The Sunday Salon: The History of the Paperback

I like books. I know, blindingly obvious, but I don’t just mean that I like novels. I like the codexes themselves—the weight of the object, the texture of the cover, and the way it sits ever so prettily on my brutally curated bookshelf. And my absolute favorite kind of book is a yellowing paperback older than I am (with bonus points if it’s old-school speculative fiction with a deliriously loopy cover). As I’ve mentioned before on the blog, I didn’t read as a kid—I reread. One of the books I reread over and over again was Understanding Other People, a decidedly retro self-help title that, among many other problematic things, asserted queer people are just afraid of the opposite sex. (Man, good thing I was so thick I didn’t absorb that crap.) But while I’ve thankfully jettisoned the useless content, I still retain a deep, enduring love for paperbacks whose pages flake. To celebrate that, let’s learn about its history.

The paperback began its life as the Victorian yellowback, which sounds like some sort of lovely bird. As the Industrial Revolution chugged on in the mid-nineteenth century, book printing and distribution began to improve—typesetting became more regular, for instance. And railway travel was becoming more and more a thing, meaning that people who traveled by train had a lot of downtime on their hands. Enter two companies—the publishing firm of Simms and McIntyre of Belfast and the newsvendor W. H. Smith & Sons. Simms and McIntyre of Belfast began reprinting fiction in paper boards with bright green covers for one or two shillings in 1847. A year later, W. H. Smith & Sons began opening newsstands on railway stations. The two naturally joined forces, and the people loved it. Other publishing companies hopped on the yellowback train (oh, that one hurt), and the trend enjoyed its highest peak in the 1870s and 1880s. But traditional publishers responded to it by dropping the price of new books and introducing six or even three-penny paperback reprints of their own.


(Side bar: W. H. Smith, as the company was later known, invented SBN, the precursor to ISBN, in 1966! The more you know…)

Black Mischief, Evelyn Waugh

Fifty years later, in 1932, enter Albatross Books, a German publisher out of Hamburg. Albatross Books introduced a lot of innovations for the paperback book—color-coded covers (to indicate genre), the modern mass market paperback proportions (181 by 110 mm), and using a bird for the logo. If this sounds weirdly familiar, it should be. World War II brought Albatross to an end, and Sir Allen Lane, the man who founded Penguin Books, stole the format. (Although, to be fair, he ended up giving one of the founders of Albatross Books a job later. But still. Not cool.) Penguin Books made paperbacks enjoyable to read, cheap (each book was sixpence), accessible, and ubiquitious: Lane ordered enormous print runs (20,000 books was unheard of at the time) and sold to non-bookstores.

penguin books

The answer to Lane on this side of the pond was Robert de Graaf, who worked with Simon & Schuster on Pocket Books, which also featured an animal logo—this time, it was Gertrude the kangaroo, who carried books in her pouch. (My kind of a woman—well, lady mammal!) Just as Lane “borrowed” from Albatross, de Graaf “borrowed” from Penguin. His line of pocket books sold for twenty-five cents a pop, and they were among the first to use glue instead of stitching to construct the book itself. They also used bright, lurid illustrations to grab the reader’s attention, giving rise to the covers we think of when we think of pulp fiction.

pocket book 228

There are some other milestones—paperbacks ceased being solely reprints in 1950 with Fawcett Publications’ Golden Medal Books series and improvements in printing maps were applied to paperbacks, making for more attractive covers—but, for, the most part, that’s the birth of the mass market paperbacks we know and love.

This has been my last full first week of classes for the foreseeable future—and yes, I am going to be gawking in horror at these milestones. It’s been a long, exhausting, sock-destroying week (must I finally admit I cannot wear socks designed for non-Lady Sasquatches?), but I got a lot of work done yesterday, and all I want to do today is curl up with The Real Jane Austen, finish the thing, and go out to an Irish pub for dinner with my tour group from my fateful trip to Ireland last year.


What’s your favorite kind of book? Do you have any particular attachment to paperbacks?

4 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: The History of the Paperback

    • Exactly. For me, feminism is all about making sure everyone has choice, but I think her point about how the choice narrative can create a sense of “well, we don’t need feminism then, do we?” is extremely important.

      All the lesbian SFF romance! I’ve got four books on my list from that post alone, I’m so excited to pick them up.

  1. Wonderful links! When I read that article, I felt so grateful — not for the first time — that I had such a good high school experience. I was lucky enough to have access to a really good public high school with lots of geeky kids to whom college was really important, and everyone was into doing well on tests. If that hadn’t been the case, I’m sure it would have been a whole different story.

Your Thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s