Cheap Reading: Mass-Market Paperback Books in mid-twentieth century America

By Shannon Viola

With 28 million copies sold, Dr. Spock’s paperback book, “Baby and Child Care,” guided postwar parents as they raised the boomer generation (Davis, 1984). Dr. Spock’s book spurred the publication of even more paperback parenting manuals, to the extent that in “Paperback Mother…” (O’Malley et al, 2006, p. 83-93), the authors detail the pivotal role parenting manuals have had on their conception of parenthood. In addition to demonstrating the myriad and often misguided advice in the “Mommy Lit” genre, the article illustrates the omnipresent existence paperback books have in readers’ lives, especially in an area as intimate as parenting.

Because they are cheap and readily available at venues other than bookstores, paperback books can be bought at high volumes, and can be bought often, by parents in need of a quick parenting lesson, or by a reader searching for in-flight entertainment at an airport kiosk, or picking up a prescription at a drugstore. A rack of paperback books is within sight at all of these venues. Paperback books are small enough to fit in a travel bag and short enough to be consumed in a weekend, and their cover art is intentionally appealing.


A successful American paperback imprint did not arrive until 1939 when Robert de Graff founded Pocket Books. By reprinting hardcover titles in paperback, Pocket Books proved that good reading could be affordable (Hackley, 2006, p. 178). In the decades after Pocket Books democratized novels, the mass-market paperback flooded American drugstores and college bookstores with promises of affordable reading (Bonn, 1982). As sales for mass-market paperbacks increased, so did publishing competition. Paperback books had to be sized to fit side-by-side on racks, usually controlled by size standards, so publishers had to differentiate their titles from the competition with cover art and publishing house logos. In order to lure the reader, each cover featured sensational illustrations intended to entice the reader. Some of which were so lewd that they were brought to trial (Bonn, 1982).

Publishers distinguished their brand from other publishers with logos on predetermined spots on the book’s cover and with edge stains (Bonn, 1982, p. 104). For example, Pocket Books issued Cardinal Editions in 1950, and in order to establish them as the “luxury” paperback, and therefore worthy of the higher price of thirty-five cents, the titles and figures on the cover were embossed in gold (Bonn, 1982, p. 107). While designing a cover, the art director had to work with multiple elements. Each cover had to have the title, author’s name, editorial and promotion copy, book price, book number, publisher name and logo, and an attractive cover (Bonn, 1982, p. 82).

Paperback production, however, happened so quickly that art directors did not have much time to ponder over the most successful cover design. Bantam once produced a book, from author contract to press, in 46 ¼ hours (Bonn, 1982, p. 67). Titles were introduced as rapidly as periodicals (Bonn, 1982, p. 51). The limited amount of time led to each genre having its own archetypal cover. Westerns have dusty brown covers with hyper-realistic illustrations. Gothic novels are dark and moody, often with a gray castle looming in the background. Romance novels showcase muscular men leering at women both virginal and seductive. Mystery works, like those by hardboiled writer Mickey Spillane, featured murderers, their victims, skulls, and weapons. Works by the same author yielded uniform cover design (Bonn, 1982, p.112). Not only did archetypal covers simplify the art director’s job, but it was a clear message to readers about the subject matter of the book.


The cover art also had to advocate for the book’s purchase. Publishing houses hired artists who could illustrate appealing covers that could be reproduced within mechanical and printing limitations (Bonn, 1982, p. 92). Early paperback books were printed with letterpress machinery, and in the early 1950s, when elaborate and scandalous book covers came to market, covers were printed with offset lithography, since offset printing plates are cheaper and represent the acrylic artwork more faithfully (Bonn, 1982, p. 93). If the illustration was too fine to be reproduced with this method, then it was sent to a printer who was not affiliated with the book manufacturer (Bonn, 1982, p. 94). The cover art was the most important part of the book’s design and so no extra step was spared in its faithful reproduction.

The cover art inspired a reader to pick up the book, and then the “feel” of the book closed the sale. Paperback publishers often applied a spray finish to make the cover smooth and shiny (Bonn, 1982, p. 98). The standard size of a paperback fits well within the palm of a reader’s hand, purse, or pocket. The cover art has to simultaneously inform the reader of the genre and be interesting enough to purchase.

