When the American Publishing Company closed its doors for the last time in 1898, Alexander Grosset and George T. Dunlap were outside the doors. Newly unemployed, with the plates of a couple dozen books originally pirated by John Lovell. Standing out on Sixth Avenue with boxes of supposedly worthless printing plates, these two young men stole a page from the notebook of Mr. Lovell and shook hands on a partnership that changed the face of American publishing.
Grosset and Dunlap began as a pirate enterprise. Cheaply bound books, sold cheaply, without the expense of royalties. The next step was the outright purchase of paperbound books and cut and gathered sheets to be rebound in cloth and sold at deeply discounted prices. Grosset & Dunlap made an immediate impact on the market. Durable, hardback copies of popular books were available at a price that put them in competition with paperbacks and dime novels. The thing that John Lovell had attempted, and failed at, the partnership of Alexander Grosset and George Dunlap had made reality. Books as a mass market product, not a limited market for the well to do.
The next step was to contract for and buy sheets, then eventually plates, from trade publishers. It became pro forma for publishers to overrun first printings and cover their costs with sales to Grosset. The results transformed popular authors, putting them in a class with performers as celebrities. The prominence of pulp writers like Zane Grey, Edgar Rice Burroughs and others, began to rival that of “literary” writers, and, in terms of recognition from the general public, eclipse them.
When motion pictures started to gain in popularity, Grosset was one of the first companies in the bookselling business to recognize their potential. Motion picture stills replaced illustrations in Grosset “motion picture” editions. Special editions named for stars like Clara Bow or Jackie Coogan were produced with stills from motion pictures supplied by studios, gratis, as advertising. Originally publishing classic stories, such as the “Jackie Coogan” edition of Ouida’s A Dog of Flanders , Grosset began to commission novelizations of screenplays that were to feature prominent stars. All of a sudden, Grosset & Dunlap, kings of the reprint, were publishing first editions that grabbed several rungs on the best seller lists. Lilac Time, The Patent Leather Kid, and the first academy award winner, Wings, found slots on best seller lists from L.A. to the Big Apple. Nor did the advent of talkies slow down Grosset’s productions. King Kong got a couple weeks in the top spot and Maureen O’Sullivan’s scantily clad Jane, next to Johnny Weismuller’s Tarzan in a loin cloth, had mothers hiding copies from their impressionable teenage children.
Next, in cooperation with the – then hidden – Stratemeyer Syndicate (a group of ghost writers headed by Edward Stratmeyer, and later his daughter Harriet), Grosset moved into children’s books in a major way. Nancy Drew, Tom Swift, the Bobbsey Twins, and other children’s series appeared, and surprisingly for Grosset, at prices that were competitive with other publishers. In 1977, the acquisition of Platt and Monk brought their flagship book, The Little Engine that Could into the Grosset stable.
Built first on pirated editions and then on reprints, Grosset & Dunlap cannot be approached strictly as a reprint or, even in its early days, a pirate publisher. Its reliance on mass produced, cheap editions allowed it to publish several first editions comprised of newspaper syndicate or magazine serials and collections, such as Zane Grey’s The Red-Headed Outfield (1920).
The sheer mass of books published by Grosset between that cold morning on the sidewalk outside 310-318 Sixth Avenue and the acquisition of the company by G. P. Putnam’s in 1982, defies exact classification. Most are reprints. Almost to the point where the imprint of Grosset & Dunlap could be said to guarantee that the book is a reprint. Almost. Motion picture novelizations, children’s books, especially from the Stratemeyer Syndicate, and the odd serial, or magazine compilation all stand as glaring – and sometimes lucrative – exceptions.
While the imprint remains, a mass market publisher of children’s books, through Penguin, the successor to Putnam’s, it can no longer be approached as the giant it once was, bringing out its own mass-market copies of nearly every important or popular book published in America for three-quarters of a century. Grosset & Dunlap books deserve a second look from any book dealer, because of their importance to the development of modern culture, which could be – and probably will be – highly collectible in the not-too-distant future. And, every book dealer needs to research Grossets carefully, to be sure that it is not one of the exceptions that proves the rule: “A Grosset is a reprint.”