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Ian Ballantine left Penguin in 1945, leaving Kurt Enoch and Victor Weybright in charge of the company. They continued the fights with the home office in England that Ballantine had waged for years: for more controversial titles and racier cover art. In 1948, Enoch & Weybright legally separated the company from Penguin (England), and New American Library was officially formed. Signet was the fiction label, Mentor was for non-fiction and other academic offerings.
Thomas L. Bonn, in his history of the company, suggests that Weybright became a sort of literary “Gatekeeper” that controlled the flow of titles, cover art, and in many cases, content. More controversial titles meant having to battle the censors, who still had a stranglehold on U.S. literature in the early 1950’s. (Erskine Caldwell’s God’s Little Acre was the only Signet title ever accused of being obscene in a court case ... but Caldwell defended the book and won.)
By the late 50’s NAL had grown to be the largest paperback house in the country. Their motto: “Good Reading for the Millions.” Of particular interest to us here is the unprecedented quality of the covers. This was more than just illustration. At Signet, cover art was art - real art - and the unstated comparison led the reader to believe that the literature inside could be considered real art as well.
Eventually, Signet cover art would be epitomized by the paintings of James Avati, and it was insinuated by some that if an artist wanted to paint for NAL, he had to copy Avati's style. This was an obvious overgeneralization, but sometimes you have to wonder.
Signet often changed cover illustrations over the course of several printings of a book. If you download the images from the database, you'll note that I've added letters to book numbers to indicate various printings. A little letter “b” after the edition number indicates a second printing, a "c" a third, and so on. It helps to sort the books when using the computer.
Signet "D" series (Double) books sold for 50˘, and the spines were even presented as if there were two normal sized Signet books set side by side. "T" series (Triple) books sold for 75˘. The "S" series was for the 35˘ books, and they may have been slightly wider, or simply more expensive due to royalties or other expenses. (Eventually, inflation would push the vast majority of the books into the "S" category.) These were interspersed throughout the Signet run. The printing order was numerical only. For example, Signets 1494, S1495, T1496, S1497 were printed in order.
The Signet "K" series (Key books) were non-fiction and classic literature offerings that for some reason were not delegated to the Mentor label.
The "Signet Classics" series books bore their own numbering sequence. Books belonging to the "Signet Science Library," on the other hand, were interspersed in numerical order within the regular Signet run.
Signet, being the largest, was able to lure popular authors away from other paperback houses. Two of particular note were Ian Fleming, who had originally published with Pocket Books under the Perma label, and MAD, which had started with Ballantine Books.
Courtesy of Bruno Schmidt
The Signet Database was updated in March 2013