In an effort to generate interest, cover art often bordered on lewd. For example, Mickey Spillane’s book, “The Erection Set” (1972), featured a nude photo of his wife. The publishers had to reissue a more tame cover, without any cover illustration, for general-audience stores like the supermarket or drugstore. Yet even in the 1950s, cover art was daring, but often did not match the content of the book itself (Bonn, 1982, p. 55-56). The cover art for Emile Zola’s “Nana” was published by Pocket Books in 1941 with a somewhat provocative cover; Nana was on stage in a flimsy, strapless gown. Even though Pocket Books was known for relatively conservative covers, a subsequent edition of “Nana” was even more scandalous. Nana is once again on stage, and her gown is still white, but the fabric in the new cover art is transparent, and Nana is posing in a way that the dress hardly covers her (Bonn, 1982, plate 15a and 15b). Despite the sensational and potentially offensive cover, the cover art did not decrease sales for Pocket Books (Bonn, 1982, plate 15). “The Private Life of Helen of Troy” is perhaps one of the more scandalous covers, since it depicts Helen in a gown so transparent that the book was dubbed by news outlets as “the nipple cover.” The publishers most likely avoided a lawsuit for obscenity because Helen was a figure from Classical antiquity (Davis, 1984. P. 138). Cover art became so sensational that it often misrepresented the content of the book (Bonn, 1982, p. 55-56; Davis, 1984, p. 135-141). The slightest shocking passage in the text was amplified on the cover. Even a Nobel Prize winner like Sinclair Lewis’s “Babbitt” was given an exaggerated cover, in which Babbitt catches the attention of two women in tight clothing (Davis, 1984, p. 139).

The sensational cover art of American mass-market paperbacks in the 1950s makes them valuable to book collectors today. Popular Library and Avon titles are known among collectors to have the most wanted cover art, particularly those of the postwar era, which depicted half-naked women (Bonn, 1982, p. 122). Certain trends in cover art, such as the airbrushed back covers of Dell books from 1943-1953, are sought after (Bonn, 1982, p. 122). Popular artists, such as James Avati or Gerald Gregg, are just as collectible as first editions in paperback of famous authors like Jack Kerouac, Kurt Vonnegut, Truman Capote, or Dylan Thomas (Bonn, 1982).


Artwork by James Avati. Image source.

Moreover, mass-market paperbacks are easily found in secondhand bookstores or yard sales. Because mass-market paperbacks were designed to be disposable, or as affordable textbooks in a college course, the books can be ripped, stained, or annotated heavily, which the collector can either consider as a nuisance or an asset. The state of a mass-market paperback book is a testament to the book’s lifespan and all of the hands through which it has passed, since this format is what the majority of readers would have encountered (Tetterton, 1994). Mass-market paperbacks can therefore inform literary scholars of the reading habits and patterns of 20th century Americans.

Additionally, for authors whose work first appeared in paperback edition, subsequent re-printings of their work over the decades can attest to their rise in popularity and to the audience at which their work was aimed (Bonn, 1982, p. 125; Tetterton, 1994). For example, the gender-bending aspect of Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando” is represented on Quality Paperback Book Club’s edition, but not Penguin’s or Signet’s version (Tetterton, 1994). In order to understand this discrepancy in cover design, descriptive bibliographers and literary scholars can study the format and culture of the mass-market paperback. As a book format aimed at the everyday consumer, mass-market paperbacks are valuable evidence of the mid-20th century American reader.

To browse mass-market paperback covers, see this website.



Bonn, Thomas L. 1982. Under Cover : An Illustrated History of American Mass-Market Paperbacks. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books.

Brown, Stephen. 2006. “Rattles from the swill bucket.”In “Consuming Books: the Marketing and Consumption of Literature. New York: Routledge. p. 1-18

Davis, Kenneth C. 1984. Two-Bit Culture: The Paperbacking of America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Hackley, Chris. 2006. “I write marketing textbooks but I’m really a swill guy.” In Brown, Stephen (ed.) Consuming Books: the Marketing and Consumption of Literature. New York: Routledge. p. 175-182.

O’Malley, Lisa, Patterson, Maurise, and Bheachain, Caoilfhionn ni. 2006. “Paperback mother…” In Brown, Stephen (ed.) Consuming Books: the Marketing and Consumption of Literature. New York: Routledge. p. 83-95

Tetterton, Kelly. 1994. Paperbacks as an area of bibliographical study: the case of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. Retrieved from:

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