A Short History of Paperbacks


Oliver Corlett

Oliver Corlett

Along with many other products of our culture, paperbacks have become a very active area for collecting. This article gives a short history of this quite interesting artifact, and a very brief overview of what collectors in the category generally look for. The web is chockful of informative articles and sites on the subject, mostly by enthusiastic amateurs (in the best sense of that word), and we have included links to some of these spread throughout this piece.

Nineteenth Century Ancestors

Many references on paperbacks will tell you that the first mass-market paperback ever issued was The Good Earth, by Pearl S Buck, in 1938. Actually, of course, paperbacks have been around a lot longer than that – as early, in fact, as the 17th Century in France and Germany. In the English-speaking world James Fenimore Cooper was writing frontier stories published in paperback-like format as far back as 1823, soon to be followed by a host of imitators. These were precursors of the tabloid “story papers”, like Brother Jonathan Weekly, in the 1840s. The introduction of the steam rotary press enabled these to be produced cheaply in large numbers, and the emerging railroad network provided a convenient means of distribution. Probably the first true mass-market paperback, though, was the so-called “Dime Novel”, which sprang into being in the 1860s.

In fact, the first bona fide mass-market paperback in the English speaking world is said to be Malaeska , by Mrs Ann S Stephens, which was published in June 1860 by the pioneers of the Dime Novel, Erastus and Irwin Beadle . The success of this romantic tale of an Indian princess was such (it sold 65,000 copies within a few months of publication) that it gave birth to a whole new genre. Beadle & Adams (one of the Beadles sold out) began publishing a new paperback dime novel, featuring tales of derring-do by stand-up-guy frontiersmen, at first every two weeks and then every week. They opened a London office in 1862, and pretty soon the format had become all the rage with the English masses, who called these little thrillers the “penny dreadful”.

In the US, dime novels soared in popularity during the Civil War – for some reason soldiering and paperbacks seem to go together — and by the 1880s writers like Prentiss Ingraham, who wrote Buffalo Bill stories, were turning out novels of 50,000 – 70,000 words at the incredible rate of one a week (for $200 – $300 a pop). Heroic western pioneers continued in popularity until late in the century, but with the growth of cities the Dime Novel heroes became increasingly urban and street smart. The detective, Nick Carter, made his first appearance in the 1880s. His creator, Frederic Marmaduke Van Rensselaer Dey is said to have written, on average, about 25,000 words per week for almost 20 years, turning out the Nick Carter stories and various others under a roster of different pen names. The introduction of the typewriter in the 1870s was no doubt a factor in the sheer volume many dime novel hacks were able to achieve. Still, perhaps lured by the lucre, even “respectable” writers were not immune to the attractions of the paperback dime novel form: Louisa May Alcott, Horace Greeley, Longfellow, Upton Sinclair, Robert Louis Stevenson (“Captain George North”), and even Alfred Lord Charge-of-the-Light-Brigade Tennyson all at one time or another made contributions to the genre. In total, the Library of Congress has received, through copyright deposit, a Dime Novel collection of nearly 40,000 titles from 280 different series.

Dime novels as such were somewhat eclipsed by so-called pulp magazines starting in the 1890s, an event which is sometimes attributed to a sharp hike in postal rates, but their spirit, at least, has lived on ever since. In fact, the pulp magazines, exploring the same terrain (basically, westerns, romance and crime), could be viewed as a kind of interregnum in the whole trashy paperback saga.

The First 20th Century Paperbacks

A landmark in the history of the paperback in the English-speaking world was the arrival of Penguin , the first really “respectable” paperback imprint, in 1935. The story goes that Allen Lane, Chairman of The Bodley Head, a London publisher, was returning by train from a weekend in the country with one of his authors — Agatha Christie — and her husband. The Bodley Head, like many publishers of the time, was suffering precipitously declining sales, and had been since the onset of the Depression, and Lane was looking for a way to save his troubled business. Browsing the station kiosks for something to read while he waited for the train, he could find nothing to buy except slick magazines and low-quality paperback fiction (like the cheaply produced Routledge’s Railway Classic reprint series). It occurred to him that good quality fiction and nonfiction might find a wider readership if only books were more affordable, and on July 30th, 1935 he introduced the Penguin imprint to an unsuspecting world.

