The Man Who Invented The Science Fiction Paperback

Illustration for article titled The Man Who Invented The Science Fiction Paperback

Many of science fiction's greatest classics were published as paperback originals — and the genre might never have gotten so much widespread appeal without the cheap paperback format. As a new article in Investor's Business Daily explains, this was the brainchild of publisher Ian Ballantine.


Back in the 1940s and 1950s, when America had only 2,500 bookstores, the "father of the mass-market paperback" helped come up with the idea of selling books in newsstands and drugstores, capitalizing on the voracious appetite for books among returning World War II vets. As IBD's Clay Latimer explains:

"The idea was to produce a book that could be read for the price of a pack of cigarettes," Paula Rabinowitz, a University of Minnesota English professor and author of "American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street," told IBD. "It was an invitation to a literary life to working people, to regular people."

Ballantine was one of the earliest publishers of science-fiction paperback originals, with writers including Arthur Clarke ("2001"), Ray Bradbury ("Fahrenheit 451") and Frederik Pohl ("The Space Merchants"). During the 1960s, Ballantine published the first authorized paperback editions of J.R.R. Tolkien's books.

"These were great classics of world fiction," said Loren Glass, a University of Iowa English professor. "He published in original form some of the greatest works in the golden age of science fiction. One of the interesting things about Ballantine is that he was not only a businessman trying to make money in books; he was a student of literature and publishing, and something of an intellectual."

Older, more conservative publishers opposed the move to paperback originals as potentially cannibalizing hardcover sales, but Ballantine pushed forward. The whole article, including how Ballantine captured the rights to the Lord of the Rings trilogy after the rights had lapsed and Ace had published an unauthorized version (without paying royalties to Tolkien) is fascinating. [Investor's Business Daily]



The used bookstore in my area has a whole shelf of scifi pocketbooks from the 50's and '60's. I love looking at the classic cover art.