A Book Nerd’s Look at the Modern Mass Market Paperback

To call me a book nerd would be like calling the Hulk green, so obvious that the statement is completely unnecessary. So, when I found out that July 30 was the day the modern paperback book was introduced, I wanted to know more.

First, let’s get some facts straight. July 30, 1935 was not the day the first paperback book was published. In France and Germany, paperback books were published in the 17th century, and James Fenimore Cooper wrote paperback book-like frontier stories back in 1823. Probably the first true mass-market paperback was Malaeska, by Ann S. Stephens, published in June 1860 by the pioneers of the Dime Novel or “penny dreadful.”

However, July 30, 1935 was the day Sir Allen Lane, founder of Penguin Publishing, published the first “respectable” paperback book, Ariel, by André Maurois. Ariel is a biography of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. The story behind the first Penguin paperback is that Mr. Lane, after a weekend in the country with Agatha Christie, was at the train station looking for something to read on his trip back to London, but couldn’t find anything except slick magazines and pulp fiction. His idea was to make quality fiction and nonfiction available in places like train stations for discerning readers who were traveling, and to make them just as affordable as a pack of cigarettes. Voila, the modern paperback was born.

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At first, booksellers were reluctant to buy Lane’s paperbacks, but when Woolworths placed a large order, the books sold so well that booksellers began to stock Lane’s books, making the name “Penguin” synonymous with paperbacks.

The first 10 Penguin Paperback Books:

Another thing to note about Penguin paperbacks is their method of color coding their genres to make their books aesthetically pleasing. Lane borrowed this idea from the German publisher, Albatross Books, who tried to revise the mass-market paperback format in 1931 but was cut short by the approach of World War II. Penguin’s color code is as follows:

  • Red = Drama
  • Orange = Fiction
  • Yellow = Miscellaneous
  • Green = Crime Fiction
  • Dark Blue = Autobiographies
  • Purple = Essays
  • Cerise (deep red) = Travel and Adventure
  • Grey = World Affairs

Other paperback book facts:

  • The first American paperback book was The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck, printed by Pocket Books as a proof of concept and was sold in Macy’s in New York City in 1938. In 1939, following their successful test, Pocket Books published its first official American paperback, Lost Horizon, by James Hilton. The Good Earth was re-released as Pocket Books #11 in September 1939 with a slightly different cover.
  • Pocket Books differed from Penguin in their lavishly illustrated, bright covers.
  • In the 1940s Fawcett Publications wanted to expand into the paperback business, but had signed a contract with a non-compete clause when they agreed to distribute titles for New American Library. Thus, they were the first publisher to print original works in mass-market paperback form.
  • Though authors like Jack Kerouac, Arthur Miller and John Steinbeck all wrote novels that were first published in paperback form, genre categories began to emerge and find their place, dominating original mass-market paperbacks. In the 1950s, the most popular genre category was the hardboiled detective story, followed by science fiction and finally romance. (Three genres from which I have read multiple paperbacks.)

Of course, it doesn’t matter what genre brings out your book nerd, you can find your paperback fix at Half Price Books. You may even want to check out the Rare & Collectibles section to look for classic Penguin paperbacks.

So, what paperback are you reading next?

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