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.

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