"The paperback original as we know it was born in 1950," says Bill Crider in his excellent article from The Mystery Readers Newsletter in 1971. That's when Fawcett began publishing its Gold Medal Books, paperback editions of new novels. Up until then, paperbacks were issued only for reprints of books previously available in hardcover.
Fawcett published its paperback originals through the 1950s and 1960s and other publishers imitated its success. Some of the great names in crime fiction learned their craft and launched their careers writing for this market, including John D. MacDonald, Donald E. Westlake, Jim Thompson, and Lawrence Block.
With this new concept, these publishers built a huge audience for what is now called genre fiction: mystery, western, science fiction, and romance. Fawcett guaranteed its authors a first printing of 200,000 copies. It's easy to see a parallel to today's ebook phenomenon: lots of people reading lots of books that otherwise would not have been written and published.
The reaction of the publishing industry to paperback originals also sounds familiar. Crider quotes an executive of Pocket Books, which published paperback reprints, as saying, paperback originals were, "mostly rejects, or substandard books." The traditional publishers also said writers couldn't make a decent income from paperback originals and couldn't sell their stories to Hollywood. These accusations were quickly disproven.
When the success of paperback originals became undeniable, an executive of Doubleday complained that this new format would, "undermine the whole structure of publishing." But soon those traditional publishers were offering their own line of paperback originals and announcing plans to publish new fiction in hardcover and paperback simultaneously, just as traditional publishers now do with ebooks.
Kayo Books, in the photo above, is San Francisco's book seller devoted to collectable vintage paperbacks.