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Portable literature

June 17, 2010

Glancing in bookstores today makes it hard to believe that paperback books were once a novelty. But the "pocket book" publishing model celebrates its 60th anniversary this week in Germany.

A man holds several books in each hand that display Rowohlt's logo
Rowohlt's "rororo" logo is still well known across GermanyImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

June 17, 1950 marked the start of a small revolution in German publishing. Publisher Ernst Rowohlt began mass production of paperbacks, a novelty in a market where literature was synonymous with expensive and intricately-bound hardcover books.

"We've got to get something back in the hands of German readers," said Rowohlt's son Heinrich Maria Ledig-Rowohlt, who introduced his father to the idea of publishing serious literature at reasonable prices, without sacrificing the books' aesthetic appeal. Their strategy was a hit in the post-war market, where money was scarce and many basics like books had been destroyed in the war.

At the price of 1.5 German marks, a million books with Rowohlt's "rororo" insignia had been sold by 1951. Among the first editions were Hans Fallada's "Little Man, What Now?", Graham Green's "The End of the Affair," Rudyard Kipling's "Jungle Book," and Kurt Tucholsky's "Gripsholm Castle."

Today, the light-weight books are as popular as ever with more than 600 million Rowohlt paperbacks issued since 1950.

Chain reaction

Publisher Ernst Rowohlt sits at a desk in front of a large shelf of books
Publisher Ernst Rowohlt helped expand access to German literatureImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Paperbacks found a new niche in the German market of the 50s, but the idea to produce portable, inexpensive literature began nearly two decades earlier with German entrepreneur Kurt Enoch. His idea to expand the market by publishing paperbacks was cut short by the rise of Nazism, and he fled the country for France in 1935.

Soon, English publishing house Penguin took note of Enoch's plans. Penguin had also first begun publishing paperbound books in 1935 in response to the lack of serious literature available at places other than traditional bookstores.

Like Rowohlt, Penguin enjoyed big success immediately after putting its paperbacks on the market in England. American publishing house Simon and Schuster watched the developments in England and followed with a similar production model in 1939 in the US.

'Mass-produced trash'

In turn, Ledig-Rowohlt took his inspiration from the US pocket book market when proposing his publishing idea to his father. However, acceptance of the books styled after the American model faced additional obstacles in Germany, explained Peter Wilfert, former head of Rowohlt's Pocket Book division.

"Mass-produced trash and trivialities" were what Germans associated with American goods, said Wilfert. The contrast between traditional publishing and the new approach was especially stark in a country where readers expected to read literature on gold-edged paper, bound in leather.

Rowohlt sought to pre-empt public distaste for his product by ensuring that the books were well-made, partly by way of a specially patented glue to be used in binding the pages together. "The pages of my books sit as firmly as a screw in wood," remarked Ernst Rowohlt.

Democratizing literature

The paperback publishing model became a trend in Germany, and other publishers like Fischer, List and Goldmann followed in Rowohlt's path. Paperbacks were and remain an ideal way to republish books in a less expensive format, and many publishing houses continue to issue them a certain time after a book's original publication in hardcover format.

Several readers sit at a stand at Frankfurt's Book Fair in 1960 for Rowohlt
Rowohlt appeared at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1960 with its paperbacksImage: ullstein - Spahn(L)

That model allows books to get in the hands of other classes of buyers. "If we win a reader by way of a cheap edition of a book, then slowly but most certainly he'll find his way to more expensive book editions," said Ernst Rowohlt in 1952.

The second part of Rowohlt's financial strategy involved placing the first advertisements in books. At the time, the publisher's move prompted a flurry of angry letters. Today, though, ads are common in books, just as paperbacks are now on the shelves in stores everywhere - a fact that Nobel Prize-winning German author Thomas Mann once praised as the "democratization of literature."

Author: Michael Marek (gsw)
Editor: Kate Bowen