The Rise of the Paperback Novel

My latest post is up on Kirkus Reviews, this time pulling back from the trenches and looking at what my boss calls the 20,000 foot strategic picture. Throughout the column, I’ve largely looked at authors who’ve shifted the genre from point to point, but over time, I’ve started getting interested in the larger forces at play: the publishers and reading habits of Americans. As I work towards putting these columns towards a book, I’ve begun looking at some of the other influences outside of the arts world that have shaped SF.

One notable example of this is the actual medium in which people are reading. SF is a neat example of this, going from Dime Store novel to pulp magazine to mass market paperback / hardcover book, and now, to eBooks.

A while back, I went to a talk where the speakers described government and rules as the sort of software that makes society run in a particular way: in many ways, it’s a technology in and of itself. By the same token, these invisible systems that we construct – logistics, education, and science, are examples of this sort of technology: it’s not just the gadgets that we construct, but the way we make people live in a society that isn’t a hunter-gatherer one.

The paperback novel is one example of a technological innovation that really changed a lot in the publishing world: it not only changed how people began to read stories, but how they were produced in the first place. Authors had to shift their habits, but also the very types of stories which they had begun to write. Thus, the science fiction of the 1930s is vastly different in style, structure and content than that of the 1970s. It’s an interesting thing to examine.

This is the first part of two columns: the next is going to look at another major element that we might not think of often when it comes to the writing of books: chain and super bookstores.

Go Read The Rise of the Paperback Novel over on Kirkus Reviews.


  • Two-Bit Culture: The Paperbacking of America, Kenneth C. Davis. This is *the* book to read if you want to read about how paperback books came into being, in a great amount of detail. This is an excellent read, although my copy has been falling apart.
  • The Time of Their Lives: The Golden Age of Great American Publishers, Their Editors and Authors, Al Silverman. This is a memoir from a major publisher, and he provides some interesting details into the workings of that world.
  • Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century, Second Edition, John B. Thompson. This is a new-ish book on the publishing industry, and it provided some excellent overviews on the broad history of the book and how it has been sold.


Huge thanks for Betsy Wollheim and David G. Hartwell for their input.