Friday, April 14, 2006

Let's Applaud F.W. Woolworth

Okay, even though this posting will be for April 14th, I'm writing it on the night of the 13th. And Jay Leno is responsible for the subject.

My intention was to write about Dorchester's new marketing plan. But then Jay said something that changed my mind. So blame him for this blog. Dorchester will just have to wait.

Jay mentioned that April 13th was the birthdate of Frank Woolworth, the founder of the F.W. Woolworth Company.

Now, stay with me here for a moment. I'll actually bring this around to a subject of importance to writers before we're through. To begin with, however, I think old Frank deserves a mention. I'm going to cheat and take his bio directly from Wikipedia, which says: "Franklin Winfield Woolworth (April 13, 1852-April 8, 1919) was an American merchant. Born in Rodman, New York, he was the founder of F.W. Woolworth Company, an operator of discount stores that priced merchandise at five and ten cents. He pioneered the now-common practices of buying merchandise direct from manufacturers and fixing prices on items, rather than haggling."

By coincidence, Monday, on another loop I belong to, a writer asked what the difference was between a trade paperback and a mass market paperback.

A friend of mine, McKenna Olhasque, gave a very succinct description of each. Shortly afterward, she and I were exchanging emails, and she mentioned a bit of history that I was not familiar with.

Megs and I have this ongoing dialogue about the future of books, e-books, etc. In an email to me, she said that providing those descriptions of mass market paperback and trade paperback reminded her that--for years--no self-respecting author would be caught dead in paperback and no bookstore would carry them. She said it was "good ol' Woolworth, in both the US/UK, that opened up that market."

I had never heard this bit of trivia and went a-huntin' after we signed off. Sure enough, my friend Megs was right (not that I ever doubted her).

Albatross Books in Germany was the first to produce a small paperback book in 1931. However, the person who gets the most credit for the mass market paperback is British publisher Allen Lane who, in 1935, launched the Penguin imprint. According to the Penguin company website, Lane had his brainstorm "[a]fter a weekend visiting Agatha Christie in Devon, [when] he found himself on a platform at Exeter station searching its bookstall for something to read on his journey back to London, but discover[ing] only popular magazines and reprints of Victorian novels.

"Appalled by the selection on offer, Lane decided that good quality contemporary fiction should be made available at an attractive price and sold not just in traditional bookshops, but also in railway stations, tobacconists and chain stores."

Wikipedia says Lane "bought paperback rights from publishers, ordered huge print keep unit prices low, and looked to non-traditional bookselling retail locations. Booksellers were intitially (sic) reluctant to buy his books. Woolworths, the department store, however placed a large order on the books, and the books sold extremely successfully. Booksellers were no longer reluctant to buy the books. The word, 'Penguin' became extremely closely associated with the word, 'paperback.'"

Now, isn't that a great trivia tidbit? Thanks to Megs for providing it.


Sherrill Quinn said...

I loved Woolworth stores. And Ben Franklins. Two great five-and-dime stores, both of which are now out of business.

I did *not* know that Woolworth helped usher in the paperback. Nice tidbit.

Maya said...

Sherrill: I'm with you. Some of my best memories of childhood are of prowling the aisles of Woolworth's with my grandmother. She would take me to the lunch counter and buy us each a grilled cheese sandwich and a chocolate malt. Then we would spend HOURS going from aisle to aisle--mostly just looking. I can still smell her lilac moisturizer just thinking about it.