Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

A history lesson for today’s paperback



Whatever happened to the Beatles’ paperback writer?

It might be the bibliophile in me, but “Paperback Writer” has always been my favorite Beatles ditty. A struggling writer’s plea. A million copies overnight. Music to my ears.

But let’s face it, publishing today’s mass-market paperback bears little resemblance to 1966.

As a quick overview, sales of mass-market paperbacks fell 54 percent this September, while trade paperback sales remained flat and ebook sales doubled. According to a study released in August 2011 by the Association of American Publishers and the Book Industry Study Group, mass-market paperback sales are 14 percent lower than they were in 2008, despite an overall expansion of the publishing industry. The end of Borders, which once accounted for as much as 40 percent of a title’s mass-market paperback sales, also now places the paperback in a precarious situation.

The paperback appears to be in considerable trouble. Or is it?

Bear with me for just a bit of history.

The paperback, in its most infantile state, burst onto the scene during the late 1830s in response to an economic recession. Weeklies, as they became known, were fictional supplements (consisting mostly of serialized novels pirated from England) that were printed on newsprint and folded into resulting pamphlets. They were a phenomenal success among the new nation’s readers, though they eventually faded away by the mid 1840s as a result of fierce competition that brought profitability down to zero.

Yet the paperback resurged in the 1860s with the publication of the infamous dime novel. (Fun fact: they actually sold for a nickel, and the first published title sold 65,000 copies—not too shabby by today’s standards.) Dime novels’ standard fare of mysteries and adventures in the wild frontier were a massive hit, and their bright colored and sensational cover illustrations marked one of the first concerted efforts in book marketing and branding. But alas, the dime novel also fell out of popularity at the end of the century as Americans turned their attention toward pulp magazines and an official U.S. copyright law put a stop to the rampant bootlegging that allowed publishers to pump an endless array of paperbacks into the marketplace.

The paperback reached its zenith in the 1940s and 1950s with the paperback revolution that was incited by Penguin and imitated widely on this side of the Atlantic. It also received a considerable boost from a postwar intellectual zeitgeist that carried on into the 1960s, which made a copy of Jack Kerouac or Hermann Hesse sticking out of your back pocket the ultimate symbol of subcultural cool. Some of the best of pop art found its way onto paperback covers, adding a level of kitsch to bookstores’ spinner racks. But again, the paperback took a hit in the subsequent decades as the deep discounting offered by superstores such as Barnes & Noble, Borders, and eventually online retailer Amazon, placed hardcovers in greater reach of the general public.

So are we starting to see a trend?

The paperback throughout its roughly 175 years has had considerable ups and downs, a product of economics, cultural preferences, and technological advancements. It has been a publishing darling, the force of an industry, only then to fall out of favor, wither away, and then re-emerge. So does that mean anything for today’s paperback or does the ebook’s rise effectively mark its end? Might the paperback be in the midst of another rebirth? Or could it be that the ebook is the new paperback? A logical and innovative response to the current economic, technological, and cultural environment.

One comment on “A history lesson for today’s paperback

  1. Pingback: Postcards from publishing’s past « appazoogle

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This entry was posted on December 22, 2011 by in Culture, Industry Research and tagged , .

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