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A Secret History of the Paperback

filed under , 8 September 2014, 22:09 by

A Secret History of the Paperback:
and how not everything that happened to publishing since 1935 is going to repeat itself with ebooks.


I’m going to start with three pull-quotes from The Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History, Volume 2 [while published in 2003 — well before the current ebook thing, and certainly citing scholarship that is much older than just 2003 — I find this information very interesting given current debate.]

“Cheapness meant that a best-seller of the 1850s might sell fifty times the copies of one in the 1810s. Paper had constituted 50 to 66 percent of the cost of a book in 1800 but was only 7 percent by 1910, and leather covers were replaced by cheaper cloth. …
By the 1860s and again in the 1880s, proliferating titles and longer print runs had occasioned such competition among booksellers that many were squeezed out of business. Publishers complained that there was too much competition, too low prices, and too few outlets. Once again their response was price fixing.”

“The volume of book production increased substantially during the twentieth century despite the fact that for some commentators, particularly from the 1960s on, the advent and rapid development of new electronic technologies suggested that the demise of the book was imminent.”

“Following World War II, technological developments spurred book production. Photocomposition and offset printing enabled higher print runs (100,000 copies and more) than ever imagined, prompting what observers called the ‘paperback revolution.’ The paperback format was now used for light fiction as well as for the second edition of hardbound books. Their cheap price and ‘disposable’ quality encouraged book sales.”

Yes, I thought it important to include the dig about 19th century publisher price fixing — but also note it follows booksellers going out of business and book markets tightening. The larger point here is that paperbacks weren’t quite the price revolution portrayed by some; book prices had been falling for over a century.

I found this article buried in a ten-year old economics textbook by using a Google Books search — which is kind of off topic here but also illustrates how far we’ve come. Thanks to Google (and perhaps irritating to OUP) I can embed the search findings below.

[The Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History, Volume 2 isbn 0195105079 pub date 2003 edited by Joel Mokyr]

The paperback was not a sudden or seismic shift, or one that magically jumped into existence on 30 July 1935 — I’ll use the Penguin date because Amazon did * — and I’m not just talking about the ‘paperback’ formats that predated the ‘pocket books’ of Penguin and American competitor Pocket Books.

Decades of innovation preceded the mass-market paperback of the late 1930s — the first steam-powered presses emerged in the 1810s, to be replaced about 30 years lated by even faster rotary presses that replaced the piston-like flatbed press with a continuously operating rotating drum. On the pre-production side, Linotype machines significantly improved typesetting, starting in 1884, while parallel developments in lithography led to the introduction of offset printing (for paper) in 1904.

All these developments were driven not by the needs of book publishers but by the newspapers, which greedily adopted every technology that increased the speed and volume of print — and which lowered costs — in the drive to expand their business and reach. (Historic circulation numbers are hard to come by but we see newspapers doubling—at least—over the first half of the 19th century, and on toward hundreds of thousands for big city papers, as exemplified by the circulation battles between Pulitzer and Hearst.) The demands of newspapers drove the technology not only of the presses but also the paper — and anyone with a shelf-full of cheap, yellowing paperbacks knows the look and feel of newsprint-grade paper.

Cheap paper, fast presses, and perfect bindings (invented in 1895) combined in the 1930s to give us an affordable paperback.


There are three other magic ingredients to consider. First was volume: unit costs go down the more units you print, and Penguin stockpiled 200,000 books for their initial launch (20k copies each of ten titles) [source] — an unprecedented bet in an era when even a bestseller like Ernest Hemingway only got initial print runs of 10,000 hardcovers. The bet paid off, of course (and Penguin would actually sell 3 million books in its first year). Second, the newsstands (“news agents” to my Anglophone readers who don’t speak ‘murican) in train stations and on street corners everywhere represented a much larger sales channel than the small, and infrequent, bookstores of the era. (I don’t know why this is occasionally presented as a ‘hurdle’ the paperback publishers had to overcome, or a huge innovation; the newsstands were already selling cheap print—as fiction magazines—and had done so for decades).

