Before 1939: Paperback Predecessors

Before 1939: Paperback Predecessors

Softcover, paper-bound books have long been a mainstay of American publishing. The early efforts at these cheaply produced and procured paperbound books is summarized succinctly in Schick's THE PAPERBOUND BOOK IN AMERICA. Many early paperbound series are also cataloged here: https://dimenovels.org.

After successes in the late 19th century, many of these paperbound books disappeared from the market. In fact, Grosset & Dunlap jumpstarted their publishing firm by taking paperbound books, removing the paper wrappers, and binding them in cloth (see Obituary Notice: Alexander Grosset, PW, Nov. 3, 1934, at 1657). Despite their largely having disappeared from the market in the early decades of the century, by 1920 there was a rumbling of public demand for the revival of paperbound publishing (see unsigned editorial, PW, Sept. 11, 1920, at 553 ("There has recently been considerable letter-writing to the press urging the return of the paper-bound book.")) At the same time, publishers were convinced the public had no interest in purchasing paperbound books (see Novels in Paper Covers, PW, May 14, 1921, at 1417 (report from the Stokes Company of a test that found that paperbound copies of Gertrude Atherton's Sisters-in-Law sold at a rate of 1 copy to every 54 copies of cloth-bound books)).

The Little Blue Books series, published by the Haldeman-Julius Company, was an early success, having launched in 1919, although they were more staple-bound pamphlets than paperbounds. For more on this series, here is a complete bibliography: https://www.littlebluebooksbibliography.com. One of the earliest attempts at brining back the paperbound by a major publishing firm was in late 1923, when Doubleday's reprint imprint, Garden City Publishing Company, issued a series of 12 paperbound novels by major authors (see Tebbell, 3 A HISTORY OF BOOK PUBLISHING IN THE UNITED STATES, at 209).

Inexpensive clothbound reprint series were popular during the first decades of the 20th century, and their success greased the machinery for the early mass market pioneers, like Pocket Books, to get going. Some of these inexpensive reprint lines include:

  • Everyman's Library

  • Little Leather Library

  • National Home Library

  • Modern Library

  • Star Dollar Books

  • Sun Dial Books

  • Borzoi Pocket Books

  • Novels of Distinction

  • Appleton Dollar Library

  • Many more.

[Discussion in 3 Tebbel].

Boni's subscription model.

Simon & Schuster announced the Inner Sanctum Paper Novels in the May 24, 1930, issue of Publishers Weekly, at pp. [6-7]. The ad copy noted that

We have thought over this plan for a number of years, and now instead of trying it out with a small section of our fiction list, we have decided to do the thing wholeheartedly or not at all. In the past a few spasmodic and half-hearted attempts have been made to bring out paper bound editions along with cloth bound editions of fiction. None has been successful, chiefly we believe because the paper editions have been the stepchildren of the cloth.

The series was listed at $1, and the initial slate of 8 titles was sub-divided into three groupings indicated by the color of the jacket (1) serious fiction, (2) light fiction, and (3) detective and mystery fiction.

Apparently a one-off, Doubleday, Doran's Garden City Publishing Co. issued H.G. Wells's What Are We to Do With Our Lives? in a paperbound edition at 50c, ready Oct. 22, 1931 (ad, PW, Oct. 10, 1931, at 1652).

Alfred A. Knopf, a staunch firm, dabbled in the quality paperback field early on with an experiment in 1935, issuing Alcaron's The Three-Cornered Hat, Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice, Hamsun's Hunger, Mann's Death in Venice, and Maugham's Andalusia in paperback editions at $.50. Here is the description from the Weekly Record entry for The Three-Cornered Hat:

The first volume in a new series of paper-bound editions of distinguished books issued by the publisher as "an experiment to determine whether it is economically possible to provide American readers with books of high literary quality, but without mass appeal, at low prices."

Sales were reportedly low, and despite promising to push on with the series in spring 1936, it's apparent that Knopf did not consider the endeavor worthwhile.

Modern Age Books and their Seal Books line. Promising but ultimately a failure, as the firm fell back on clothbound editions before shuttering for good a few years later. [Discussion in 3 Tebbel, at 506].

  • Seal Books (Modern Age Books 1937)

One inexpensive hardcover reprint line of note for its relation to the paperback field is Triangle Books, a series begun in 1938 by Blue Ribbon Books. Involved in its staff were Freeman Lewis and Robert De Graff, who left to found Pocket Books the following year.

A note on American Mercury Books (Mercury Publications 1937/1938). American Mercury was primarily a magazine publisher. More info in Bonn, UNDER COVER, at 34.

Sources

2022-03-24 - searched PW Archive for [paper-bound OR paperbound OR "paper bound" OR "paper-covered" OR "paper bindings"] or certain terms of the above. Got to about 1935 for [paper-bound]. May have done [paperbound] as well.

Investigate the claim made in Whitten & Fessler, at 85, that paperbacks were a casualty of the "international copyright act."

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W.E. Price, PAPER COVERED BOOKS (W.E. Price 1894), https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/100027003.

