It Democratized Reading...It Changed Publishing...FOREVER!The Paperback Revolution

The Paperback Revolution

‘‘I begin with this simple assertion: books can change people and societies. I was surprised by several publishers and editors who downplayed this seemingly basic article of faith. I suspect they are lying either to me or to themselves.’’ —Kenneth C. Davis in Two-Bit Culture

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Mass Literature

It is difficult to overestimate the influence of the paperback upon the twentieth century. While paper-bound books have numerous historical antecedents — from chapbooks, penny dreadfuls and dime novels to pulp magazines to European paper-bound books such as the Everyman series, Tauchnitz Editions and Albatross — it was the twenty-five cent paperback and the hundreds of millions of books produced during the Paperback Revolution which transformed the reading of all kinds of literature into an undeniably mass phenomenon in the twentieth century.

The first quarter century of the Paperback Revolution, 1935-1960, was shaped by an incredible multiplicity of publishers and editors; our animated timeline helps you track this aspect of the period's developments. While it can be argued that the paperback revolution began well before 1935 and that it continues even to this day, it was during this period that books went from being a sophisticated commodity to a staple of homes and workplaces, back pockets and purses. The paperback helped democratize reading — as well as writing and publishing — around the world.

‘‘The best books apparently have the greatest appeal to the greatest number of people...the larger American public need no longer suffer from the delusion that it is intellectually inferior, or, from a literary point of view, lacking in any aspect in good taste, judgment, and appetite.’’ —Pocket Books editor Donald Porter Geddes, 1944

Study Questions

  1. Is it possible (or even desirable) for modern-day examinations of paperbacks to make a distinction, as Harvey Swados did in 1951, between "quality" paperbacks and "trash"? Does such a distinction compromise or reinforce the democratic nature of the medium? Can this hierarchical tendency ever be resisted entirely? How?
  2. The history of the paperback revolution in the United States is documented much more thoroughly than Canada's. Canadian paperbacks were a mixture of Commonwealth imports, books from Canadian branch offices of American publishers, and titles from homegrown publishers. How did the scene and scope of the Canadian paperback revolution differ from the United States? How was it similar? How were paperbacks sold and distributed in your local area?
  3. The paperback and publishing industry of the 1980s and 1990s was characterized by blockbuster mergers and unprecedented levels of consolidation. Were the initial successes of the paperback revolution (1935-1960) due to the multiplicity of independent publishing companies, or is consolidation simply the sign of a healthy, mature industry? How did consolidation affect paperback readers and writers?
  4. Did the Paperback Revolution give authors new power? Research a specific case where a paperback may have had a clear influence upon public opinion or the course of history.