And the final reason Penguin paperbacks were so cheap was the fact that paperbacks were reprints of books that had already been published by others. Of the first 10 titles Penguin chose, the original year of publication ranges from 1912 to 1929 — each at least five years old and highlighted by the inclusion of the debut novels of established authors Hemingway and Agatha Christie. Penguin didn’t have to invest in new manuscripts and herd authors along through a drawn-out editorial process, they just had to typeset the books and print ‘em off (with a kickback to the original author/publisher; how much you want to bet that—at least at first—the paperback rights went for a song).

The first work of original fiction to debut in paperback didn’t come along until 1950 — and around that time, hardcover publishers were claiming up to 50% of the royalties on paperbacks, squeezing on one side, while competition in a crowded market squeezed paperback publishers from the other. The switch to paperback originals was probably inevitable; it was friction from the ‘legacy’ publishers (of 1950) that prompted it.

[If you’d like to compare the 10-15 year gap between reprints and originals in the new format, I’ll note that Kindle Direct Publishing launched concurrently with the first Kindle device in 2007.]


Paperbacks were an advance, both in terms of accessibility (price points and physical availability) and visibility for books. The equivalent of the mall bookstore in this era was on the first floor of your downtown department store [sources: 1900, 1920, 1949] and so, were of course limited to places that had department stores, and downtowns — and in the late 30s, there were only 500 bookstores in the U.S., “which did not exist everywhere and more closely resembled antiquaries’ shoppes than the current megamarts” [source]. It’s not that Americans did not read, but the primary vehicle for fiction was the magazine (and I’ll also throw in full-page serial weekly comics in the newspapers as an aside) as well as the 3,500 public libraries. The paperback model that became mainstream in 1935 didn’t hide books in a dusty shop corner or behind a library circulation desk — the books (for the cost of a pack of smokes) were on a rack at the five-and-dime, and on the newsstand next to the magazines and newspapers people were already used to buying daily. And in America at least, the paperbacks quickly adopted the lurid covers that (for some) also defined the format.

I don’t know that I see the same benefit from ebooks. Yes, like paperbacks, the format is cheaper to produce (though that cost is not zero). Ebooks also get full marks for ‘accessibility’, considering you can just download one to your phone. Where ebooks do not quite match the true revolutionary potential of the paperback is in expanding the market. Paperbacks *blew up* the market for books — finding readers where they lived, and transitioning a pre-existing magazine fiction market to the new format, vastly expanding the profile (and sales) of genres like sci-fi, mystery, westerns, and romance.

What we’re missing in the ebook revolution is that “pre-existing magazine fiction market”, its half-century of material that fed into paperback racks, and the valuable experience a generation of authors had publishing there — a farm team, feeder system, or escalator (pick your metaphor) into pulp paperbacks for the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. We, and by ‘we’ I mean everyone, managed to largely kill off magazines in the decade before the Kindle launched. For ebooks to really impact the business in the same way paperbacks did, we’ll need to find (or invent) something like the magazine fiction market of the 30s and 40s, and find (or invent) ways to get book covers in front of eyeballs the way the spinner racks and magazine stands used to. (lurid optional; I really dig those pulp covers though)

Web sites are literally freakin’ amazing and book sales sites like Amazon are the brave new future of bookselling where nothing ever really goes out of print and any title is available — if you can find it. 10 million book listings is not only unprecedented but jaw-dropping when you stop to think about it. But (and you knew a ‘but’ was coming) Amazon doesn’t transform the reading audience like Penguin, Pocket, and Fawcett did. The people going to Amazon are already readers. Those who already buy books, and buy the most books, are the early adopters on the digital platform and the most vocal of its advocates. A web site is not going to put a book out there for discovery — or an impulse buy — in the same way that a Penguin paperback of 1935 did. In fact, web sites tend to bury books (really bury books when search algorithms and results are manipulated) in a way that’s different, even, from the bad luck of bottom-shelf placement in a corner in a 20,000sq.ft. bookstore.

