Lessons from the Paperback Revolution


via Jeffrey Schnapp

The Electric Information Age Book, by Jeffrey Schnapp (the faculty director of Harvard’s MetaLAB) and Adam Michaels (a cofounder of Project Projects), is the third installment in the “Inventory Books” series, which seeks “to advance the role of design as an integrated force in book editing and production . . . as a means of revitalizing the space of the book to present critical content in an accessible, engaging format.” It’s surprising that this volume, subtitled “McLuhan/Agel/Fiore and the Experimental Paperback,” wasn’t the inaugural book of the series.

In 1964, Jerome Agel, public relations guru turned publisher and self-styled book producer and book packager, started his own publishing company with the intention of perfecting an already established publishing niche that fused high and low cultures in the form of mass-market paperback books. Bernard Geis, another packager in business at the same time as Agel, had found traction for celebrity books like Jaqueline Smith’s Valley of the Dolls. Such books sold well so at the behest of the packagers, book publishing began to incorporate the tactics of product advertising “built on a revolution that had already begun transforming publishing into a modern industry in the 1930s.” Led by Doubleday and Pocket Books, publishers had already been involved with distributing paperbacks through mail-order subscriptions, house-owned bookstores, and magazine wholesalers able to put these books in non-traditional retail environments.

In the years leading up to the creation of Agel’s endeavor, plenty of publishers had also experimented with form and content, though none had reinvented the book for the twentieth century’s accelerated media landscape where lines of definition were quickly eroding. Books like Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and You Have Seen Their Faces had ushered in the “documentary book,” collaborations between a writer and photographer of note, though the words and images were often treated “as separate realms, each with its distinctive dignity.”

Agel aimed to produce paperback books that best represented and conveyed the media realities of the era. The radical use of text, typography, and illustrations challenged the traditional expectations of how the pages of a book could be presented to readers. The opportunity that Agel recognized was in how media culture, as mediated through the popularity of film and television, could be explored, employed, and exploited to make an event of a newly published book, turning it into a media spectacle. While the commercial crassness of his endeavor is poignantly emblematic it was not the driving factor. Agel and his partner in crime, the designer Quentin Fiore, wanted to harness their contemporary media environment in the name of creating books that kept apace with the electric information age in a manner akin to the lofty ideas of poet Stéphane Mallarmé and theorist László Moholy-Nagy. Schnapp and Michaels write of how Mallarmé’s essay “The Book, A Spiritual Instrument,” “dreamed of the entire universe flowing into a single total book: a book, both material and metaphysical, in time and outside time, that would fulfill and transcend the revolution inaugurated by Johannes Gutenberg.” The authors paraphrase Moholy-Nagy’s Bauhaus ideal of the book as “an exploded, porous book whose every page could become an all-comprehending theater of the present and a staging ground for ever-surprising futures.”

As the popularity of paperbacks rose, according to Schnapp and Michaels, “the paperback revolution narrowed the gulf between publishing and contemporary media culture.” Geis carved out $100,000 publicity budgets for these paperbacks; The Voyeur, a tawdry novel, received a Times Square billboard and peep show installations in Grand Central and Penn Station. Even Marshall McLuhan chimed in on the paperback in Understanding Media, writing, “The paperback itself has become a vast mosaic world in depth, expressive of the changed sense-life of Americans, for whom depth experience in words, as in physics, has become entirely acceptable, and even sought after.”

McLuhan needed no convincing when Agel approached him about a book of McLuhan’s ideas that relied on “the use of pictorial materials to engage younger audiences,” which would become The Medium is the Massage. In New York, Fiore joined the two for dinner and soon after Agel had a deal with McLuhan, whose role in the book’s production was little more than commenting on drafts and approving the final spreads. Blurring the lines between author, editor, and designer, Agel and Fiore worked like movie producers, selecting McLuhan’s pluckiest adages from already published books, working them over typographically and pairing them with images of their choosing. Schnapp and Michaels identify how in the frenetic sequencing of text and imagery, “Fiore provides an overall mapping of how the human sensorium is stretched, stressed, and shaped by the new age.”

Agel also used his cinematic flair to promote the book: “Long before [it] had a working title, let alone existed in draft form, the marketing tools of the movie industry were mobilized to build the market,” through the use of enigmatic teaser ads run in various publications. In doing so, Agel made the best possible use of McLuhan’s ideas by putting them into practice in the media environment to which McLuhan was so acutely tuned.

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