There have been several “paperback revolutions” in fiction publishing, the first of which unfolded during the first half of the nineteenth century in the United Kingdom, Europe, and the United States. Cheap bulk postal costs encouraged American publishers to print royalty-free foreign novels (those of Charles Dickens, for example) in lightweight large quarto or newspaper formats, offering cheap installments to subscribers. They could thus be claimed as periodicals, gaining access to third-class postal rates and railroad distribution across the country. Schurman (1996, 63) notes that by the mid-1840s in the United States, “paperback novels could be had through the mails at six cents each or sixteen for one dollar.” Park Benjamin had in fact issued what is generally taken to be the first paperbound full-length novel in June 1840, Charles Lever’s Charles O’Malley, a military romance. Smaller paperback quarto-sized books followed, usually as part of an ongoing series of publications, like the Beadle Dime Novels of the 1860s and 1870s, with their sewn spines and woodcut cover illustrations.
The first dime novel, published by Irwin P. Beadle in June 1860, was a story first serialized twenty years earlier in 1839, Ann S. Stephens’ Malaeska, the Indian wife of the white hunter – reflecting the ongoing taste for frontier adventure fiction. In the United Kingdom, George Routledge reprinted the famous frontier American novelist James Fenimore Cooper’s naval adventure The red rover in a new pocketsize paperback form in December 1848. Routledge’s Railway Library – easily identified through their yellow covers (known as “yellowbacks”) – ran alongside a number of other publishers’ Library or Standard series and lasted for around fifty years until 1899. By the 1860s, the first paperback revolution was in full swing, with publishers such as Routledge and Chapman and Hall investing in long-running series of new works and reprints, selling for a shilling or less each: hack writing in some cases, recycled literary classics in others.
In the later part of the nineteenth century, a new novel might go through several phases: serialization in a periodical or newspaper, then publication as a relatively expensive “three-decker” or three-volume hardcover novel (a typical format for literary fiction), followed by various reprints at ever cheaper prices depending on its popularity and longevity (Eliot 2000). The decline of the three-decker novel in the 1890s coincided with another paperback boom, although this was somewhat curtailed in the United States in 1891 when Congress’s Platt-Simonds Bill forced publishers to pay royalties to foreign authors. Genre fiction, however, began to flourish. Detective stories, westerns, and adventure fiction were printed on the cheapest kind of “pulp” paper and were closely tied to the rapidly growing pulp magazine market. But the various Library series – like J. M. Dent’s Everyman Library series, founded in 1906 – continued to reprint the literary classics in cheap paperback form well into the early twentieth century.
Mass-market paperback publishing – the third paperback revolution – properly began in Germany with Albatross Books, founded in 1932. Size was standardized (181 × 111 mm) and the books were color-coded: orange for fiction, for example. The company’s success and format was noticed by Allan Lane, who at the time was director of Bodley Head in London, a prestigious publisher. Lane bought up publication rights to a range of novels and established a new publishing house in Britain devoted exclusively to paperbacks, Penguin. The first 10 titles, released in 1935, included novels by Ernest Hemingway and Agatha Christie. Again, the books were color-coded: orange and white for fiction, green for crime fiction, and so on. In 1945 Penguin began its Penguin Classics series, securing the paperback’s affiliation to quality works of literature. Penguin’s main British competitor was Pan – Ian Fleming’s publisher – which, by contrast, embraced the lower popular genres such as horror and showcased a more lurid kind of cover illustration. In the United States, Penguin’s success was replicated in 1939 by Fair de Graff ’s Pocket Books, with its kangaroo logo. The first 10 paperback titles here were led by James Hilton’s Lost horizon, but again included a novel by Agatha Christie as well as a paperback volume of five of Shakespeare’s tragedies.
The paperback novel has always accommodated both quality literature – pirated or reprinted literary classics – and genre fiction, and little seems to have changed, even today. The paperback publishers most commonly associated with mass-market genre fiction are Harlequin (founded in 1949) and Mills and Boon (founded in 1908, and initially specializing in hardcover novels). These two publishers merged in 1972, rapidly extending the range of their category romance fiction for which they are best known and selling around 30 million romance novels in the following year (Dixon 1999) – but also venturing into literary fiction through the MIRA imprint. Most literary fiction is now published in paperback only; on the other hand, many genre novelists are published first in hardcover, with paperback reprints following some time later on. Mass-market paperbacks are distinguished from trade paperbacks: the former remain small, pulp-like, and relatively cheap, while the latter are usually the same size as hardcover novels and are an overt sign of the paperback novel’s continued ties to quality fiction.
- Dixon, J. (1999). The romance fiction of Mills & Boon, 1909 – 90s. London: Routledge.
- Eliot, S. (2000). The business of Victorian publishing. In D. David (ed.), The Cambridge companion to the Victorian novel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 37– 60.
- Finkelstein, D. (2005). An introduction to book history. London: Routledge.
- Schurman, L. C. (1996). The Librarian of Congress argues against cheap novels getting low postal rates. In L. E. Sullivan & L. C. Schurman (eds.), Pioneers, passionate ladies, and private eyes: Dime novels, series books, and paperbacks. New York: Haworth Press, pp. 59 –72.