From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Paperback, softback or softcover describe and refer to a book by the nature of its binding. The covers of such books are usually made of paper or paperboard, and are usually held together with glue rather than stitches or staples. Inexpensive books bound in paper have existed since at least the 19th century and exist in a number of formats that have specific names, such as pamphlets, yellowbacks, dime novels and airport novels. Most paperbacks are either "mass-market paperbacks" or "trade paperbacks". In contrast, books with hardcover or hardback are bound with cardboard covered with cloth; although more expensive, hardbacks are more durable.
Paperback editions of books are issued when a company decides to release a book in a low-cost format. Cheap paper, glued bindings and the lack of a hard cover contribute to the inherent low cost of paperbacks, especially when compared to the average cost of hardcovers. Paperbacks can be the preferred medium when a book is not expected to be a major seller, or in other situations where the publisher wishes to release a book without putting forth a large investment. Examples include many novels and new editions or reprintings of older books.
Publishers must balance the larger profit to be made by selling few hardcovers with a great profit per unit, against the potentially greater profit to be made by selling many paperbacks with a small profit per unit. Many modern books, especially genre fiction, are first editions in paperback. Best-selling books may maintain sales in hardcover sufficiently to delay a paperback edition for longer than a year.
Inexpensive books bound in paper have existed since at least the 19th century and exist in a number of formats that have specific names, such as pamphlets, cheap editions, yellowbacks, dime novels and railway novels. This article is about the modern mass market paperback dating from the 1930s, and its offshoot, the trade paperback.
The 20th century mass-market paperback format was pioneered by German publisher Albatross Books in 1931 but the experiment was cut short. In England Penguin Books adopted many of Albatross's innovations, for instance the conspicuous logo and the color-coded covers for different genres, beginning in 1935, and was an immediate financial success. British publisher Allen Lane launched the Penguin imprint in 1935, with 10 reprint titles; this started the paperback revolution in the English-language book market. Number One on the Penguin list of 1935 editions was André Maurois's Ariel.
Lane intended to produce cheap books. He bought paperback rights from publishers, ordered huge print runs (e.g., 20,000 copies) to keep unit prices low, and looked to non-traditional book selling retail locations. Booksellers were initially reluctant to buy his books. But Woolworths, the department store, placed a large order on the books, and the books sold extremely well. After this initial success, booksellers were no longer reluctant to stock paperbacks. The word "Penguin" became closely associated with the word "paperback".
Robert de Graaf, in 1939, issued a similar line in the USA, partnering with Simon & Schuster to found the Pocket Books imprint. The term "pocket book" became synonymous with paperback in English-speaking North America. In Québec, the term "livre de poche" was used, and continues to be used today. De Graaf, like Lane, negotiated paperback rights from other publishers, and produced large print runs. His practices contrasted with those of Lane in his adoption of illustrated covers, aimed at the North American market. In order to reach an even larger market than Lane had, he went the mass market route, through distribution networks of newspapers and magazines, which had a lengthy history of being aimed (in format and distribution) at mass audiences. This was the beginning of mass market paperbacks.
Because of its position as Number One in what became a very long list of Pocket editions, James Hilton's Lost Horizon is often cited as the first American paperback book, which is not correct. The first mass-market, pocket-sized, paperback book printed in America was an edition of Pearl Buck's The Good Earth, produced by Pocket Books as a proof-of-concept in late 1938, sold in New York City, and now very collectible.
A number of companies entered the paperback publishing field in the United States in the years after Pocket Books' inception, including Ace, Dell, Bantam, Avon and dozens of other smaller publishers. At first, paperbacks consisted entirely of reprints, but publishers soon found it economic to publish original works. Genre categories began to emerge, and mass market book covers reflected those categories. Mass market paperbacks had an impact on slick magazines (slicks) and pulp magazines. The market for cheap magazines diminished when buyers went to cheap books instead — one factor in this was that the content included in both formats crossed over — authors also found themselves abandoning magazines, and writing for the paperback market. Many well-known authors were published in paperback, including Arthur Miller and John Steinbeck, and some, like Dashiell Hammett, were published as paperback originals.
U.S. paperbacks quickly entered the Canadian market, because the newspaper and magazine distribution network was controlled by U.S. companies. Canadian mass-market paperback initiatives in the 1940s included White Circle Books, a subsidiary of Collins (UK); it was fairly successful but was soon outstripped by the success of Harlequin which began in 1949 and, after a few years of publishing fragile editions of undistinguished novels, focused on the romance genre and became one of the world's largest publishers.
McClelland and Stewart entered the Canadian mass market book trade in the early 1960s, with its "Canadian best seller library" series (at a time when Canadian literary culture was beginning to be popularized, and a call for a Canadian author identity was discussed by the Canadian masses). See Egg Head or Quality Paperbacks for McClelland and Stewart's paperback line.
Many companies entered the paperback publishing field in the United States in the years after Pocket Books' inception, including Ace, Dell, Bantam, Avon and dozens of other smaller publishers. At first, paperbacks consisted entirely of reprints, but in 1950, Fawcett Publications' Gold Medal Books began publishing original works in paperback.
Fawcett was also an independent newsstand distributor, and in 1945, the company negotiated a contract with New American Library to distribute their Mentor and Signet titles. That contract prohibited Fawcett from becoming a competitor by publishing their own paperback reprints. Roscoe Kent Fawcett wanted to establish a line of Fawcett paperbacks, and he felt original works would not be a violation of the contract. In order to challenge the contract, Fawcett published two anthologies—The Best of True Magazine and What Today's Woman Should Know About Marriage and Sex—reprinting material from Fawcett magazines not previously published in books. When these books were successfully published, he announced Gold Medal Books, a line of paperback originals. Sales soared, prompting Gold Medal editorial director Ralph Daigh to comment, "In the past six months we have produced 9,020,645 books, and people seem to like them very well." However, hardcover publishers resented Roscoe Fawcett's innovation, as evidenced by Doubleday's LeBaron R. Barker, who claimed that paperback originals could "undermine the whole structure of publishing."
Genre categories began to emerge, and mass-market book covers reflected those categories. Mass-market paperbacks had an impact on slick and pulp magazines. The market for cheap magazines diminished when buyers began to buy cheap books instead. Authors also found themselves abandoning magazines and writing for the paperback market. The leading paperback publishers often hired experienced pulp magazine cover artists, including Rudolph Belarski and Earle K. Bergey, who helped create the look and feel of paperbacks and set an appealing visual standard that continues to this day. Scores of well-known authors were published in paperback, including Arthur Miller and John Steinbeck.
World War II brought both new technology and a wide readership of men and women now in the military or employed as shift workers; paperbacks were cheap, readily available, and easily carried. Furthermore, people found that restrictions on travel gave them time to read more paperbacks. Four-color printing and lamination developed for military maps made the paperback cover eye catching and kept ink from running as people handled the book. A revolving metal rack, designed to display a wide variety of paperbacks in a small space, found its way into drugstores, dimestores, and markets.
US paperbacks quickly entered the Canadian market. Canadian mass-market paperback initiatives in the 1940s included White Circle Books, a subsidiary of Collins (UK); it was fairly successful but was soon outstripped by the success of Harlequin which began in 1949 and, after a few years of publishing undistinguished novels, focused on the romance genre and became one of the world's largest publishers.
McClelland and Stewart entered the Canadian mass-market book trade in the early 1960s, with its "Canadian best seller library" series, at a time when Canadian literary culture was beginning to be popularized, and a call for a Canadian author identity was discussed by the Canadian people.