Early Penguins, with their distinctive orange/blue/green, white and black covers (no pictures, just a title, the Penguin logo and an author), were all priced at sixpence (that is, 2 1/2p in today’s British currency, or about 4 cents at today’s exchange rates) – about the same as a pack of 10 cigarettes, or a fifteenth the price of a typical hardcover at the time – and for the first time were sold not just in bookstores but in mass-market outlets like Woolworths and, naturally, railroad station kiosks. Lane took care that the type, the ink and the paper were of good quality, to match the content. The low price was allegedly made possible not, as many assume, because the covers were paper rather than cloth, but because print runs were substantially larger than for hardcover books – 17,000 copies was the breakeven volume; hence, Lane took a substantial gamble that there would be sufficient demand in the British market to meet a run of this size. In the event, of course, he was right. Within six months of the introduction of the first 10 titles, about one million Penguins had been sold; and Penguin Books sold over three million copies in its first full year, 1936. This was really what started the ball rolling for the modern paperback industry.

The first ten titles?

  • The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
  • Madame Claire by Susan Ertz
  • A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
  • Poets Pub by Eric Linklater
  • Carnival by Compton Mackenzie
  • Ariel by Andre Maurois
  • Twenty-Five by Beverly Nichols
  • The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy Sayers
  • Gone to Earth by Mary Webb
  • William by E.H. Young

In 1939, Penguin opened an office in the US, under the direction of an Englishman named Ian Ballantine, a man who was destined to play an important role in shaping the paperback industry in the US in the following decades. (In 1945 Ballantine, together with Bennett Cerf, founded Bantam Books, and in the early 1950s he founded Ballantine Books; both of these went on to become significant factors in the US and world publishing markets).

The first respectable mass market paperback in the US was, indeed, The Good Earth, published by Pocket Books in November, 1938. This first, un-numbered version was apparently produced in a small test run of fewer than 3,000 copies and sold only in Macy’s in New York. In early 1939, following the success of this test, Pocket Books produced ten titles, beginning with Pocket Books #1 Lost Horizon , by James Hilton, and also including Shakespeare’s Tragedies, Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, Bambi and – once again — an Agatha Christie. The Good Earth was released again as Pocket Books #11 in September, 1939, with a slightly different cover .

What was most notable about the Pocket Books, compared to Penguins, was the covers – attractive, colorful, eye-catching pictures designed to lure the potential reader into the story inside. Not that Pocket Books was the first to do this – lurid pictorial covers were a trademark of the story journal and the paperback almost since their inception – but, because of improvements in technology, particularly color printing, the quality of the cover art was in a whole new league compared to that of earlier generations of trashy covers.

World War II And After

World War II, just like the Civil War, was quite a boon to the US paperback industry. What is it about wars and the publishing industry? Well, as contemporary accounts often tell us, although war brings periods of extreme activity and terror, the active-duty soldier’s life is also filled with long intermissions of deadly boredom, hours of enforced unisex leisure usually not observed in the routine of the average peacetime civilian employee. Though there were, no doubt, lots of things he’d rather be doing, reading was one of a limited number of legal options available to the average GI under the watchful eyes of superior ranks and officers, and book sales, as a result, recovered dramatically.

The paperback, too, is unusually well suited to reading in wartime. Unlike hardcover books, paperbacks weren’t really designed to be treated with respect. They were essentially a disposable product, cheap enough to buy and throw away – they’re still pretty much regarded that way, even though their prices have risen to unconscionable levels. They were also easier to ship in volume and a lot more portable than just about any hardcover. What better kind of book for the GI on the move to cram into his pocket when idleness ends and the terror begins anew? The official Armed Services Edition (ASE) paperback was a whole format to itself , with odd dimensions and dustjackets-within-covers. A total of 1,322 titles were produced under the ASE banner, many with print runs of over 100,000 copies (at a cost of around 5 cents per copy). They were distributed free to the troops, with author and publisher splitting the 1-cent per copy royalty. (For more info on this interesting sub-genre, click here ).

Certainly, it seems that the aesthetic direction of paperbacks over the next decades was heavily influenced by the reading taste of the GI. Although from the days of the early Penguin and Pocket Books there were some very respectable titles, the ones we remember are certainly more of the racy, action-packed variety. Freud’s Lectures? Shakespeare’s Tragedies? (These were the kind of thing produced by the Army & Navy Committees in their Armed Services Editions) No, nothing so mind-improving. The hardboiled detective school was perhaps the most successful genre to be published in this format in the 1940s – writers like Dashiell Hammett, “Ellery Queen” (who was actually a composite of two writing cousins, Manfred B Lee and Frederick Dannay), Raymond Chandler, Erle Stanley Gardner. Many of the authors writing in this genre had got their start from pulp magazines specializing in detective fiction, like HL (Never-Overestimate-The-Taste-Of-The-American-Public) Mencken’s Black Mask (‘An Illustrated Magazine of Detective, Mystery, Adventure, Romance and Spiritualism’ – according to the billing on the first issue, April, 1920). The genre remains highly popular to this day.

