Space opera, horror, spy stories, noir, aliens, westerns, romance, and stories of “adventure” — cheap, lurid, shunned by the ‘legitimate’ publishers, considered to be devoid of literary value, and utterly fantastic. The pulp magazines (and their later paperback reprints) didn’t sell in the bookstore but out of racks at the drug store, newsstand, and five-and-dime. The covers were vivid and promised action, adventure, and sex. The pulps were mined for decades by later authors — as well as filmmakers — and from these humble roots Most If Not All of our modern fiction derives. It may take someone like Stephen King, John le Carré, Anne Rice, Elmore Leonard, Danielle Steel, Robert B. Parker, or Nora Roberts to ‘rehabilitate’ a genre in the eyes of some, but I often find I prefer ‘original’ pulp (the trashier the better) to more evolved forms.
…and of course, where there is money to be made: even the stodgiest of New England literary publishers will come around. A few decades of history (and a history of past sales) will give any setting or genre enough of a patina to be called “an american tradition”.
This is not the introduction to a long dissertation on Pulp, however (one could earn several post-graduate degrees just surveying and cataloging the stuff), instead I wanted to make a completely different point:
E-Books and Self Publishing are the New Pulp — and this is also utterly fantastic.
“Pulp magazines (often referred to as ‘the pulps’) are inexpensive fiction magazines published from 1896 through the 1950s. The typical pulp magazine was 7 inches (18 cm) wide by 10 inches (25 cm) high, 0.5 inches (1.3 cm) thick, and 128 pages long. Pulps were printed on cheap paper with ragged, untrimmed edges.
“The term pulp derives from the cheap wood pulp paper on which the magazines were printed. Magazines printed on higher quality paper were called ‘glossies’ or ‘slicks’. In their first decades, pulps were most often priced at ten cents per magazine, while competing slicks were 25 cents apiece. Pulps were the successor to the penny dreadfuls, dime novels, and short fiction magazines of the 19th century. Although many respected writers wrote for pulps, the magazines are best remembered for their lurid and exploitative stories and sensational cover art. Modern superhero comic books are sometimes considered descendants of ‘hero pulps’; pulp magazines often featured illustrated novel-length stories of heroic characters, such as The Shadow, Doc Savage and The Phantom Detective.”
There are some minor additions to wikipedia in the block above: I did not alter the text, but I did add some links to topics wikieditors cited above (they either missed ‘em or were to lazy to go back and give readers a helpful pointer to other wiki articles; fixed that). I might also point interested readers to the Men’s Adventure magazines of the 50s, the last expression of the Pulps in actual pulp [here’s that wikipedia article], as well as to Wikipedia’s (mildly anemic) coverage of genre fiction generally.
The first half of the 20th century was rich ground for stories — because the plots, tropes, backdrops, and character-types of the 19th and previous centuries were pretty fertile to begin with and they were well-composted with a heavy layer of The Pulps.
(Quoting myself this time) “Form, Content, Copies, Rights, and Plato” : Matt Blind, RocketBomber.com, 17 November 2009
“Paperbacks were and weren’t radical:
“Yes, they were cheaper. While initially introduced as value editions of the classics and bestsellers, soon the lower costs of manufacture induced some publishers to create new works (and whole genres) to take advantage of the format. Stories which might never have seen print due to either ‘lurid’ content or lack of a ‘literary’ appeal suddenly found a new home, and mountains of books were printed to feed the pulp market. Some of these were reprints of material previously available in fiction anthology magazines — a format that is, sadly, mostly extinct — the magazines fed a fan base that later bought the books, and the magazines were a crucible that forged not just the fans of the works but also their creators. Mystery, Romance, and Sci-fi all exist today as genres — popular genres that support their own hardcover releases — because of the decades of pulps… but that would be another essay.
“A paperback book has a floppy cover, but was still recognizable as a book. If one weren’t hung up on the literary ‘value’ and ‘merit’ of a Book-as-object, then the opportunity to buy one at a cheaper price because you want to, you know, enjoy it is a no-brainer. Here was the first movement toward books as popular entertainment, and also provided a way ‘in’, to merge centuries of Pop Culture Trash back into the literary tradition.”
How Book Publishing Has Changed Since 1984 : Peter Osnos, The Atlantic, 12 April 2011
“[H]ere is where books were sold in 1984: The biggest names in retailing were Walden, Dalton, and Crown, still relatively new as national chains. They made books available in malls as populations moved to the suburbs. Led by Crown, which was mainly in the Washington, D.C. area, the chains adopted discounting as a strategy and limited their selections to put greater emphasis on bestsellers and ‘category’ books such as self-help, diet, and romance. Barnes & Noble and Borders, which became dominant in the 1990s with superstores (absorbing Dalton and Walden, respectively; Crown went out of business), were still in their early stages. The rise of the chains had the greatest impact on department stores such as Macy’s and Marshall Fields, which in their heyday were centers of bookselling alongside housewares and clothing. By 1984, that era was ending.
