When the Beatles’Paperback Writer” hit number one in 1966, fans everywhere knew exactly what type of books the song’s subject was churning out: Cheap pieces of smut filled with lurid scenes of sex and violence. Everyone had seen the graphic covers of these throwaway titles screaming from the racks at bus stations, corner stores, and supermarkets.

Though they were cheap and sometimes quite prurient, paperbacks had held mass-appeal for more than 100 years. Before the 20th century, such books were known as dime novels or “penny dreadfuls.” In the early 1800s, the improvement of the steam rotary press made it possible to print low-quality books in large numbers, and the growing rail network offered a perfect way to distribute them.

“Malaeska” by Ann S. Stephens is typically thought of as the first dime novel, published in June 1860 by Erastus and Irwin Beadle. Within a few months, this romance novel centering on an Indian princess had sold 65,000 copies, launching a new industry. The Beadles quickly lined up several more authors and continued to print thrilling stories of the western frontier.

Dime novels boomed during the Civil War, likely because they were easy to transport and cheap enough to discard when finished. Within a few decades, several paperback writers were crafting multiple books each month, like Prentiss Ingraham of the Buffalo Bill series.

As urban areas continued to grow, dime novels were increasingly set in cities, featuring characters like detective Nick Carter, whose adventurous tales were written by Frederic Marmaduke Van Rensselaer Dey. Thousands of hardboiled detective books were printed in paperback form, especially during the early decades of the 20th century, by writers like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Erle Stanley Gardner.

In 1935, Allen Lane, chairman of the venerable Bodley Head publishing company, was stuck waiting at a British train station looking for something good to read. As Lane browsed the racks of sleazy pulp novels and magazine, he realized there was an obvious market for higher quality literature printed in paperback form. Thus the new imprint Penguin was born.

Big distributors like Woolworth’s soon ordered thousands of Penguin’s affordable titles by authors like Agatha Christie, Ernest Hemingway, and Dorothy Sayers. In a year, the comp...

Though Penguin had elevated the medium, trashier imprints still made bestsellers. Some of the better known paperback publishers include Ace, Albatross, Anchor, Avon, Ballantine, Bantam, Beacon, Beeline, Berkley, Corinth, Dell, Graphic, Grove, Harlequin, Lion, Midwood, Monarch, Penguin, Perma, Pocket, Pyramid, Signet, and Zenith.

Over the next few decades, paperback genres expanded to include more fantasy, science fiction, horror, and juvenile-delinquent stories. The most sensational books from this era are often referred to as sleaze paperbacks. Sleaze titles were often sold from behind the counter in specialty stores and bookshops, and relied on their nearly pornographic cover art as much as their contents to attract audiences.

Even Penguin knew that suggestive covers sold more books, including those of well-established authors like John Steinbeck or Agatha Christie. Regardless of genre, many paperbacks in the 1950s and '60s featured “good girl art,” a term coined by the American Comic Book company to describe imagery of attractive women in skimpy clothes. Artists like Bill Ward, Matt Baker, and Earle Bergey were especially prolific in the style. However, the format was losing its edge by the 1970s, and aside from the ever-expanding genre of romance novels, paperbacks are mostly a lost art.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Google Book Search

Google Book Search

Want to do one quick search and pull up the mother lode of vintage books? Try Google Book Search, a database filled… [read review or visit site]