What was true of the contents was true, too, of the covers. The covers were designed, obviously, to pull the potential buyer into the story behind them. The more lurid, sexy and suggestive, the better. Check out, for example, To A God Unknown, by John Steinbeck. (“A Powerful Novel of Lust for Land”). Would you guess, from this cover, that the author was to win the Nobel prize in Literature? Possibly not. Such have ever been the wiles of the marketing department, in this case to the greater glory of Art.

Often, without doubt, the cover was what sold the book –and this is still true in the “secondary” market – those awesome covers are surely what makes many of these books so avidly collected today, decades later. Kitsch and corny they may often be, but to the paperback collector these covers are works of high art, something to be savored and enjoyed. Often, in fact, the names of the cover artists (names like James Avati –click for a short Avati bio , Gerald Gregg – the famous Dell mapback artist – Robert Jonas , an abstract expressionist fan, Robert McGinness, Barye Philips, Norman Saunders, and Richard Powers , who specialized in Science Fiction covers) have lived on long after the authors whose books they decorated have been forgotten. There is an active market, too, in the original artwork from which the covers were made, though very little survives from the early days of mass market paperbacks.

By the end of the 1940s, the success of Pocket Books had long since sparked an explosion of new imprints in mass-market paperbacks. Despite the success of the format, though, paperbacks were still regarded in the book trade as adjuncts to the hardcover business, and pretty much all paperbacks were reprints of hardcover titles. In fact, paperback publishers were often explicitly and exclusively contracted to distribute titles from traditional hardcover publishers. In the late 1940s, Fawcett Publications decided to expand in the paperback business but found itself hamstrung by a non-compete clause in its distribution contract with another publisher. A careful examination, however, revealed that the prohibition only applied to reprints of existing titles; and someone at Fawcett came up with the bizarre idea of publishing original material in paperback form.

The Paperback Original (PBO)

Thus, in 1949, was the Paperback Original or PBO born. Fawcett, under its Gold Medal imprint, released hundreds of PBO titles in the subsequent decades (as well as reprints under its other imprints, like Crest and Premiere). The hardboiled John D MacDonald (of Travis McGee fame), whose short fiction had appeared in story magazines like Detective Tales and Doc Savage in the 1940s, became one of Gold Medal’s earliest and most prolific authors, publishing eight titles under their imprint in the years 1950-54. Another hardboiled writer, David Goodis, also contributed three or four titles during Gold Medal’s early years. One of Gold Medal’s earliest rivals in the PBO business was Lion, which also published MacDonald and David Goodis as well as, most famously, the master of what you might call livre noir Jim Thompson . (Click here for his immensely interesting bio ). In a frenzy of writing, this demonic writer turned out 12 novels for Lion in the 18 months between September 1952 and March 1954 – so fast, in fact, that Lion apparently didn’t even catch up until 1957, after it had already decided to exit the PBO business. Lion, incidentally, was also known for its superior cover art, using artists like Earle Bergey, Robert Maguire and Rudolph Belarski.

Other imprints in the PBO market beginning in the 1950s included Dell First Editions, Avon, Graphic, Ace, and Harlequin , and quite a few notable writers found their feet under the aegis of these pioneering houses. Jack Kerouac’s Maggie Cassidy was first published by Avon in 1959 (although by this time he was already well on the way to becoming the cult figure he remains today). William S Burroughs’s first published work, Junkie, Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict, written under the name “William Lee”, hit the streets in 1953, courtesy of Ace Books. Philip K Dick’s first published novel (he had published dozens of stories in sci fi magazines), Solar Lottery, was published in 1955 by Ace, which specialized in science fiction, publishing other notables like L Ron Hubbard, Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Robert Silverberg in the 1950s and 1960s. (Ace is also remembered for its “Ace Doubles” – paperbacks with two front covers and two novels – depending on which way you held it.) Solar Lottery was one of a few notable books published first as a paperback and only later in hardcover. Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan is another, first published by Dell before being picked up by Houghton Mifflin for hardcover.

