Friday, January 18, 2008

The Sirens of Titan: a Paperback Original (1959)

Recently, we stumbled across bookseller Pam Donaldson’s essay about collecting paperback books, which mentions that Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan (1959) is “renowned for being the first paperback original book that was then followed by a hardcover printing.” Similar points have been made by Kelly Tetterton and Oliver Corlett.

Since we were not aware of the importance of The Sirens of Titan's bibliographic history, we decided to read a bit further. With a little help from our local library and the Google Books Library Project, we found some interesting things about Vonnegut's book:

It made an historic breakthrough in the relationship between paperbacks and hard-covers. For I recall it as the first paperback original to go from the cheap to the expensive edition, rather than vice versa. It was reprinted in hard covers – presumably by public demand. Lately this course has been followed by other paperbacks, but it took Vonnegut to reverse the field.” -- Donald A. Wollheim, The Universe Makers: Science Fiction Today (1971)

The thing was, I could get $3,000 immediately for a paperback original, and I always needed money right away, and no hardcover publisher would let me have it. But I was also noticing the big money and the heavy praise some of my contemporaries were getting for their books, and I would think, ‘Well, shit, I’m going to have to study writing harder, because I think what I’m doing is pretty good, too.’" -- Kurt Vonnegut, Conversations With Kurt Vonnegut (1988)

A search of the catalog at AbeBooks confirms that The Sirens of Titan went from “the cheap to the expensive edition.” Copies of the unsigned 1959 paperback original published by Dell (pictured above), with a first printing of 177,500 copies, are selling for as much as $230. In contrast, copies of the unsigned 1961 hardcover reprint published by Houghton Mifflin, with a limited printing of 2,500 copies, are selling for as much as $5,000.

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