Bookstr Trivia: A Condensed History Of Paperback Books

What is the history of modern paperback books? Why is that history fraught with controversy and accusations of murder? Continue reading the history of paperbacks to find out!

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Even though the history of book-making itself has its beginnings in ancient human history, the storied past of paperback books starts later in the early 16th century.

In 1440, Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the movable-type printing press had revolutionized printing books and documents and had drastically reduced the cost of printing throughout Europe. Even with the decrease in the cost of printing, however, the price of books was still expensive due to the way books were bound in hardcover.

Due to their nature of being high-priced as well as bulky, hardcover books were difficult to transport for leisurely reading. This all changed with the introduction of the octavo.

Comparison of the folio, quarto, and octavo. Image via

In 1501, Aldus Manutius the founder of the Aldine press in Venice, created one of the first predecessors to the paperback book, a small format book known as an octavo.

The name “octavo” refers to the number of times a page is folded in order to make several more pages; an octavo makes up a total of 16 pages, a quarto 8 pages, and a folio 4 pages. These small books allowed readers to transport their books easily using pockets and satchels, making it more accessible to readers who could not afford the more expensive hardcover books.

Many of Shakespeare’s early written manuscripts were printed on these early ancestors of the paperback books. Though the invention of the octavos were important in paperback history, our modern perception of paperback books originated much later during the 1830s to 1860s with the printing of “Penny Dreadfuls.”

Penny Dreadful comic Knight of the Road cover. Image via the British Library.

Developed in mid 19th century Britain, penny dreadfuls are recognized as as the first mass-market paperbacks. With each only costing a penny and filled with stories of adventure involving pirates, highwaymen, and crime detectives, penny dreadfuls were mainly marketed to young boys.

These small, colorful paperbacks certainly lived up to their name as many parents and adults often regarded the readings as rubbish and immoral. Some even went as far as to say that these little adventure tales were corrupting enough to be able to turn young boys to violence, including murder. As one local London newspaper, “The Pall Mall Gazette,” described penny dreadfuls as “the poison which is threatening to destroy the manhood of democracy.”

Of course, Britain was not the only country experiencing a boom in mass market paperbacks; the United States was also dealing with its own version of the penny dreadful called the dime novels.

Buffalo Bill dime novel Buffalo Bill After the Bandits covers. Image via Brandeis University.

Dime novels were sold for between 5 and 10 cents and were similar to penny dreadfuls in their colorful covers and adventurous content. Dime novel adventures mainly centered around Native Americans, cowboys, and outlaws with the most popular being Buffalo Bill stories.

Just like the penny dreadfuls, dime novels were controversial at the time. Even though stories ended with the restoration of virtue, many found the rampant crime, crude language, and portrayal of women in active jobs and relationships as iniquitous. Despite the controversy however, dime novels were still successful due to them being the prime reading material for soldiers in the Civil War. This success led into another evolution of the modern-day paperback: pulp fiction.

The Argosy pulp fiction magazine cover. Image via

Unlike dime novels, pulp fiction— named as such because it was made from cheap wood pulp— was printed in the style of a magazine format and could be purchased from not only a bookstore but from newsstands and drugstores as well.

The first pulp novel was published in 1896 in a magazine called “The Argosy.” These pulp fiction stories were geared towards adolescents and adults with a wide range of genres including adventure, crime, horror, romance, science-fiction, sex, sports, war, and Westerns. Many famous pop fiction characters would arise from these pulp fiction magazines including Doc Savage, Conan the Barbarian, Flash Gordon, Zorro, Tarzan, The Shadow, and Dick Tracy.

During the 1940s, pulp magazines began declining in popularity due to television, the growing production of new literary fiction, and the onset of World War II. This decline in pulp fiction brought us to the final stage of evolution in what we now know as the modern-day paperback book.

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway cover.

Dime novels and pulp fiction magazine, though were cheap (or because they were cheap) many saw the stories in them as trashy and with little to no literary merit. Most literature considered to have any integrity were still largely unaffordable to the masses.

In 1935, Allen Lane and his brothers created the company Penguin Books with the main goal of publishing affordable literary works of merit. Notable novels printed by Penguin included Ernest Hemignway’s A Farewell to Arms, Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and Dorothy Sayers’ The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club.

Lane was able to keep the costs of these books down by creating simple paperback covers. Because of these conscientious decisions novels would only cost twenty-five cents. For comparison with hardcover books at the time, in 1939 John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath hardcover book sold for $2.75.

Today, even with the newest inventions of the eBook and audiobook, paperbacks still lead in sales due to their affordable and abundant nature. This nature is due to the long history of the evolution of paperbacks.

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