The 50s saw a diversification, too, out of the traditional genres, like crime and sci-fi, into whole new areas of mass-market interest. Although there were still plenty of hardboiled writers to satisfy the fans (like MacDonald, Mickey Spillane and that bizarre, surrealist parodist of the hardboiled, Charles Willeford), in the 1950s and 1960s readers developed a strong taste for Juvenile Delinquent (JD) novels, as well as Drug, Beat, Slut, Race and general Teen-Rebellion stories — anything with gritty, urban, violent, sinful kinds of themes. Possibly this was a reaction to the repressiveness characteristic of this era of Joe McCarthy and J Edgar Hoover; the very idea of sex at that time, it seems, was enough to send frissons down the middle-class spine, and a whole genre of soft porn grew up in the paperback market in response, with covers and titles (Cheating Wives, Truck Stop Slut, Marijuana Girl, etc etc) to match.

Straight sex wasn’t all, either. Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, a whole genre of Lesbian fiction started appearing in paperback in the 1950s, probably beginning with Women’s Barracks in 1950. The genre flourished throughout the decade, with several sub-branches: lesbians in institutions, lesbian love triangles and lesbians rescued from their perversion by straight men. (Whether these were most popular with actual lesbians or rather just titillating to straight men is a matter for debate). Women Without Men was among the 10 most popular paperback titles in 1957.

The 1950s, too, saw the growth of the so-called Movie Tie-In paperback, which has become a whole collectible area in itself, along with TV Tie-ins like The Munsters or the James Blish Star Trek paperbacks.

Decline And Fall

When and how did the golden age of paperbacks come to an end? Well, that probably depends on who you ask. There certainly don’t seem to be many collectors around looking for paperbacks from the 1970s or later, though, and it’s probably safe to say that by the end of the 1960s, as far as mass-market paperbacks are concerned, the best stuff had already been made. Except in Romance (publishers like Harlequin continued the tradition well into the closing decades) the lurid, kitschy element went right out of cover art. Maybe they didn’t want to pay cover artists anymore, maybe it was cheaper to have a photographic image, but for whatever reason most 1970s covers look distinctly restrained, almost cursory, and in the 1980s paperback covers became downright boring, often having no images at all, just a glossy, pseudo-metallic finish and an embossed design. As for the content, well, the let-it-all-hang-out era of the late 60s and beyond completely cut the legs out from under nudge-nudge, softcore, sleazy kind of literature. There was no need, any more, to beat around the bush; and the mass-market paperback seems largely to have reverted to its roots as a reprint of hardcover material at a lower (though not that much lower, these days) price.

Do not despair, though: cover art seems to be making a comeback (both in hardcovers and paperbacks). Publishers may, after all, not have forgotten that it’s usually the cover that sells the book, and with modern graphic arts tools they can do some very fancy stuff much more cheaply than they would have using the old technology. It wouldn’t be surprising to see today’s paperbacks joining the collectible ranks a few decades from now, and collectors looking back on the 1970s-80s as merely the pause that refreshed..

Collecting Paperbacks

So what do collectible paperback collectors collect? Well, here’s a quick rundown of favorite publishers and authors, adapted from the “want list” of one prominent retailer of vintage paperbacks, Black Ace Books of Los Angeles.

Collectible Paperback Publishers

  • ACE (particularly with A, D, G, H, K, N, S before the number of the book)
  • AVON (numbers below 400 best, or un-numbered)
  • BEACON BELMONT BERKLEY (again, lower numbers better, preferably below 400 – some have letter prefixes)
  • BERKLEY DIAMOND (2000 series best)
  • BLACK CAT BRANDON HOUSE (lower numbers, especially below about 6000)
  • CHECKERBOOKS DELL (lower numbers, especially below 1000; also letter-prefixed numbers)
  • DELL FIRST EDITION
  • DELL 10¢ BOOKS (not many of these about)
  • GOLD MEDAL (lower numbers, especially under 1000)
  • GRAPHIC
  • HANDI-BOOKS
  • HARLEQUIN (lower numbers, under about 500)
  • HOLLOWAY HOUSE
  • JACKET LIBRARY
  • LION
  • MIDWOOD
  • MONARCH
  • PERMA (lower numbers, up to about 500. Also the M prefix is more collectible)
  • POCKET BOOKS (lower numbers, up to around 100)
  • POPULAR LIBRARY (lower numbers, under about 400. Also, the EB prefix is more collectible)
  • REGENCY BOOKS
  • SIGNET
  • ZENITH

This list doesn’t include so-called “adult” book publishers, such as Chevron, Domino, Essex House, Mercury, and Satan Press.