“Independent bookstores — according to Carl’s estimate, there were about 3,500 full-service booksellers, which is twice the number there are today — played a major role, since they had the ability, when enthusiastic, to turn first novels into bestsellers. Some of today’s leading independents, such as Tattered Cover in Denver and Powell’s in Portland, were already influential. But many other stores of that era closed, overwhelmed by the chains and superstores, and eventually Amazon and the rise of online retailing. ‘Hand-selling,’ as it is known, is still the independents’ specialty, and while their role is smaller than it was, they remain at the spiritual core of publishing. It is encouraging to see so many of them holding their own and adapting to the digital age in various ways. In the past three years, several hundred new stores have opened, often where there were none before. At their best, the ‘indies’ anchor communities with author signings, reading groups and other events.
“The Book-of-the-Month Club and The Literary Guild were still very prominent in the 1980s, with millions of members. Their monthly choices were eagerly awaited by publishers. But, like the department stores, the ‘clubs’ gradually lost their place as bookselling moved into so many new venues, and their remnants focus on niche markets with much smaller constituencies.
“Mass-market paperbacks sold in drugstores and newsstands, which were expanding into malls also and were a very substantial business. One of the major developments at Random House in 1984 was the August publication as a trade paperback ‘original’ of Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, an innovative novel that skipped the hardcover stage, captured the mood of Generation-X readers, and sold, over time, untold (I’m guessing millions) of copies. From then on, these originals, also known as “quality” paperbacks, to distinguish them in price and style from the drugstore variety, were ‘cool,’ and their aura expanded the market for trade paperbacks beyond the classic reprints that were their staple adding an important new category for readers at just the right time.”
I’m embarrassed to quote so heavily, but the article is an excellent source of perspective on the industry: Please read the whole thing and also read Peter Osnos’s follow-up, “Good Reviews Are No Longer Enough”.
Once again, though, I can add to the block from my own research: here are some primary sources on the book departments of the downtown department stores, which can be found on Google Books: from 1920 and 1949, which I first cited in an Amazon take-down back in 2009. For more on the 1990’s rise of the Big Box bookstores, I’d point you towards this essay, this link roundup, and this math- and graph-heavy post.
The Atlantic article gives us a definite point in time: 1984 — before the Big Box, before the internet, but also well after Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls and Naked Came the Stranger by “Penelope Ashe”. 1984 is 50 to 80 years removed from the Grand Pulp Era and at least 20 years after the last of the pulp magazines. Bright Lights, Big City is cited as the first “paperback original”, which is a tad disingenuous considering the decades of pulp-reprints in the format, but considering that just 10 years earlier Stephen King’s Carrie got a hardcover release — this may in fact be the case. At any rate, Bright Lights, Big City sold a ton of books, got made into a movie, and was a big success: and was a book that skipped the hardcover. It wasn’t so much that Jay McInerney’s book “proved” the value of a paperback, or marked the day that Pulp “won” — it’s more that the mass-market paperback format was fully co-opted by mainstream publishers. Lower required investments (in author advances, and in printing) changed the calculus, and increased shelf space (in mall bookstores, and the nascent big boxes) meant there was demand.
A small-scale revolution.
The mistake so many are making when it comes to e-books and self-publishing is that they strongly feel they are shaking the very foundations of publishing, upsetting the established order of publishers and editors and gatekeepers and damnable rejection letters and bringing forth the Author’s Utopia where they and their works can Connect with Readers forever and ever amen.
But publishing is not a monolith. It may seem like there are only six publishers (soon to be five) but really: the publishers haven’t been the same since the big media consolidation of the 1990s. Smaller imprints subsumed into the morass continued to produce great books, but also largely only managed to do so, so long as they were able to fly under the corporate radar. I personally love “publishers” like Baen, Del Rey, Orbit, and Tor, but even more-so than most readers (since I am a bookseller) I know who actually ‘owns’ that business.
It can be hard to make a movie, too. This isn’t the non-sequitur that it seems:
A major summer-tentpole blockbuster movie requires the input of dozens of creatives, the technical expertise of hundreds of professionals, hundreds of millions of dollars, a lot of computing power and many hours of work in post production, and (frosting on the cake): a wholescale marketing blitz including internet trailers, TV commercials, print ads, toys in fast-food kids’ meals, and the personal appearances of actors and directors on cable, late night, morning shows, and red carpet debuts.
