Tortilla Flat was John Steinbeck’s breakthrough book. Sales of his first three books were lackluster, to say the least, in spite of one of them, The Pastures of Heaven, being a great book. Tortilla Flat really launched his career during which he won the Pulitzer Prize for The Grapes of Wrath and the Nobel Prize for Literature for the body of his work.
The Goldstone & Payne (G&P) bibliography of Steinbeck cites the book two ways. G&P A4a is noted as “issue in wrappers,” while A4b is “issue in cloth.” Both were published in 1935. The text for both is the same.
According to G&P, “Approximately 500 copies were bound in wrappers. No evidence has been found that these copies in wrappers actually precede the hard cover issue.” The print-run for G&P A4b was 4,000 copies.
So, is G&P correct when it says there is no evidence was the wrappered issue preceded the issue in cloth?
As a seller of rare and collectible books, I have seen wrappered books quite often. There was such an issue for Wallace Stegner’s The Big Rock Candy Mountain. There are many others that could be cited. Just as with Tortilla Flat, what we see is a book comprised of gathered signatures with the dust jacket glued along the spine and then wrapped around the book.
In his historic 1980 catalogue of the Harry Valentine collection, bookseller Bradford Morrow lists the wrappered book as item No. 28. He writes that the book “was very probably issued in advance of publication….” Was it an advance copy?
How do we know this? We did something that G&P did not. We asked someone who would know. This someone is Rusty Mott of Howard S. Mott, Inc., a prominent member of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America (ABAA) of which I am a proud member. Rusty’s father, Howard, preceded him in this business and was a founding member of the ABAA. Rusty is a fountain of information, having his own and his father’s reference books, auction catalogues, correspondence, dealer catalogues, and the like going back to the 1930s, and probably even before that.
In a Sept. 6, 1975 letter to Adrian H. Goldstone about his G&P bibliography, Howard Mott confirmed the figure of 500 copies for the wrappered issue. A copy of the letter was supplied to me by Rusty Mott. He goes on to discuss whether the wrappered issue actually preceded the issue in cloth.
“I suppose by ‘precede’ you mean in time of printing, which is, I am sure, correct. If you mean by ‘precede’ in time of issue I could have told you that they most certainly did precede the hard cover issue. I used to buy copies from the employees of the publishers.”
Goldstone did not agree. In an Oct. 8, 1975 letter to Howard Mott he wrote, “This is about as tricky a subject as there is. Copies bound in wrappers could easily come off the press before or after the bound copies. How would anybody know? They usually get out among the trade or are peddled to dealers earlier because there is no extra time involved in binding them. The main purpose of copies in wrappers are to stimulate interest in the books. Certainly they don’t go to reviewers who expect as one of their prerogatives a hard bound copy which they can sell later. So in most cases we can presume that certain quantity of an issue bound in wrappers rushed out quick to friends and dealers of the publisher all over the country in order to get a quick response as possible and as large an order as possible. But as Mr. Gershwin says, “it ain’t necessarily so.” Adrian Goldstone writes a book. There are five thousand copies printed and there are few people who seem to want to buy them. So what does the publisher do? Gets on the telephone and says, print five hundred more of these or one thousand more of these in wrappers and send them out all over the country and see if we can get these dealers to send us some orders for this book. Now which is the first issue?”
Mott was not convinced. In an Oct. 23, 1975 letter of response to Goldstone he wrote, “Tortilla Flat in wrappers is simply an advance issue bound in the dust jacket before any copies were hardbound. Those copies were intended for reviewers and booksellers. It has long been a common trade practice. Such copies consist of a portion of the first printing of Tortilla Flat distributed for free before publication. I know about this because I used to buy copies from the employees of Covici Friede. And this is as simple as that!”
Tempest in a tea pot? Not for booksellers, book collectors, or bibliographers.