Marketing Paperbacks

The Sins of Tonia front cover. Over a blue and pink textured background, two women are shown. One, a blond in the foreground, is wearing a black lace brassiere and panties, with stockings and suspenders and a lace girdle. She stands at a three-quarter angle to the reader toward the left of the image and is removing a black negligee, which is over her head. She has a pearl necklace and looks straight forward toward the reader with her head slightly tilted to her right. In the background, a redhead is seen reclining on a bed or the ground, surrounded by cushions of many colours. Her head is tilted to her right and slightly bowed, and her eyes look straight at the blonde's legs. She is wearing a white negligee, her right hand on her hair, which is up in a bun behind her head. Her left arm is bent at the elbow and rests over a large, purple cushion. She is wearing earrings and bracelets on her left wrist. The scene is lit from the front and top. The image is surrounded by a white background.

Pulp fiction paperbacks were manufactured for wide distribution and quick sale. The wholesalers and distributors noticed that any book promising sexual adventures, mainly through its cover art, sold more quickly than other titles. They pressured the publishers to supply increasingly provocative cover art and suggestive cover text. No author’s work or genre was exempt from this treatment.

The pulp fiction book covers, regardless of genre, seldom related to the stories within. Whether the books were science fiction, horror, or mysteries, the publishers used sexualized images purchased from art agents and illustrators to sell their products.

An advertisement in the Publishers Weekly for Popular Library in 1950 read, “Here are the bare facts! It’s the cover that reaches out and gets attention first – and Popular Library covers are eye-dazzlers!”

The advertisement gives us insight into how pulp fiction was marketed in the mid 20th century. Unlike hardcover books tastefully displayed on bookstore or library shelves, paperback books were sold in wire racks, cover facing outward, arranged by the publisher’s imprint. As can be seen below each publisher imprint had its own signature style to make the most of being displayed as a group. Illustrated covers were more common in the 1950s with the use of photography becoming more widespread in the 1960s.

Midwood Tower Publications from the early 1960s with a similar look and feel.

Beacon Signal books from the early 1960s with their signature cover design .

Illustrated covers were more common in the 1950s. The use of photography became more widespread in the 1960s.

Lancer Press books from the mid-1960s.

Pulp publishers were also known for repackaging their novels with new titles and cover art to maximize their profits. Sloan Britton's Unnatural published in 1960 is the same story as The Delicate Vice released in 1963 by Midwood-Tower Books. In 1962, Dollar Books repackaged Newsstand Library's Honey Babe (Steve Bell) and The Third Theme (March Hastings) together in one volume with the new titles, Honey at her Lips and The Third Sex Syndrome.


Bonn, Thomas L. Undercover: An Illustrated History of American Mass Market Paperbacks. New York, N.Y: Penguin, 1982.

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

Rabinowitz, Paula. American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street. Princeton University Press, 2014.

Server, Lee. Over My Dead Body: The Sensational Age of the American Paperback, 1945-1955. Chronicle Books, 1994.

Marketing Paperbacks