And then there’s YouTube. “Meh, a movie is just a video, after all: what’s the hype?”
Even an “indie” movie, or one without special effects, requires a lot of work by multiple people in specialized roles and with specialized skills. A “Director” can write, act in, film, edit, and upload a “movie” to YouTube — taking care of all of the required roles both on and off camera — and the finished work can be amazing. I’m not saying genius doesn’t exist. But many YouTube videos struggle to match reality-TV standards of production, let alone cinema-ready-polish.
Since many of us watch untold hours of YouTube, we are of course familiar with a lot of this. It probably goes without saying, and would be obvious even if I didn’t rub your face in it.
With the YouTube model made painfully obvious to you and now firmly in mind: let us once again consider self-publishing.
Unlike video, which are major productions (and often referred to as ‘productions’ in the press), Books are often assumed to be the work of a single person. This ignores a lot of what goes into a print edition: typesetting, printing, distribution, sales. Even in the case of e-books, though, where the printing et al. is done by computers and internet servers — there is the research, editing and revision of the manuscript, book cover design, pre-publication marketing, post-publication marketing, and the ‘legacy’ to consider. The long-term marketing of a book after it’s a scant six months old and slips into “the backlist” can include writing more books to increase the length of the series or the profile of the author, getting reviewed (on online sales sites but also preferrably elsewhere), keeping your book “in front” of readers in a world where you honestly only get 90 days to “hit” on the market, and overcoming the “sophomore slump”: sure, you’ve got one book out there already, but if it didn’t set the world on fire there is an open question whether you’ll ever be able to sell another.
“But, but… self-publishing! ebooks! it’s different now!”
E-Books are not the panacea some hope, and if you press the point: we’re going to have to stop you. Push it too much and you’re just selling e-book-snake-oil to a whole class of gullible creators. Can we all respect and repeat the point:
E- does not fix all.
A broken system that extends lottery-ticket-style winnings to a few, while ignoring everyone else, is not suddenly fixed when we bypass the single-channel Big Game to offer smaller jackpots to multiple winners via the internet. The ease of YouTube did not suddenly usher in a cadre of web-only TV shows to compare with The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Arrested Development, or The Wire.
I’m being intentionally harsh. I want to get you thinking about the system: It’s rigged, and it’s rigged against you — and as much as you think you’re participating in a Revolution, you’re still letting the Lottery Winners of Publishing skew your expectations. Amanda Hocking, J.A. Konrath, E.L. James, and John Locke are not your business model.
The model you want to emulate is not the major publishers, c. 1980-2000yesterday, but instead the pulps of the 1920s and 1930s:
We Need E-Pulp.
We need web-anthologies, the equivalent of the pulp magazines of yore, for the new short fiction that has no other outlet. We need editorial selection (and editorial input, and maybe even some editing) to make sense of the massive influx of new writing made possible by e-. We need e-magazines selling at 99¢ an issue, and selling in volume — enough volume to afford to pay authors again, by the word or otherwise.
We need whole new publishers like Harlequin, and new imprints like the sci-fi imprints of the 60s, 70s, and 80s — e- is the New Pulp, and we’ll need a new escalator. Aside from the content, the other amazing thing about the pulps was that this-little-publishing-sideline-industry served as an incubator where new story ideas were tested and new authors were tempered. Amazon wants to own the new system, but the pulps of the 20s and 30s were not an outreach program conducted by the Hearst Corporation. Dozens (if not hundreds) (if not thousands) of back-room and back-alley outfits were publishing rags: over the years, hundreds of thousands of pages that had to be filled with content. Decades later, these were followed by dozens of mass-market paperback publishers looking to fill racks at newsstands and drugstores, and the reprints continued right up until the 70s — when original content by the likes of King and Parker et al. started to take over the mass market. The whole of the comic book industry was part of this movement, and thank you. Some imprints that are now Key components of major media conglomerates (Pocket, Bantam, Berkley, Dial, Dell) got started doing mass-market paperback reprints; Random House and Penguin (two of the largest publishers and after the impending merger about to account for 45-50% of ALL publishing) both got their start in the 30s doing cheap paperbacks. No, really.
What does this mean for authors?
Congrats. With e-books, You’ve rediscovered an 1880s publishing model: Serial publishing [novels in installments, that sell for a few bucks per] and If Amazon Really Is That Amazing, I guess you’re done.
Oh? Not satisfied? You want distribution into bookstores? You have aspirations and would like to, just maybe, work with an agent or editor to make your books more enticing, more saleable? Gee, I wish we had thought to build up some sort of system for that before Amazon introduced their Kindle Direct program.
What does this mean for the publisher?
You’re already 5 years behind. You might be 50 years behind. #TheNewPulpIsTheOldPulp
What does this mean for the retailer?