Paperbacks moved books from an expensive luxury and lifestyle statement out to the places where people actually lived — a migration that began with train stations and street corners and eventually settled into the B.Dalton/Waldenbooks era of mall bookstores and from there to the late 1990s and early 2000s big box stores — in 2005 we reached a peak of roughly 1500 ‘book superstores’ run by the chains and that, honestly, is about as good as things will ever get (for physical books). Paperbacks, the revolutionary format of 1935, had been absorbed by publishers and the book trade (with mass-markets and trade paperbacks accounting for roughly 80% of books sold) and made bookstores better, arguably made book publishing better, and certainly made reading both more accessible and more popular over the decades, even with competition from television.

Ebooks threaten to reverse that, moving books from an everyday commodity back to a lifestyle statement and comparative luxury. Yes, an ebook may be cheaper at $9.99 (or $2.99, or 99¢, or even free) but to read an ebook, you need a smart phone, a tablet, a dedicated ereader, or a computer — and a credit or debit card. These appliances get cheaper all the time, but from 2007 right up to last year, we’re still talking about an investment of $100 or so. (Yes, please tell me about Amazon&iTunes gift cards and second-hand ereaders from ebay plus free phones on contract and all the other work-arounds — but admit that it’s all a bit more costly and complicated than a paperback for six pence or a quarter.)

Ebooks still have a long way to go, in my opinion, and I also have more than a few reservations and lingering questions about the format. I also think Amazon has a bit too much control over the new format, more than I personally am comfortable with. Additionally (and once again in my opinion) the *real* format shift was in 1993 with the new “printing press”, the World Wide Web. Ebooks feel like a step sideways, not forward, though any model that results in paychecks for authors can’t be all bad. Just like technological changes in printing that began in the 1840s eventually gave us the Penguin paperback of 1935, the massive shift in publishing that began in 1993 will eventually result in a similar revolution. (I just don’t think the 2007—or 2014—ebook is it. And even with the accelerated pace of technology today, compared to the 19th century, I don’t think 10 years is enough time yet to see exactly what that change will be.)

I’d also like to note I used Google Book Search to find five sources, ranging from public-domain sources as old as 1900 to the citation that started this article, from a textbook/encyclopedia from 2003 (more recent, yes, but equally unavailable in practical terms). That’s a power shift and democratization of information on par with the Carnegie libraries of 130 years ago; not every change in media is about formats.


* For those of you who like book trivia: German publisher Albatross beat Penguin to the ‘modern’ paperback by three years, though Albatros did not attempt the (then) massive print runs that Penguin did in ’35. However, I’ll note that Albatross innovated the trim-size and those iconic, color-coded covers (minimal, with typography and logo but no illustrations) now deeply associated with classic Penguin. How much ‘Penguin’ copied from ‘Albatross’ I’ll leave to your own judgement. I’ll also note that Tauchnitz Editions predate Penguin by nine decades — though the Tauchnitz books were never sold as paperbacks per se; the books were intended (by the publisher) and purchased as unbound books in a ‘wrapper’ with the understanding (at least until the 1930s, when Albatross snapped up Tauchnitz) that the editions would be rebound at purchaser’s cost by a local binder (turning them into hardcovers). Not all of the Tauchnitzs were, of course, though ironically this makes the paperbacks rarer and (potentially) more valuable than a leatherbound hardcover version of the same book.

Those interested in some of the primary sources I used should check out the Mental Floss article, How Paperbacks Transformed the Way Americans Read by Andrew Shaffer (which is linked above but you probably missed it) and A Short History of Paperbacks by Oliver Corlett [from the Independent Online Booksellers Association newsletter, The Standard vol.II no.3 December 2001, and archived online]. And if you’re still with me at this point, you should also read The Stigma of Paperback Originals, Joanne Kaufman, WSJ, 23 September 2010 and Soft Target: Have reports of the paperback’s death been greatly exaggerated?, Katie Arnold-Ratliff, Slate, 20 June 2013.

Most (but not all) of the Wikipedia links I used above on the paperback format: offset printing

And finally, this post was touched off a couple weeks back (hey, research takes time) by the, interesting, open letter Amazon published at

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