Tag Archives: History of books

Paperback books

February 1, 2023

I discovered one of my favorite authors in the Omaha airport. No, I didn’t see Alex Kava waiting for a plane in the terminal. A clerk at Hudson News and Gifts recommended “A Perfect Evil.” “The author is from Nebraska, and her character, Maggie O’Dell, is so tough- I want to be just like her!” I bought the paperback and read it on the plane-and every spare moment on my vacation.

Paperbacks were invented due to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Hardback books were expensive to produce and difficult to market. While looking for something to read on the train, Allen Lane came up with the idea for paperback books. He could print quality books with a lower production cost in a portable size. In 1935 Lane launched Penguin books in England. Penguin books featured distinctive colored covers which coordinated with the contents. Orange books were fiction, blue was for nonfiction and green for mysteries. 

The first paperback books published included The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie, Madame Claire by Susan Ertz, A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, Poets Pub by Eric Linklater, Carnival by Compton Mackenzie, Ariel by Andre Maurois, Twenty-Five by Beverly Nichols, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy Sayers, Gone to Earth by Mary Webb, and William by E.H. Young. 

You probably recognize some of these titles and authors. These books were reprints of popular hardback books of the time. The success of paperbacks stems from the fact that they are published after the hardback books have come out. Lane marketed his paperbacks not in bookstores, but train stations, newsstands and department stores across the UK. 

In 1939, U.S. publisher Robert de Graff launched Pocket Books. His first title was “The Good Earth” by Pearl S. Buck. Pocket Books used colorful illustrations on their covers to attract readers. In the U.S. Penguin marketed their books in bookstores. de Graff distributed his books to newsstands, subway stations and drugstores to reach populations Penguin was missing.

During WWII soldiers appreciated the portability of paperbacks. According to the Saturday Evening Post, one soldier had picked up “Death Comes for the Archbishop” by Willa Cather, thinking it was a murder mystery (it is not). Upon having finished it in his foxhole, “he discovered, to his amazement, that he liked it anyway.”

Paperback books come in a couple of different sizes. The smaller books are called mass-market paperbacks. They measure 6.75″or 7″X 4″. These are often reprints of popular titles.  The font is smaller and the paper is lower quality than trade paperbacks. Some varieties of books, like romance, are often published only as paperbacks. You are likely to find mass-market paperbacks for sale in a supermarket, newsstand or airport. They are distributed by magazine wholesalers.

Trade paperbacks measure 8.25″X 5.25″ They have the same size of print as hardback books and are more often sold in bookstores. Trade paperbacks are distributed by book wholesalers. The idea was never for paperbacks to replace hardback books, but to make books more affordable. Libraries are more likely to purchase trade paperbacks to add to their collections because they are constructed of better materials and are likely to last longer.

In the 1930s, paperbacks were about the price of a pack of cigarettes. Since then, paperback book prices have gone up faster than cigarettes, but they are still affordable, and readily available to travelers. One nice thing about traveling with paperbacks is you don’t have to worry about misplacing them. On my last vacation, I bought “The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race” by Walter Isaacson at the airport. I had a lot of airplane time, and this 530 page book was just the ticket.