Paperback Books

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Paperback Books

The first paperbacks were published in 1841 by a company called Tauchnitz. But for the next ninety years, other publishers around the world continued to make hardback books, which, for many, were an expensive luxury. In 1934, first Albatross, then Penguin Books, began publishing paperbacks in Britain. Using Albatross's system of color-coding books according to subject matter, Penguin quickly became the biggest paperback publisher. Paperbacks were a great hit. Unlike hardbacks, they could be carried easily, and they were so cheap they could be thrown or given away. Paperbacks brought crime fiction, romance, as well as classic literature to millions of people. Despite a slightly "downmarket" image, in the twenty-first century, paperbacks are by far the most popular kind of book.

In the United States, Robert de Graff (1895–1981) founded Pocket Books in 1939. With their distinctive kangaroo logo (kangaroos have pockets), Pocket Books aimed to copy the success of Penguin. Their original list of ten titles included Agatha Christie's crime novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Pocket Books sold for twenty-five cents in stores that had never carried books before. Graff realized that at such a low price, customers would buy extra books on impulse, so they were stacked according to type. The strategy worked, and Pocket Books sold over 1.5 million copies in the first six months.

Paper shortages damaged the book trade during World War II (1939-45). Overall, though, the war was a good thing for the paperback publishers. By selling shirt-pocket-sized "military editions" to American soldiers, paperback publishers created thousands of readers who might otherwise never have been book buyers. Imprints such as Gold Medal, Ballantine, and Mentor made the 1950s the golden age of paperbacks. From Gold Medal's sensational crime originals to Mentor's list of "respectable" literary authors, paperbacks dominated the book market. Even in the age of television (see entry under 1940s—TV and Radio in volume 3) and the Internet (see entry under 1990s—The Way We Lived in volume 5), paperbacks sell in huge numbers. Large-format "trade" paperbacks have given them a new respectability. Paperback "novelizations" attract thousands of film and TV fans. At first, publishers thought paperbacks would finish off the hardback book. By creating new readers, however, paperbacks have ensured a future for sleek, expensive hardbacks as well.

—Chris Routledge

For More Information

Lupoff, Richard A. The Great American Paperback : An Illustrated Tribute to Legends of the Book. Portland, OR: Collectors Press, 2001.

O'Brien, Geoffrey. Hardboiled America: Lurid Paperbacks and the Masters of Noir. New York: Da Capo Press, 1997.