I’m standing in an old bus in a parking lot in the middle of Austin, Texas.
The guts of the bus have been ripped out, replaced by wooden bookshelves lined with hundreds of worn paperbacks with glossy, colorful covers. I pull one off the shelf.
MUTANTS AMOK #2: MUTANT HELL
The cover features a burly, flannel-clad man standing on a mountainside, his arms cocked back and ready to bring down an axe onto the head of the grotesque creature standing in front of him. The handwritten price sticker on the book says $1.50.
Listen to this story or continue reading below.
I’d stumbled into Fifth Dimension Books, “Austin’s Weird, Wandering Book Store.” It’s a book shop on wheels, specializing in pulpy science-fiction, fantasy, and alternative literature—definitely the kind of place only a city like Austin could support.
The store-on-wheels is a goldmine for sci-fi geeks or those just seeking nostalgia. And while you could easily kill an afternoon exploring kitschy titles including Children of the Void and Horizontal Secretary, there’s a certain pattern that emerges on the cover art of each book.
A burly hero. A foreign-looking world. A suggestive pose. An irresistible title.
You might even go as far as to say it was… clickbait.
We have this tendency to view everything in the digital world as completely new and novel. But give it a closer look, and you’ll find remarkably similar attempts to grab eyeballs throughout history. And long before we tantalized online readers with curiosity piquing titles and images, book publishers were using the same techniques to entice shoppers waiting to check out at the grocery store.
Salacious Selling Points
In 1926, publisher and electronics entrepreneur Hugo Gernsback founded a brand new magazine: Amazing Stories.
It wasn’t Gernsback’s first go around with publishing—he founded Modern Electronics, a mail order catalog and radio hobbyist magazine, nearly 20 years early. But Amazing Stories was different; it was the first magazine dedicated solely to science fiction.
Pulp magazines at the time were widely popular, and relied heavily on enticing cover art to move issues off the shelf. For much of the 1910s and 20s, the covers were pretty tame—very Victorian in their aesthetic. Gernsback, already in uncharted territory with his chosen genre, began to experiment with more shocking magazine covers, intended to entice potential readers.
Now this didn’t always mean sexual content—though it certainly included that. But every cover featured something guaranteed to catch some eyes: an angry alien, a severed head, some light nudity, that sort of thing. This was a conscious decision by Gernsback, but it wasn’t necessarily a popular one. One reader wrote to the magazine and said his friend had to stop buying issues because his parents complained about the covers.
Gernsback took the feedback to heart and tried a more subdued cover in the September 1928…
…but it didn’t sell, and the bold covers were back again the very next month.
That’s more like it!
Salacious covers and titles came to define the pulp genre—not just the sci-fi variety, but romance and adventure series, too. And about ten years after Gernsback started publishing his Amazing Stories magazine, lurid covers made their way to books—much to the bemusement of parents everywhere
Out of the Bookstores, Into the Subway
Back in the late 1930s, book publishers had a confounding problem—too many books; not enough bookstores.
Bookstores were primarily clustered around big cities, so getting books sold in the rest of the country came down to a matter of convenience. People just weren’t taking special trips to the bookstore to browse new titles.
What they had was a content distribution problem. Sound familiar?
Along comes Robert de Graff. While bookstores were hard to come by, de Graff realized there were tens of thousands of other retail outlets that Americans frequented by necessity—drug stores, newsstands, lunch counters, etc. By printing up small copies of classics and selling them for cheap (just 25 cents), de Graff figured there was no reason why books couldn’t be sold on wire stands in retail outlets all over the country.
Once the distribution problem had been solved, paperback book sales exploded. New publishers popped onto the scene every year, and by 1947, 95 million paperback books were sold in the U.S. annually.
Suddenly, there was a competition for people’s attention. Major book reviewers wouldn’t give paperbacks the time of day, so there was no P.R. path to attention. The only shot they had was with a tantalizing cover that begged to be picked up by curious—and bored—shoppers.
Here’s where things got really strange: paperback publishers didn’t really make a distinction between high brow classics and the Hitch-Hike Hussy’s of the world—they sold them all together, on the cheap. This left classics like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man mixed together with cheap romance and adventure novellas. In some cases, the publishers even commissioned the same artists to design the covers, with hilarious results.
Publishers developed a rolodex of artists who they came back to again and again to deliver the pulp aesthetic. People like James Avati, Earle Bergey, and Frank R. Paul illustrated hundreds of book covers, from classics to new authors—always with a healthy dose of seduction and fear.
As the 90s waned and the digital-age came upon us, our desire for light, turn-your-brain-off reading was satisfied with the rise of digital publications. Online publishers such as Gawker, Perez Hilton, and Buzzfeed would soon come along to hook us with an irresistible headline and picture.
And with the ability to read anything and everything right from our mobile devices, the art of the pulp paperback has died off. But enthusiasts like Sukyi McMahon, owner of Fifth Dimension Books in Austin, are trying to keep camp alive.
“A lot of the vintage books are popular because of the artwork, because the authors themselves are a bit obscure,” says McMahon. “For people who take the time to admire the cover art, it’s often what sells the book. They just don’t make artwork like that anymore.”
McMahon can hold a book in her hands and tell the decade just based on the style of the art. After the mid-1980s, many of the books started to lose their edginess, falling into a pattern of predictability—”gold-embossed, cookie cutter, kind of boring covers,” she says.
But the art of pulp fiction—once derided by “serious” critics—is showing some small signs of resurgence. The renewed interest in comic book heros has shed some residual light on the pulp sci-fi genre. McMahon often parks her mobile bookstore across the street from the University of Texas campus and sees young students browse her selection in awe—a generation that doesn’t remember seeing the cheesy paperback cover art on grocery store trips with mom and dad.
“I sell a lot of books to 18-22 year old students, and they’ll spend an hour just looking at the covers, gawking and laughing,” says McMahon. “They’ve never seen anything like that before.”
Sometimes, You Just Need a Hamburger
It’s amusing, in some ways, to see these books viewed as cherished collector items. They were intended as cheap, disposable things to be produced in mass. Pulp paperbacks were derided by critics as low-brow, and by moralists as vulgarities—cheap gimmicks designed to trick us into cracking open the cover and reading a few pages, but devoid of substance on the inside.
Stop me if that criticism sounds familiar.
No one would elevate Mutants Amok to the level of 1984, but there’s certainly an art to pulp fiction—piquing someone’s interest enough to make them spend a quarter on an author they’ve never heard of, with no discernable accolades or audience, then keep them entertained enough to do it all over again the next time they’re picking up groceries.
Something light and fun that plays on our emotions and curiosities just enough to keep us hooked.
“Stephen King once referred to his books as hamburgers—they’re not good for you, but they taste really good,” says McMahon. “A lot of the award winning sci-fi books today have heavy social messages, but sometimes you just need to read about a giant baby attacking New York, and that’s okay.”