Collecting Paperbacks

Gary Lovisi

This article originally appeared in the February 1995 issue of Baby Boomer Collectibles, and was also posted on the web in 1997-99. It has been rewritten for this appearance. It is copyright 1995 & 2000 by Gary Lovisi. All Rights Reserved.

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 of us 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, lurid and cool! And lots of people are collecting them. Some are selling for real big bucks too!

Paperbacks (or, more accurately, the mass-market paperback we all grew up with) were first 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 50s and early 60s soft-core adult novels), as well as more traditional westerns, mysteries, adventure novels, bestsellers, etc.

For us baby boomers paperbacks have always been a part of our lives - often there was a paperback at our side, read after class (or during it!), or 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 GIs back from the front were looking for exciting material to read. They'd been through a war, seen horror first-hand, and wanted their kind of fiction to mirror that truth. They found that in the pulp fiction published in the paperbacks of the era. They also discovered Mickey Spillane and his Mike Hammer books, which hit the bulls eye, and spawned hordes of hard-boiled, private eye imitators.

One of the earliest of Spillane's books, The Big Kill (Signet Book #915, 1951) is typical of the era and genre. Tough Mike Hammer was always ready to draw his gat, but the tough doll in front of him portrayed in the pulpish cover art, has the drop on him with her own gun leveled at his chest. You can see the passion, anger, fear and determination in 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 the first king of the paperbacks, and Mike hammer a household name in the 50s, before they ever appeared on film or TV.

The Paperback Writers:
Everything from the traditional cozy mysteries of Agatha Christie to the classic hard-boiled 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 appearance original in paperback (paperback originals or PBOs), but most are collected because Hammett and Chandler wrote great stuff and Christie's work was such classic mystery fun.

Fingerman by Raymond Chandler (Avon #219, 1950), with its sexy girl cover and use of bright colors is a fine example of the pulp-inspired cover art of the early 1950s. Fingerman is also the second printing (the actual First Book Edition was an earlier Avon digest) of an original Chandler collection never published under this title. This beauty in "Very Good" condition will runabout $30-50.

The Continental Op by Dashiell Hammett (Dell Book #129, 1946) is a collection of early short stories about a tough private eye (P.I.) working for the Continental Detective Agency in San Francisco and has an interesting and elegant Gerald Gregg airbrush cover. Dell Book #129 is also a "mapback." Dell published hundreds of paperbacks in this popular format. The back of the book features a colorful map of the scene of the crime or the 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 $30-50.

Movie and TV Tie-ins:
Some of the hottest paperbacks in recent years and books of special interest to us 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 of the 50s to the 90s). There are a ton of these books on every conceivable subject and genre.

Konga by Dean Owen (Monarch Book #MM604, PBO 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 ape 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 Book #3093 from 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 also have photo covers showing the stars of the films or of the show. The Unafraid by Gerald Bulter (Dell Book #242, 1948) has an excellent cover showing Joan Fontaine and Burt Lancaster. Another example, this time a TV tie-in, is The Addams Family by John Sharkey (Pyramid Book #R-1229, PBO 1965) shows the entire cast of the popular 60s TV series. Either of these books could run you about $20 in "Very Good" shape. For Addams Family fans, there is also a sequel, The Addams Family Strikes Back!. The Munsters also appears in paperback at this time. Both of these are exceptionally scarce and collectable, they can sell from $35 to $75 in nice shape, and even in lower condition because of scarcity. Bantam Books published a series of paperbacks collecting Charles Addams' cartoons (beginning with Drawn And Quartered, Bantam #37, 1946 and continually reprinted over the years), most of the cartoons having to do with this famous and macabre family.

Also a TV tie-in, Star Trek by James Blish (Bantam Books PBO 1967) is the first book published about this hit 1960s science fiction TV series. The cover 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 original TV series. I remember buying this one when it first came out and reading it as soon as I got home.

Star Trek was just the beginning of what has become, in essence, an industry all it's own. It was followed by many more fine Blish adaptations, some original novels, Allen Dean Foster's adaptations of the little-known Saturday morning cartoon series, more original novels from bantam, later from Pocket Books, and it hasn't stopped yet! The first printing of this original first book is somewhat scarce and Can sell for about $20-40, but there are many reprintings that you can find for a dollar or two.

Juvenile Delinquents, Horror & Sleaze!
The juvenile delinquent (JD) paperback is a highly collected genre, as are books having to do with drugs, racial problems, blacks, the 1960s and the counterculture, lesbians, the Beats and beat-niks, music, cartoons, good-girl and pin-up covers. Many of these topics overlap.

Teen-Age Mobster by Benjamin Appel (Avon Book #T-162 from 1957) is an excellent example of the tough JD novel, and a damn good crime novel to 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, but if this wasn't enough, the cover blurbs proudly proclaim, "teenage violence and adult vice." This goodie sells for about $20-35 in nice shape. JD stuff of all types is very collectable.

One of the most effective 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 Book #137, 1st ed. 1947). It shows a gruesome ghoul arising among tombstones. This is the first book publication of this classic Lovecraft horror collection. A 'Fine' condition copy of this gem could run from $50-100. The book is not often seen in the higher grades.

One of the most interesting, exploitive, campy and sometimes downright silly areas of paperback collecting is 'sleaze.' These are cheesy, soft-core, exploitation and titillation paperbacks from the late 50s and early 60s, an era when explicit sex was a no-no and never written about. In these books 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. Even many women are collecting these books. Some are a real hoot! Many famous writers broke into the writing game by churning out reams of this trash under pseudonyms to make ends meet as they learned their craft. Discovering their work provides an added incentive to collectors of sleaze.

