Mental Floss has shared a long, detailed, and fascinating article on the history of another disruptive innovation in U.S. publishing: The paperback. In fact, as TeleRead has detailed before, the paperback goes back to at least the 1850s, when British publishing houses like Routledge & Sons and Ward & Lock started producing cheap “yellowback” editions, or even earlier in Continental Europe, where Tauchnitz actually began printing editions of English classics for Germans from 1841 onwards. But Mental Floss is telling the story of Pocket Books, the Amazon of their time, who partnered with Simon & Schuster to roll out a line of mass-market paperbacks from 1939 that cost only 25 cents each.

Like Amazon, Pocket Books’ new format succeeded through distribution as much as pricing. The company used magazine distributors to push its titles to a far wider range of outlets than contemporary America’s limited network of bookstores. This took them to a true mass audience for the first time, and the format boomed. Pocket Books learned from Allen Lane’s introduction of paperback Penguin Books in the UK in 1935, but applied the format to a different model. And lest anyone conclude that such outreach is always just about dumbing down, it’s worth noting that Pocket Books put Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë on the U.S. bestseller list – hard to imagine under other circumstances.

But the story doesn’t stop there, as Mental Floss explains. In the late 1940s, Fawcett Publications took the format one step further, to paperback originals, to evade restrictive distribution agreements that confined it to paperback reprints of other people’s hardbacks. Mental Floss shares a quote from Pocket Books executive VP Freeman Lewis that should sound familiar to anyone who’s followed the development of e-books: “Successful authors are not interested in original publishing at 25 cents.” The public and the market proved him wrong. Paperback originals boomed, and U.S. publishing and reading habits changed accordingly.

Big Publishing has been here before. For better or worse, it’s survived. And any special pleading on its behalf against Philistine forces like Amazon and e-books can safely be dismissed as the self-interested cant it is.


  1. That being said, it is funny sometimes how history repeats. I was listening to the audiobook of a 1960s-vintage Nero Wolfe novel, The Mother Hunt, and during the course of it a TV producer character accused a magazine publisher character of being dead-set against TV because TV was stealing all of magazines’ readers away. So the worries of old media execs at the onset of new media are an old, old story indeed. 🙂

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