Youth Book Corner: Paperback Book Day

To celebrate Paperback Book Day (July 30), our Outreach Coordinator Leena Desai pays homage to the book format that revolutionized publishing by answering some common questions students might have regarding paperbacks.

What is a paperback?

A paperback is a book with a paper cover as opposed to the thick cardboard cover seen on hardcover or hardback books. The pages inside a paperback are bound together with glue instead of stitches or staples. The use of a paper cover, glue and thin paper for the inside pages make paperback books inexpensive to print and cheaper to buy than hardcover books. In the past, publishers would print a book in hardcover and if it sold well, they would decide to print it again, this time in paperback to ensure more people were able to buy and read the book.

Oh, so it’s just another book then. What is the big deal?

Paperback books are a big deal because they made knowledge accessible to everyone. Imagine it is 1935 and you live in London, England. If you like to read, all you have are thick, heavy hardcover books that are expensive and bulky to carry around. Then comes along a fellow named Allan Lane, who starts a publishing business named Penguin Books. They start publishing reprints of everyone’s favourite books in cheap paperbacks that cost a mere sixpence (approximately 10 Canadian cents). In North America, it is Robert de Graff, who worked with publisher Simon & Schuster, who introduced paperbacks to people, in 1939, in the form of Pocket Books. As the name suggests, these are small books you can stow in your pocket and cost a mere 25 cents.

People love the new paperbacks; they are cheap and can be carried around easily. They start appearing everywhere and people start reading more. Knowledge is no longer seen as the exclusive domain of the rich. The divide between high and low culture starts diminishing and it is a revolution brought on solely by the humble and cheap paperbacks.

Did Canadians like paperbacks too?

It appears they loved paperbacks as much as everyone else. Canada has publishers such as White Circle, News Stand Library, Crow and Arrow and Harlequin to thank for bringing the paperback to Canada in the 1940s. The most popular paperbacks were detective novels written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. Romances, especially by British publisher Mills & Boon’s, soon became extremely popular and were primarily sold in paperbacks. But it wasn’t just British authors and publishers dominating the paperback landscape. Canadian publisher McClelland & Stewart started publishing the “Canadian best seller library,” a series of paperbacks that celebrated Canadian authors and culture.

Hmmm… tell me some cool facts about paperbacks.

  1. If you arrange your bookshelf according to colours, you’d be happy to know that the first Penguin Books paperbacks were colour-coded: red for drama, orange for fiction, green for crime fiction, and so on.
  2. The first paperback book published in North America in 1938 was Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth about family life in rural China in early 20th
  3. Paperbacks started out as reprints of hardcover books. But in 1949, an innovator named Roscoe Fawcett decided to ditch hardcovers altogether and printed books in paperbacks only, thus starting the trend of “paperback originals.”
  4. Over the decades, paperbacks have become something of collectors’ items and some sell at auctions for a very high price. For example, the first edition paperback copy of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (1956) was sold by Abe Books (a seller of rare books) for $4,250. Not bad for a book format that started at 25 cents a pop!

Okay, but why do we need a Paperback Book Day?

2020 marks the 85th year of the paperback. The paperback was a trailblazer. Long before Kindle, Kobo or Nook were born, the paperback changed the way we read. It also educated an entire generation and changed society in a way that e-reading devices did not. This is why we designate a day to celebrate paperbacks. So, head to your nearest local, independent bookstore and buy a paperback. Spend the long weekend reading the book or sniffing the pages and know that you are holding a piece of history in your hands!


Leena Desai