Sleaze can encompass any genre or subject: science fiction, mysteries, westerns, but typically it deals with the more lurid social 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 50s outfit that published a lot of low-end trash - but what great trash! Cheating Wives by Barry Devlin (Beacon Book #B252, 1959) features an excellent, cheesy 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 (if that's the right word?) both genres. Marijuana Girl is the story of a young girl in the 50s and her descent into drugs, Greenwich Village, and the jazz scene of the day. A nice copy of Cheating Wives goes for about $15; Marijuana Girl will set you back about $50.

No serious discussion about sleaze would be complete without talking about the digest paperback. Digests are slightly larger than the regular paperback, can be perfect bound or stapled, and again were common in all genres. They're highly collectable today and are uncommon. Some of the most collectable are the girly or sleazy digests of the 50s. Two excellent examples are Gin Wedding by Ann Lawrence (Intimate Books #8, PBO 1951) which sports a sleazy cover photo of a drunk girl, 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 Books #28, PBO 1952), featuring an outrageous 'bad-girl' cover by George Gross. A nice copy of Gin Wedding could run you about $35-45; 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 a new low?) with Sex-a-Reenos by Vin Saxon (PEC Book #N135, PBO 1966). Cute title on a campy sex book. Saxon is a highly collected author and rock musician himself. This one will cost you anywhere from $10 to $75, depending on if you know where to look and if the guy knows what he has.

Science fiction and the pulps are also highly collected areas. Many paperback collectors come into the hobby as science fiction fans, discover books in other genres, and decide to broaden their collecting horizons. L. Ron Hubbard is a highly collected author (but not just of sf), and one of his earliest paperbacks is Return To Tomorrow (Ace Book #S-66, PBO 1954). This one is not too scarce, but a 'Fine' condition copy is hard to come by, so a 'Very Good' condition copy could run you about $20-40.

The old pulp magazines are closely allied to science fiction and comic book collecting. There are many highly collectable paperback series featuring reprints of pulp characters in novels. Many of these paperbacks are true First Book Editions. Doc Savage (Bantam Books), The Spider (Berkley Books, Pocket Books, and the latest are eight very attractive double novel paperbacks from Carroll & Graf are just terrific) and there are many more.

The greatest hero the pulps ever spawned was The Shadow. Shadow paperbacks have appeared since that old and rare Bantam LA edition of The Shadow And The Voice Of Murder 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 60s - remember Nick Fury, Agent of Shield? (Marvel Comics) - Steranko did an outstanding series of 23 shadow covers for Pyramid Books *(and later Jove Books) in the 1970s beginning with The Living Shadow.

The Living Shadow by Maxwell Grant (Jove Book #V4576, 1978) was the first novel in the Shadow series, this one is a 2nd edition with new Steranko cover art. Pictured is an incredible scene right out of the old Oriental-menace pulps from the 1930s - a Tong hatchet-man threatens a beautiful girl as the Shadow steps in to save her. The Living Shadow is a perfect example of a more recent collectable paperback. And even though a 2nd printing, it has new cover art. That's important and the fact that it's a Steranko cover is essential, in 'Fine' shape this could run you $10-20.

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, but were thin booklets, usually running only 64 pages and stapled, There were 36 books in the series, and they sold for ten 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 of them 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, a PBO from 1951) has an elegant femme fatale cover by Robert Stanley. Sandwiches sells anywhere between $75 and $300, depending on condition; Marihuana and Universe can sell for $75 to $150 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, full of passion and life - in short - incredible illustrative artwork. Many of the books of the 50s and 60s especially, feature some of the most provocative cover art imaginable, done by some of the most talented illustrators of the day. Some of the art may appear trashy or lurid by today's puritan politically correct standards, but that also adds to the charms of these books, that brazenness or outrageousness for some, also adds to their collectibility. It's certainly not the style of art you'll see on most paperbacks today. Cover art (especially from the Vintage Era, 1939-1959, but frequently including the 60s) is like a tiny painting of a bygone era, full of raw passion, stark intensity, and realism (at least in the fine work of James Avati and his many imitators). 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 Belarski and Earle Bergey). A good example of early pulp-inspired paperback art is the cover for Tales Of Chinatown by Sax Rohmer (Popular Library Book #217, 1950). It shows a terrified young couple framed by a spider web, watching in terror 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 shudder pulps and transposed to a paperback cover. Readers loved it then, and collectors love it today. A 'Very Good' condition copy of this beauty could run you about $35-45.

Aside from cover art, there are many other reasons people collect paperbacks. They collect by author, 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 paperback originals (PBOs), the first time a particular work ever appeared in print and hence some demand high prices in the first edition and antiquarian book markets. The collectibility of such PBO authors as Jim Thompson, David Goodis and Charles Willeford is well known by collectors. Many of these authors, and others, have key books that first appeared as paperback originals. A Swell-Looking Babe by Jim Thompson (Lion Book #212, PBO 1954) is a perfect example of a vintage era paperback original that's highly collectable today and that can sell in excess of $200. And it has a great hard-boiled 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 Book, #21 PBO from 1940, with the even rarer illustrative cover) 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 many other paperbacks.

Basically, however, paperback collecting is still a rather small, fun hobby, and it 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 little 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 advanced 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 such as New York City and Los Angeles. They feature dozens of dealers, tens of thousands of collectable books, a nice friendly atmosphere, and often many special guest writers and artists who will sign your books. Another way to get hard-to-find paperbacks is through the various auctions. One way to keep up with what is going on in the hobby and to get in touch with dealers and fellow collectors is to subscribe to Paperback Parade, the longest-running magazine in the field.

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. Always a nice touch.

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 $3 while that 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 40 to 60 years old) will not often be found in "Fine" condition, and most that are collected today are 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 will 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 a part of. Paperback collecting is a growing but still a young hobby, and there's something of interest for everyone. Enjoy!