination for The Blue Dahlia.27 In the spring of 1947 he signed a contract with Universal to write an original screenplay. Chandler delivered Playback in early 1948, but the film was never produced. The Universal project complete, he was ready to resume work as novelist. He had been working sporadically on The Little Sister since 1944, but his screenwriting efforts had made it impossible for him to complete it. The growing royalties from paperback sales, when combined with the money he'd saved from his Hollywood salary, allowed him the time to finish his fifth novel. The Little Sister was published in June 1949.28 Chandler would try his hand at screenwriting one final time in 1950, adapting Patricia Highsmith's novel Strangers on A Train for Alfred Hitchcock. After that project, though, he lived solely off the income from his novels.

Despite the income it generated, being widely published in paperback had its drawbacks. At the same time that the cheap editions expanded the market for detective fiction, their packaging portrayed the stories as nothing more than collections of violence and lurid sexuality. This image was particularly troubling for a writer like Chandler, who considered the detective story a valid form of literature. At the same time that his novels were beginning to be published widely in paperback, a small number of Chandler supporters were beginning to argue for his literary value.29 The paperback covers, though, did little to promote Chandler as a talented or important writer.

Typical of the type of packaging Chandler received in the 1940s were the covers of the Pocket Books editions, which were fairly tame at first but became more provocative as the decade progressed. The first Pocket Book paperback editions of Farewell, My Lovely (1943) and The High Window (1945) have stylized illustrations of pivotal scenes in each book: Moose Malloy looking up into the window of Florian's bar and a silhouette of Mr. Murdock falling from his office window. With later editions, Pocket increasingly emphasized the violence and sexuality of the stories. A late 1940's printing of The High Window, for example, shows a large-breasted blonde sprawled on the floor, her legs parted and her dress around her thighs. A man stands over the woman with a his fist clenched, having apparently just slugged her. The copy on the back cover begins,

The characters and the scene depicted on the cover are very minor parts of the story. The line, "Her blue eyes looked up at him," which does not appear in Chandler's description of the event, was invented by the cover designer. This type of provocative packaging, even to the extent of misrepresenting the actual content of the novel, was the standard for publishers in the early years of the Paperback Revolution.

This use of lurid covers would continue until the mid-1960's. The 1964 Pocket Books edition of The Simple Art of Murder, a collection of Chandler's short stories, had an illustration of a man lifting a bed to reveal a dead woman. The copy presented a list of the most appealing features of the collection:

Paperback publishers marketed detective fiction primarily to the undiscerning male reader who cared little for the quality of a story as long as it contained bloody fights and willing blondes. This strategy may have indeed attracted one particular set of readers to the novels, but it also alienated readers more interested in polished writing. It was not until the late 1960s that the industry as a whole would move away from sensationalism in their covers.

For Chandler, who was trying to cross over to a more mainstream audience, the negative effects of paperback packaging on his reputation tempered the increased income provided by the editions. He would not receive serious academic attention in the United States until the late 1960s and early 1970s--about the same time that his paperback covers were beginning to emphasize the literary qualities of his novels. The growth of his academic reputation, however, was based on his first two novels, The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely--which were kept in print and available largely in paperback editions--and on his sixth novel, The Long Good-bye (1953), which might never have been written if paperback royalties had not made novel-writing a viable profession for Chandler. Ultimately, the Paperback Revolution was essential to Chandler's success, primarily because it opened up a new market for detective fiction and made the genre more commercially sound.

Chandler's experiences during the Paperback Revolution are not unique. Genre writers, whose market in the 1930s had been limited primarily to the pulp magazines, had a new medium for reaching an audience and selling their work. Kurt Vonnegut, for example, started his career writing science-fiction paperback originals for Fawcett and used them as a springboard to a successful literary career. Paperback publishing was crucial for more mainstream authors as well. The rise of William Faulkner's critical reputation in the late 1940s and early 1950s would not have been possible without paperback publication. With the exception of Sanctuary, all his books were out of print at the end of World War II; his republication by New American Library made the novels available for reappraisal.

As the paperback industry matured in the 1960s, its impact on professional authorship continued to grow. Mass-market profits began to surpass those of hardcover editions, leading to lucrative auctions of paperback rights and eventually the phenomena of stories' being sold first to paperback publishers and then having hardcover rights negotiated. Paperback sales now dominate the book market. As of yet there is no definitive history of the Paperback Revolution and its impact on American literary history. One point, however, is clear. From its beginnings, the rise of the paperback industry not only improved readers' ability to find and purchase books but also gave authors new means of earning a living from their writing.

R. M.