Hard as it is to believe, the mass-market paperback book is on its way out. Of course, the rapidly evolving publishing industry is changing so fast that it’s risky trying to make predictions, but the short-term outlook for books seems to be narrowing down to three categories: ebooks; high-end hardcovers; and larger-format trade paperbacks. We’ll still see traditional mass-market paperbacks for a while yet, but the economics of the new publishing era work against them.
Speaking as someone who has embraced the ebook revolution whole-heartedly, it will still be hard watching cheap and portable paperbacks disappear from book shelves. For millions of readers, the mass-market paperback was the primary vehicle for recreational reading. In the hope that these artifacts of 20th Century popular literature aren’t forgotten, this is the first in an occasional series remembering some of the more obscure and forgotten titles. Although printed in the hundreds of millions, paperbacks weren’t usually intended for the long haul. The pages yellowed quickly, the spines developed creases after even careful reading, and the glue released its grip on the pages with frustrating frequency. They didn’t share display space on the living-room bookshelf with the famous-author hardcovers and the family bible. They were typically stuffed in backpacks or jacket pockets and casually traded among friends. For a bookmark, you folded a corner of the page. Most of them haven’t survived to the present day.
With all that in mind, first up is a 1964 Ace edition of Almuric by Robert E. Howard. The creator of Conan the Barbarian is justly famous now, of course, but between his prolific pulp magazine career in the 1930s and, oh, about the early 1970s, Howard fell into relative obscurity. Much of his work was not in print. I vividly remember haunting used bookstores in the early 1970s trying to dig up old Howard paperbacks and it was no easy task. Later in the decade, thanks in no small part to the success of the Conan the Barbarian Marvel comic books, Howard’s work enjoyed a second round of fame, and everything he wrote was released in a dizzying array of paperbacks (most of which I still have).
But this 40-cent, 160-page Almuric title predates that revival. It is one of the smallest and cheapest paperback formats, intended for those crowded spinning book racks like you’d find at the drugstore. In later years Howard’s books were paired with amazing Frank Frazetta covers, but this edition’s simple illustration didn’t even earn a cover credit for the artist.
The Almuric story was originally serialized in Weird Tales magazine in the 1930s. It is reportedly Howard’s only “interplanetary” tale, with the hero, Esau Cairn, blasted across space to the demon-haunted planet Almuric. If you’ve ever read Howard, you can imagine what comes next. Robert E. Howard’s legacy is now secure, but it was cheap and accessible paperbacks like this that kept the flame burning in those long years before he was rediscovered.