Paper-Bound Books, PW, Sept. 11, 1920, at 553-54 (editorial pushing against the public demand for the return of paper-bound books as a way to reduce the costs of books).

Shall We Have Paper Bound Editions?, PW, Sept. 11, 1920, at 561-562.

Novels in Paper Covers, PW, May 14, 1921, at 1417 (report from the Stokes Company of a test that found that paperbound copies of Gertrude Atherton's Sisters-in-Law sold at a rate of 1 copy to every 54 copies of cloth-bound books).

A New Idea, PW, Nov. 24, 1923, at 1723 (mentioning newspaper advertisements of Nov. 11 from Garden City Publishing Co for "12 novelettes, bound, presumably, in paper").

Publishes Paper-Covered Novels, PW, Dec. 29, 1923, at 1978 (describing Doubleday's Garden City Publishing Company's 15-cent paper-covered novels).

A New Publishing Method, PW, Mar. 28, 1925, at 1192 (describing the Cooper Union's pamphlets' being housed in slipcases, noting that "Many tests have shown that the public does not care for paper-bound books in this country . . .")

Simon & Schuster ad for Inner Sanctum Paper Novels, PW. May 24, 1930, at [6-7]:

We have thought over this plan for a number of years, and now instead of trying it out with a small section of our fiction list, we have decided to do the thing wholeheartedly or not at all. In the past a few spasmodic and half-hearted attempts have been made to bring out paper bound editions along with cloth bound editions of fiction. None has been successful, chiefly we believe because the paper editions have been the stepchildren of the cloth.

Simon & Schuster ad for Inner Sanctum Dollar Novels, PW, July 5, 1930, at 7:

We wish to make one important thing clear: The Inner Sanctum Dollar Novels are not published with the idea of bringing out so much merchandise at a dollar a throw. The novels are not predominantly "light" or "frothy" or any other single type. They are merely good books. Each one has been accepted because we believed it would be a good book to publish, no matter what the price.

Obituary Notice: Alexander Grosset, PW, Nov. 3, 1934, at 1657:

The new idea, with which [Grosset & Dunlap] began their business in 1900, was that the American public would prefer a cloth-bound to a paper-bound book. Several publishers during the '90's had been endeavoring to reach the popular-priced market with paper-covered editions of current books, usually priced at 25c. This effort had not been markedly successful and the end of the paper-covered era had apparently been reached. Grosset & Dunlap bought some of these paper-covered books, their first venture being Hall Caine's "The Christian," put a cloth binding on them and sold them to department stores to sell them for 39c. a volume. The sales response was instantaneous.

The Bargain Market, PW, 1936-1939 (recurring section in PW discussing this market).

*** Frederic G. Melcher, Editorial: Both Markets Needed, PW, Dec. 25, 1937, at 2339 (arguing that trade publishers should consider both the popular and selective markets).

Frederic G. Melcher, Editorial: The Growth of the Reprint Market, PW, Aug. 19, 1939, at 509 (a recounting of the hardcover reprint, just at the time of Pocket Books's launch and success).

Louis P. Birk, The Market for Paper Bound Books, PW, Sept. 2, 1939, at 778-782 (looking especially at the economics of Modern Age paperbounds).

Jacob Blanck, A Note on Paper-Backs, PW, May 18, 1940, at 1928-1929 ("The current successful revival of paper-backs, i.e., books bound in paper wrappers at popular prices, seems sufficient reason to review, if but briefly, the method employed by their publishers during the latter part of the 19th century.")

Modern Age Withdraws from Publishing, PW, Oct. 10, 1942, at 1575-76.

Madeleine B. Stern, The First Half-Century of Publishers' Weekly, PW, Jan. 18, 1947, at 286-306, 298:

The field of reprints, entitled to a history in itself, was followed closely by the journal, from the days of the 'cheap and nasty' pirates' 12mos to the authorized reprints of a later year, from the days of the Franklin Squares, Seasides, and Unit Books to the return of the paper-covered novel in 1921.

*** Frank L. Schick, THE PAPERBOUND BOOK IN AMERICA: THE HISTORY OF PAPERBACKS AND THEIR EUROPEAN BACKGROUND (Bowker, 1958), available at https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/001176647.

Joseph N. Whitten & Aaron L. Fessler, Hard-Cover Reprint Publishing, 7 LIBR. TRENDS 82-92 (1958), http://hdl.handle.net/2142/5799 (describing, in part, history of hardcover reprint publishing, especially by Doubleday, Grosset & Dunlap, and World).

John Tebbell, 3 A HISTORY OF BOOK PUBLISHING IN THE UNITED STATES: THE GOLDEN AGE BETWEEN TWO WARS, 1920-1940 209 (Bowker 1978) (describing Doubelday's stab at paperbound publishing in late 1923).

Thomas L. Bonn, UNDER COVER: AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF AMERICAN MASS MARKET PAPERBACKS (Penguin 1982), https://archive.org/details/undercoverillust0000bonn/mode/2up.