We have to carry everything —and yet, we get no credit. If anything, we get blame for not keeping up with the ‘trends’ when no one else was keeping up (and when it was pure speculation and not even an actual product not more than 6 months ago: and we get crap if we want to downscale because damn who could actually keep up with it all) —and still, still get no credit for what we actually do.
I didn’t ask to become the Book World’s Resident Internet Historian, but damn me if I’m the only one who remembers who we are and where we came from, and can draw the requisite parallels.
In the 20s and 30s, Book Publishing (as an industry) was hardly ossified: new technology and new outlets meant publishing was still (still!) in it’s infancy. While we today think of this period as staid, personality-driven, provincial, and perhaps a bit quaint: I’d say that impression formed based on what we were assigned to read in high school and did not (and does not) reflect the reality. These decades were exceptionally dynamic, both in terms of content and in the business models being developed. Powerhouses Penguin  and Random House  both date back to this period; they are the current #1 and #2 publishers and are merging – fulfilling a destiny that began in the 70s, when the Media Giants were first assembled from their robot-lion-parts, and the 80s, when the monolithic retail chains that enabled even greater consolidation appeared on the American landscape.
Books and Publishing have undergone massive change – and changes have taken place every decade since the 30s. While we [I] obsess over Amazon now, the retail landscape has been changing for over a century, and has changed drastically for nearly every segment — books included. Where we once had the main-street or city-square retail outlet – over the past century we’ve gone from main street to mall to mall-adjecent to ‘lifestyle center’ and back to urban-walkable-main-street again. The green grocer, baker, butcher, and pharmacist are now all just aisles in the Super Market – dry goods, sundries, and even USB flash drives (these days) included. Between 1913 and 2013, physical retail is damn near unrecognizable.
And Over The Whole Course Of The 20th Century, 100+ Years of Physical Retail, there has always been the other path — what was once fulfilled by the Sears & Roebuck Catalog and is now satisfied by Amazon. I’ve made the point mulitple times that Amazon is not Retail but Mail-Order but the distinction is lost on most. Amazon is an add-on and adjunct to stores-in-neighborhoods; Sears began the 20th century as a catalog but ended it as a nationwide retail chain that was also a real-estate developer and mall landlord. I don’t know what Amazon might want to ‘build’ nor where they will make their physical beach-head: but if they seriously want to challenge Wal-Mart at least one offensive front is going to have to be in realspace.
If you show up in 2013 and claim that a ‘new’ format and publishing ‘model’ changes everything – well, sure if you think so but maybe you should do your reading first.
I’d say the primary change is in payment models, and engagement: one can engage readers directly (over internet platforms) (not all of which are under your direct control; you rely on the forebearance of Amazon, Facebook, and many others) (so it’s not really direct now, is it?) (and not exactly new, in as much as we’ve been sharing off-line for millenia) — but damn if things like Amazon and Paypal don’t make it easier to collect.
In the past, as an author: you had to hustle. Selling short stories, shopping manuscripts, working the magazine circuit for whatever payday you could manage while holding out for the larger payoff a novel might provide. Constantly writing, constantly submitting, constantly waiting.
Now, with the internet, and e-books: it’s all easier. Upload everything.
And then — Hustle: find readers, engage them, get them to read your stuff online, maybe they even go so far as to download a file, or buy [Buy!] your ebook. Constantly working your own blogs to get the work out, writing guest-articles on other blogs to increase your profile, monitoring traffic and hit logs — joining Tumblr, Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter and working those — Sharing, blurbing, networking, waiting — Wait. Is this any easier? Some things are easier, sure: there’s an online bookstore you can direct readers to, as opposed to hoping they have a physical bookstore in their neighborhood, but that is literally the last step in a thousand-step journey and none of the rest of it is any easier, folks.
The Beauty And Lasting Value of Pulp is two-fold:
First: it’s [it was] a ready paycheck for authors and artists (those covers didn’t paint themselves) and the pulp magazines were a commodity at the time. Someone bought the rags.
Second: it’s [it is] an archive and a vehicle by which new fans find the work. Fritz Leiber and Doc Smith are two of my favourite authors and not only did I never read them when they were anthologized, active authors — hell, I missed the first generations of reprints and only knew them by reputation for years until the second round of reprints. These weren’t even necessarily “archival” versions: Leiber got a set of paperbacks from White Wolf Publishing, Doc Smith’s Lensman books got a re-release from Old Earth Books in the late 1990s.
The “real” costs of self publishing are all opportunity costs. More:
Over time, a google search of “The New Pulp” will also be worthwhile: and here it is: https://www.google.com/search?q=the+new+pulp