Bruce Black's gallery of paperback book covers from the 1940s and 50s. With help from numerous contributors, he's a… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Enochian Angels Paperback William R Wraithe - All 269 Angels & Cacodemons - MintThe Witches Key To The Legion A Guide To Solomonic Sorcery Goetia Paperback MintDaemonolatry Goetia (demonolatry) Magick Paperback - S Connolly Mint As NewGoetic Demons New Theories On Demonic Magick - Lucien Rofocale Paperback Mint2 Vintage Jack Kerouac Paperbacks On The Road Dharma BumsThe Key Of Solomon Rewritten With Additional Keys - Abraham Ori Paperback MintRare El Topo Paperback Alexandro JodorowskyVintage 1950s Original Noir Pulp Paperback Cover Art Painting By Harry BartonFrancois Truffaut Hitchcock A Definitive Study 1st Paperback Edition 1967 Vtg1964 Unread Vintage Sleaze Paperback Rb202 Ape Rape By Vin Saxon1971 Unread Vintage Sleaze Paperback J-15 The Animal Lover By Val CulverThe Lord Of The Rings By J R R Tolkien Pb 1968 1st Paperback Edition One VolumeVintage Sleaze Paperback Gropie Barry Luck Unread Essex House 1969Nighthawk Clive Cussler Arc Proof Advance Uncorrected Paperback Graham Brown1914 Paperback Photo Drama Of Creation Book Watchtower Jehovah’s WitnessLot 5-22 Man From U.n.c.l.e Paperback Tv Tie-ins1971 Unread Vintage Sleaze Paperback Starship Intercourse By Lambert WilhelmThree On A Broomstick By Don Holliday 1967 Gay Pulp Fiction Paperback RareBlue Book Of Pool Cues 2nd Edition Paperback50 Vintage Paperbacks Most 1950s Some Lurid CoversRare 1965 Paperback Life With Mother Superior ~ Jane Trahey Vintage Book1967 Unread Vintage Sleaze Paperback W554 She Stud By Joseph CarterVintage Sleaze Paperback Greenleaf Bee-line Seduction Classes By Mona 1969Vintage Sleaze Paperback Greenleaf Depraved Late-hour Library 1969 Si CliffordVintage Sleaze Paperback Greenleaf Bee-line Blow My Mind Wally Martin 1970The Unknown Keys Of King Solomon Goetia Magick Paperback William R Wraithe Mint1965 Unread Vintage Sleaze Lesbian Paperback Two Way Beach Girl By Peter KantoGolden Prey John Sandford Arc Uncorrected PaperbackLot Of 11 Dell Mapback Mysteries Vintage Pulp Paperback Detective Murder CrimeVtg Sleaze Paperback Women Who Desire Dogs David C.kent Valley Circle 1971Vtg Sleaze Paperback Me And My Doggie Carol R Impact Library Valley Circle 1970Unread Vintage Sleaze Paperback Girls Together Olympic Foto Reader Lesbian 1968The Witchwood Crown Tad Williams Arc Proof Advance Paperback Uncorrected1909 Jacomo By Alexandre Dumas Vintage Paperback Vintage Sleaze Paperback Greenleaf Private Edition 1970 Breast WatchersHuge Vintage Lot Of 47 Old 1950's Signet Classics Paperbacks Sexy Thriller Pulp Lot Of 12 Vintage Paperbacks Noir Literary Gga Covers Avon Dell Popular LibraryBig Lot 239 Paperback Books 1940's-70's Sleaze Pulp Sci Fi West Murder Gga MoreErotica Fiction Pulp Paperback Lot Of 19 Vtg Erotic Sleaze Smut Adult Novel Gay 1968 Unread Vintage Sleaze Paperback Which Lesbians Prefer Males? By Jack VastVintage Lesbian Sleaze Paperback, Finders Keepers, Midwood, Gga, Rader Cover ArtJanet Evanovich Stephanie Plum 21 Paperbacks Mystery Novels Lot1969 Unread Vintage Sleaze Paperback Tp222 Diana's Guest By Peter ValentineBoris Akunin Lot Of 4 Paperback Mystery Books Free Shipping!Vintage Sleaze Paperback Call Me Gay Peter Kanto 1965 Brandon House LesbianLiber Terribilis (terriblis) Paperback - Gary St M Nottigham - Mint As New7 Immanuel Velikovsky And Sigmund Freud Related PaperbacksUnread Vtg Sleaze Paperback The Bashful Lesbian Olivia Rangely 1965 Brandon HousUnread Vtg Sleaze Paperback Swing Swap & Swindle Tony Calvano 1968 CompanionSimon R. Green Paperback Lot Nightside Urban Fantasy Novels 1-9 Vintage Sleaze Paperback, Lover By Lawrence Block, Rare, Gga Cover Art! Vintage North Sea Spy By Geoffrey Trease Paperback Key Books No. 4 Fore - C23Initiation Into Hermetics Paperback - Franz Bardon - Mint As NewVintage 1965 "and Men My Fuel...." By Lili St. Cyr Paperback Novel Books - C23Imperial Arts Volume One (goetia) Paperback - John R King Iv - Mint As NewHuge Vintage Lot Of 46 Old 1950's Signet Classics Paperbacks Sexy Thriller Pulp Secret Of The Dark Empire (magick Demons) Paperback - Howard Vernon Mint As NewRiviera Nights Ben Sarto Paperback"fraser Ramblers Winter Sports 1974-1975", Paperback Book. Fraser, Michigan.Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It Mae West Memoir 1970 Paperback Rare!