Paperback original or PBO
is a book originally published in paperback
form, as opposed to being a reprint
of a book initially published in hardcover
. Although paperbacks existed for decades by then, it was only in the late 1940s
and early 1950s
that paperback publishers, specializing until then in reprints of hardcover originals, began to consider PBOs as an economically viable alternative to the classic system. What triggered this was allegedly the wild success of Mickey Spillane
's 1947 novel I, the Jury
, a commercial flop in hardcover that sold over two million copies in paperback. Soon after their inception PBOs replaced pulp
magazines as America's chief source of trashy and disposable escapism
The first to jump on the bandwagon were Fawcett Books, launching their now-legendary Gold Medal imprint, which specialized in publishing novels by both already established, even popular, authors, as well as young and unpublished writers. The opportunity this offered to up and coming writers was tremendous, as each novel brought in a considerable advance, more lucrative royalties than traditional publishing deals, and a first printing of 200,000 copies. Other major players were Lion Books, Dell, Graphic and Ace Books. The books sold for 25c, while the so-called Ace Doubles, larger books that included both a PBO and a reprint, went for 35c.
PBOs were known for their lurid GGA cover art, were usually male-oriented and belonged to inferior genres, such as mystery, crime, western and science fiction. Quality varied wildly, but nevertheless a huge amount of exceptional work was produced during the PBO cycle. Cult writers Jim Thompson and David Goodis will forever be identified with their PBO work, and several popular novelists of the 1950s and 1960s made their starts as paperback writers, including Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., John D. MacDonald, Philip K. Dick, Charles Willeford and William S. Burroughs. As the popularity of these writers grew, some of their books published originally as paperbacks were reprinted in hardcover, including Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan.
As the 1950s drew to a close, PBOs became increasingly unpopular, victims of rapidly changing tastes, as well as cheap and accessible entertainment offered by television. By the early 1960s they were beginning to be phased out and were soon almost completely gone. Some writers are still being published in paperback (American Psycho, Jason Starr and other Vintage Books-published authors come to mind), but PBOs never regained their past glory.