Special Collections
Rare Books and Prints

Sensational Tales: Australian Popular Publishing 1850s-1990s

Yellowbacks and Early Paperbacks

Yellowbacks revolutionised English publishing in the mid-nineteenth century. Designed for display on railway bookstalls, they were bound in strawboard covered with glazed paper - usually, but not always, yellow in colour. The cover featured an illustration, often lurid and not always related to the contents of the book. The title, author's name and publisher were printed in bold lettering that could be read from a distance and the back cover usually featured an advertisement. They were printed in large numbers and sold for low prices compared with the standard hardbacks of the time. Some publishers continued to issue yellowbacks into the 1920s but, as a publishing phenomenon, their popularity had declined before the First World War.

The origins of the 'paperback' are more elusive. Paper wrappers have a long history in book production, but the 'paperback' in the modern sense - a book produced at the lowest possible price, designed for a mass market - has its origins in the early nineteenth century. In 1837 the German publisher - Christian Bernhard (later Baron) Tauchnitz - instigated a series of reprints of popular contemporary English writers, such as Dickens and Bulwer Lytton. These cheap, paperbound 'Tauchnitz Editions' proved popular with Germans wanting to learn English and also with English train travellers on the Continent.

In 1842 the American publisher Park Benjamin began issuing 'shilling novelettes' as supplements to his story paper, the New World. Other publishers imitated the story papers and novelettes - notably Street & Smith with their New York Weekly (commenced 1859) and Beadle & Adams, whose 'dime novels' were enormously popular with soldiers in the American Civil War. By 1865 Beadle & Adams had total sales of four million, with sales of individual titles ranging from 35,000 to 80,000.

As with any other runaway success, the 'dime' or 'ten cent' format was widely imitated, evolving into the 'cheap library' in the 1870s - by which time there were some fourteen different publishers, each producing up to eight new books per week. By the 1890s the field was dominated by two publishers - Street & Smith and Frank Tousey. Street & Smith were to continue as a leading publisher of pulp magazines in the twentieth century.

By the 1850s most of the British publishers who had ventured into yellowbacks were also issuing paperbacks, but it was not until the early twentieth century that paperbacks and pulp magazines supplanted the yellowback as the major vehicle for mass-produced popular literature.

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