COLLECT: Pocket Book #5. The holy grail of Christie's USA paperbacks.
While Penguin Books in the UK had started publishing paperbacks in 1935, it wasn’t until 1939 that the first mass market paperbacks were published in the USA. Richard Simon and Max Schuster (Simon & Schuster), along with Leon Shimkin and Robert de Graff, founded “Pocket Books” in early 1939.
The Launch: As Penguin had done, they launched the concept with 10 titles, each with an initial print run of 10,000 copies. Initially, these books were distributed in the New York metropolitan area. The original titles were:
#1: Lost Horizon by James Hilton
#2: Wake Up and Live by Dorothea Brande
#3: Five Great Tragedies by William Shakespeare
#4: Topper by Thorne Smith
#5: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
#6: Enough Rope by Dorothy Parker
#7: Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
#8: The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler
#9: The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder
#10: Bambi by Felix Salten
The launch was a success and each book was frequently reprinted with a total print run across all 10 titles of 1,500,000 in 1939 alone. Over the following few years, Pocket Books reported that they sold 961,967 copies of #5: Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. When one considers that only 1% of the copies of this original #5 printing are actual first paperback editions and first printings, the rarity of this first printing becomes clear. It is certainly the rarest US paperback of any of Christie’s titles and one of the rarest Agatha Christie paperbacks from any country.
Identification: The true first paperback, first printing is dated May 1939. The second printing is dated June 1939, the 3rd is August and the 4th is September. These were the four printings done in 1939. The 5th printing rolled into the following year and is dated March 1940. Originally priced 25 cents, copies of any printing from 1939 are now very collectible, but the holy grail is the true first version of Pocket Book #5.
Values: The first printing will generally be offered for $150 - $300 depending on condition, though given the scarcity the price is potentially now at ‘pay what you will’ levels if you want it. Other 1939 printings (the 2nd, 3rd and 4th printings) tend to retail for $50 - $150 depending on condition. Besides the effects of old age, the books were bound with a perm-gloss acetate covering that has a tendency to peel off as time progresses. Lastly, these were cheap paperbacks in the day and were often treated as such. Preserved copies are few and far between, but they do periodically show up. This is another great book to hunt for on dusty shelves in used bookstores or at boot sales / garage sales.