One thing that has always boggled my mind when it comes to interacting with bookish people or communities is that there is a premium placed on hardcover editions of books. They want the newest novel and they want it in hardcover so that they can line it up next to all their other hardcovers. It’s always sat wrong with me, and it’s taken me a while to figure out why that is, but I think I’ve cracked the code, folks.
From a purely personal standpoint, I just like the aesthetics of paperbacks more. When you line them up on a shelf you can see that there isn’t really a standard paperback size, there are just tiny lil variances that means your shelf looks like it’s undulating with spines. I’m also someone who carries a book with me everywhere, and I’m kind of hard on them. I spill my chai (somehow its ALWAYS the chai, no matter what city I’m in, what cup it’s in, or what bag it’s in!!) on the pages, I get caught in a rainstorm waiting for a bus holding only Hunger by Roxane Gay, I pack four books at a time in my backpack and hope for the best, even though the pages are bound to get bent back eventually. Not to mention, they’re lighter and they’re cheaper! I purposely and willingly wait for books that I’m excited to read to come out in paperback so that I can add them to my collection.
All of these characteristics, though, contribute to my broader understanding of why paperbacks reign supreme for me–especially when I account for history (oh yes, mom, I know history!!). Reading has always been about class, wealth, and image, and paperbacks emerged as a resistance to the idea that only the richest of folks deserve books. Now, depending on where we want to begin our historical journey, we could say that stories (not books) have always belonged to the people–which is to say that before the written word was a thing, oral storytellers and folktales were the norm. Then once writing entered the scene, things started to get complicated. Suddenly, there were only certain people that had access to stories and knowledge and it was possible to regulate who those people were. Typically it revolved around religion or a church of some kind, as writers and scribes were viewed as directly in communication with some kind of godly presence or spirit. But that’s like…way way way back in time. Let’s fast forward to the 1800s.
By now, the printing press had been invented (shout to my man Gutenberg!! You remain one of my personal heroes!!) and printed books were present, if not ubiquitous. As with most things having to do with the Victorians, people who had books were RICH. Even though the printing press made printing easier, production of hardcovers (the only format available at the time) was expensive, and thus led to limited print runs, and so could be marked up higher. Meaning that the few rich folks who DID have books could brag about it, and the quantity of books they had was a symbol of their wealth and supposed intelligence–which is absolutely one hundred percent still a thing people do today, despite books being more accessible. However, don’t think that rich folks were the only ones reading. Just because hardcovers were prohibitively expensive for the common folk didn’t mean they weren’t reading (at least for those who could read, considering that was also playing a role in the gatekeeping of literature/knowledge), it just meant they were reading other materials. Typically consisting of almost magazine/newspaper like publications that were printed on cheap paper and meant to be thrown out, with the side effect of having the ink transferred to your fingers.
Then, in the 1860s, our friend the “dime novel” was introduced–also known in England as the “penny dreadful.” This is largely credited as the precursor to what we view as a traditional paperback. These were thin, cheaply produced, and turned out quickly. Some writers would turn out one a week! Dime novels were incredibly popular in the US during the Civil War and stories were typically Westerns or detective novels.
By 1938, folks were starting to wonder if there were a way to bridge the gap between expensive hardcovers and these dirt cheap dime novels. “Folks” mainly being Allen Lane, who would go on to come up with the idea of a paperback–a well-produced but portable and affordable book–and would go on to create Penguin (THAT, Penguin!). His genius was not only in recognizing this market, once again utilizing huge print runs and cheap prices for the customer (2.5 pence, which was the same price as a pack of cigarettes), but also in graphic design; Penguin books of that era were solid colors (depending on their genre) and featured sleek typography with title and author–leaning heavily on the Penguin logo to connote the brand and air of sophistication the Brits crave.
However, Lane didn’t particularly want to expand his market to the US, especially when he was informed that Americans aren’t as sophisticated as the Brits–they’re crass and they like bold illustrations! They eventually worked it out and more paperback companies started erupting onto the scene, trying to capitalize on this new market. Pretty much everything that was being published was reprints–things from the backlist, classics, etc. But by the end of the 1940s, paperback publishers were starting to wonder something: would people buy exclusive paperback releases?
Turns out, they ABSOLUTELY would! Fawcett, the first paperback publisher to do paperback exclusives, sold more than nine million copies in the first six months of rolling it out in 1950! Despite being told that “real” authors wouldn’t be interested in slumming it in paperbacks–still seen as cheap and disposable–there were all kinds of savvy authors who realized that they could be making bank by cranking out lots and lots of what is essentially genre fiction–thrillers, Westerns, romances.
And this, friends, is where I think paperbacks really started to make a name for themselves as a distinct form in and of themselves–especially, in my mind, American paperbacks. The late 50s and into the sixties and seventies were a breeding ground for what would become “pulp” fiction (not the movie), which were typically genre fiction with lurid covers and dramatic copy on the front to entice readers. Death! Love! Betrayal! All kinds of fun. Think in-print click-bait, but like…on steroids. Pulp books even came to have their own style of cover, which is SO delightful and distinct that (in my opinion) it’s informed just about every mass market paperback cover from then on out, including so much room for parody. Let’s take a scroll through what I’m talking about, just to prove my point.
I don’t know if the journey down history lane was necessary to prove why I love paperbacks so much, but I think my main point is that paperbacks–in all the forms we want to include–have always been about access. They have always been about portability, entertainment, and for the people. Whether the authors writing genre fiction looked down on their readers or appreciated them, the simple fact is that paperbacks have endured. Genre fiction continues to fly off the shelves, even as literary elite look down on Avon or Harlequin romances. I could talk forever about the evolution of these covers, the intersection of gender and class when it comes to paperback genre fiction and the larger literary/academic community, and so on and so forth, but I’m gonna cut myself off for now. If you’re a hardcore hardback lover, more power to ya, but I just wonder if you’ve taken a second to investigate what that perfectly uniform lined up shelf of yours means to you, and why it is you don’t prefer paperbacks. From this gal, who lives inside of her books (as much as I can), carries them all over the country, spills food and coffee on them, buys them second hand, and who is willing to wait a year (or longer!) for the paperback release, I guess the insistence on hardcover still feels cold and elitist. Paperbacks are for the people, and that’s what makes them so darn perfect. At least I think so.
Sources (because I actually did research for this like the nerd I am)
Classics, Pulp! The. “Oldcastle Books Group.” Pulp! The Classics, pulptheclassics.com/index1.php?imprint=8.
Corlett, Oliver. “A Short History of Paperbacks.” IOBA Standard, http://www.ioba.org/standard/2001/12/a-short-history-of-paperbacks/.
“How Paperbacks Transformed the Way Americans Read.” Mental Floss, 19 Apr. 2014, http://www.mentalfloss.com/article/12247/how-paperbacks-transformed-way-americans-read.
“How the Paperback Novel Changed Popular Literature.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 30 Mar. 2010, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/how-the-paperback-novel-changed-popular-literature-11893941/.
“The Art of Packaging: Lesbian Pulp Fiction.” Painted Wolf, 27 Dec. 2011, jonmwessel.wordpress.com/2011/12/27/the-art-of-packaging-lesbian-pulp-fiction/.
“When Nature Attacks! Pulp Horror Covers from the 1970s & ’80s.” DangerousMinds, 11 May 2015, dangerousminds.net/comments/when_nature_attacks_pulp_horror_covers_from_the_1970s.