circulation, sales, and distribution

In Astounding Days, his autobiographical reminiscence of a youth reading science fiction, Arthur C. Clarke recalled that English fans learned that Woolworth’s was the best place to find the pulp magazines where the stories they wanted to read. “According to legend, all these ‘Yank pulps’ invaded the United Kingdom as ballast in returning cargo ships. Presumably it was worth disposing of unsold issues in this way, rather than recycling the paper.” Colorfully entertaining, Clarke’s recollection also illustrated the incidental—and often unseen and unconsidered—consequences of distribution for publishing’s sales and circulation.

For pulp magazines, like books and other forms of print media, their physicality, particularly their size and weight, were key issues for their distribution. They were print as well as text, to use Roger Chartier’s useful distinction between their material and symbolic or literary forms. Newspapers, which emerged historically with the rise of cities and urban communication and commerce, are produced and distributed locally, with delivery employing everything from wagons and trucks to haul papers in bulk to retailers to “paperboys” who delivered them to the doorsteps of subscribers “newsies” who hawked them on the streets—full disclosure, my first job growing up was delivering the Hollywood Reader, a local community weekly, within my neighborhood. Produced for national audiences and markets, pulps, other magazines, and later, mass-market paperback books, required a more complex distribution system. Mass-produced where presses were located, publishers relied on the postal service and distribution companies for long-distance transport and to deliver their products regionally to retailers. The American News Company, which began delivering newspapers locally and regionally, took advantage of the growth and expansion of the rail system in the late 19th century to become the largest distributor of magazines and books in the first half of the 20th century. It also became a significant print retailer through its subsidiary, the Union News Company, which operated a network of newsstands attached to its distribution routes.

Distribution, however, involved more than delivery. It also involved regional and local storage, returns, if necessary, and an accounting of inventory and its flow. These issues were not exclusive to print. As Alfred Chandler explained in his book, the Visible Hand, organization of distribution and production systems, locally and nationally, spurred much of the growth of American commerce in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

For magazines, and later for comic books and mass-market paperback books, distribution also meant additional circulation. Once delivered for local and regional distribution, there was little to gain from returning unsold copies to publishers. Retailers ripped off their covers, which distributors forwarded to publishers for accounting purposes, and everyone saved the larger transportation costs of returning entire books and magazines. The coverless remains were to be destroyed, but entrepreneurial distributors and retailers also found other methods to dispose of them. Enough avoided actual destruction to fuel and supply second-hand markets in used magazines and books; sales of whose coverless copies, by the early 20th century, violated copyright laws passed to address them, but were tolerated enough that their markets survived while their primary markets flourished. As Clarke’s account demonstrated, some copies were used as ballast on cargo ships and made their way overseas where they were also resold.

Pulp magazine publishers and paperback book publishers did not publicly acknowledge second-hand markets, but they were certainly aware of, and tolerated, their existence. This was not out of altruism; the coverless copies existed as the incidental product of their distribution and were part of the cost of doing business. Moreover, while publishers could not recoup the costs of those that were actually destroyed, those that were resold or redistributed generated word-of-mouth publicity, ironically adding to the value of their titles. Clarke and many other readers in the 1920s and 30s discovered science fiction and other pulp fiction precisely in this manner. Circulation outside of publishing’s formal sales and distribution system increased its actual influence and effect. Indeed, it did not always involve sales; readers shared copies with friends and acquaintances and those who didn’t have the means to purchase them were known to salvage them from trash and sites where distributors dumped copies instead of destroying them.

This larger sense of circulation, which takes into account the difference and relationship between formal and actual distribution, is significant not only for their respective industries. While print media, and indeed, every commercial communications media, measure circulation as sales, they also account for the inherent realities and costs of their products’ actual distribution. Pulp and mass-market paperback publishers tolerated “grey” used markets that were technically illegal because they accepted the loss of their secondary business for the additional circulation and added value to their brands. The same considerations apply, but with different conditions for production, distribution, sales, and circulation, to contemporary discussion and consideration of commercial products within digital media and what does and does not constitute piracy.

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