Collectible paperback authors

In quite a few cases, these authors have written under more than one pen name. The Black Ace list shows the author’s last name in all caps; the pseudonyms have generally been added. (For an excellent reference on writers’ aliases, see Trussel , to whom we are indebted for much of this information )

  • ALLISON, Clyde (real name William Knowles, also wrote as Clyde Ames)
  • ARD, William (also wrote as Ben Kerr, Mike Moran, Jonas Ward, Thomas Wills)
  • BLOCK, Lawrence (aka Chip Harrison, Paul Kavanagh)
  • BREWER, Gil (alias Eric Fitzgerald, Bailey Morgan)
  • BROSSARD, Chandler (aka Daniel Harper)
  • BROWN, Frederic
  • BROWN, Wenzell
  • BUKOWSKI, Charles
  • BURROUGHS, William S. (also wrote as Bill, William or Willy Lee)
  • CHANDLER, Raymond
  • DE ROO, Edward
  • DI PRIMA, Diane (aka Sybah Darrich)
  • DICK, Philip K. (alias Richard Phillips)
  • ELLISON, Harlan (also used dozens of other names)
  • ELLSON, Hal
  • GARDNER, Erle Stanley (also wrote as AA Fair, as well as Charles M. Green, Grant Holiday, Carleton Kendrake, Charles J. Kenn(e)y, Robert Park, Robert Parr, Les Tillray )
  • GEIS, Richard
  • GOODIS, David
  • HAMMETT, Dashiell
  • HIMES, Chester
  • KARP, David (aka Adam Singer, Wallace Ware)
  • KEENE, Day
  • KEROUAC, Jack (Jean-Louis Incogniteau, Jean-Louis Lebrid Kerouac, Richard Lupoff)
  • L’AMOUR, Louis (also wrote as Jim Mayo, Tex Burns, real name LaMoore)
  • LOVECRAFT, H.P. (also used a lot of pseudonyms)
  • MacDONALD, John D. (aka John Wade Farrell, Scott O’Hara, Peter Reed)
  • MARLOWE, Dan J. (aka Jaime Sandaval)
  • MATHESON, Richard
  • MEAKER, Marijane (also wrote as Vin Packer, Anne Aldrich, ME Kerr, Mary James)
  • MELTZER, David
  • PERKOFF, Stuart Z.
  • RABE, Peter
  • SWENSON, Peggy
  • THOMPSON, Jim
  • WHITE, Lionel
  • WHITTINGTON, Harry (also used a lot of pseudonyms)
  • WILLEFORD, Charles (also wrote as Will Charles and Franklin Sanders)
  • WILLIAMS, Charles
  • WOOD JR., Ed (also wrote as Woodrow Edwards) Yes, this is Ed Wood the C-movie specialist.
  • WOOLRICH, Cornell (also wrote as William Irish, author of the famous Marijuana Girl, and George Hopley)

What should you collect?

Well, most people seem to like to specialize in some way – consistency is the hobgoblin of our little minds. You might, for example, collect only Lesbian or Gay paperbacks, or Westerns or Hardboileds. You might collect all the Belarsky covers, or every paperback edition of Mickey Spillane. You might collect 1955. You might just like to collect covers with men smoking, or women looking back over their shoulders (the back view of women is surprisingly common on paperback covers, for some reason nobody has explained – or perhaps needs to). In other words, there’s any number of ways to segment the market. It really doesn’t matter what you pick – you just collect what you like.

The nice thing about paperback collecting is that it doesn’t have to cost you a fortune. Literally almost anyone can afford to put together some kind of a collection. True, there are areas of the market where you might have to fork out a fair bundle to be a player. The average wallet probably won’t be run to the original Lost Horizon or first paperback editions of Raymond Chandler or Jim Thompson. But you can still buy truly amazing stuff for very modest amounts – paperbacks from the 40s and 50s with great covers, even top authors (later printings), for under $10. If you’re really broke, collect those very under-collected kitschy Harlequin romances. You could probably wallpaper a small room with them for under $50 in materials, and one day, who knows, they might become quite chic.

More links:

Stanford’s Penny Dreadful collection, with a very informative and interesting commentary on the early development.

More background on Dime Novels

personal website of favorite paperbacks with an engaging coming-of-age autobiography as accompaniment

A rundown on paperback cover artists

Find out about Lesbian paperbacks and cover art

Story of a compulsive collector

Commercial site selling postcards and other art based on paperback covers

The Standard: The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association

Check out the Independent Online Booksellers Association Website