Dime Novels – The birth of the paperback

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Dime Novel - MalaeskaRight around the start of the Civil War, Erastus and Irwin Beadle published a new series of cheap paperbacks entitled Beadle’s Dime Novels. Thanks to increased literacy rates among the American people during this time, and the inexpensive price (yes, they truly did cost a dime), these thin, paper-bound books met with huge success. The debut novel – Malaeska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter, by Ann Stephens (a woman – hooray!) sold more than 65,000 copies within the first few months of its publication. Those are the kind of numbers even today’s authors would get excited about – believe me! The book released on June 9, 1860 and was basically a reprint of a serialized story that had appeared in the Ladies’ Companion magazine back in 1839.

Dime novels varied in size and thickness, but the tended to be about 100 pages in length, about the equivalent to today’s novella. At first, dime novel covers had no cover art beyond the fancy title script. But it didn’t take long for the Beadles to move to illustrated covers, better designed to grab a browsing customer’s attention.

If you saw a homicidal squaw about to tomahawk a frontiersman, wouldn’t that grab your attention?Β  The next one is slightly less blatant with the rifleman helping a young woman escape danger, but there is certainly still an element of adventure and the breathless question of “What will happen next?”

Dime novels were famous for lurid, often melodramatic tales of the frontier. Heroes were larger than life and typically had exaggerated strength and skill. Not that the readers cared. The more jaw-dropping the story, the more fun it was to read. Hence the birth of genre paperback fiction.

In my latest release, A Worthy Pursuit, I have a lot of fun playing with these dime novel ideals. Young Lily is an avid, and rather bloodthirsty, fan of dime novels – her favorites being the tales of Dead-Eye Dan and his winsome companion Hammer Rockwell, who just happens to bear a striking similarity to Stone Hammond, our hero.

Here’s a sneak peak from one of the scenes where Stone and Lily are reading dime novels together:

Taking Dead-Eye Dan in hand, Stone fanned the pages to a random spot in the middle. “‘Dan dove behind a fallen tree as a hailstorm of bullets rained down around him. The Gatling Gang had come by their moniker honestly, laying down rapid fire that mimicked the output of the famed war gun. Unruffled by the deadly flurry, however, Dan flipped onto his back behind the log and reloaded his Henry repeater with methodical precision. The six-gun at his hip sported full chambers. The knife on his belt was razor-sharp and ready for action.'” Stone’s voice trailed off, cueing Lily.

She grinned, taking up the challenge like a seasoned gamester.

“‘Bullets blasted shards of bark all around Dan, but he just brushed the pieces off his chest with a flick of his wrist. Billy’s gang couldn’t aim worth a hill of beans. That’s why they always sprayed so much lead. It was the only way they ever hit anything. Too often, innocent civilians. Dan scowled, his jaw tightening as he rolled onto his side to steal a peek over the top of the log. One against seven were lousy odds, but Billy Cavanaugh and his crew were vermin that needed e-rad-i-cation.'” She stumbled slightly over the large word, but it didn’t stop her. She passed right over it and forged ahead. “‘He’d just wait for them to reload, then take them out one by one.'”

Stone closed the book and set it in his lap. “You do know this story is hugely exaggerated, right?” He tossed the dime novel to Lily and winked at her. “There were only five men in the Gatling Gang, not seven. And Daniel Barrett didn’t bring them all in on his own. He had help.”

A Worthy Pursuit
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Lily’s blue eyes glimmered as she rose up on her knees, bringing her face level with his. “Do you mean to tell me that you know Dead-Eye Dan?”

Stone blew a self-deprecating breath out of the side of his mouth. “Know him? Shoot. He and I were partners back in the day. ‘Course no one actually calls him Dead-Eye Dan. He’s a rancher now, foreman at a place called Hawk’s Haven up north a piece. Gave up chasin’ criminals in order to chase cows. He is a crack shot, though. Saved my sorry hide more than once.” He nudged Lily with his shoulder, nearly toppling her back onto the cushions. “‘Course I saved his hide a time or two, myself.”

“Wait a minute.” Lily drew in a breath so large, he expected her head to start swelling. “You’re . . . You’re . . . Hammer Rockwell. The man who shows up in the nick of time and takes the Gatling Gang by surprise by climbing down the box canyon wall with his knife clenched in his teeth!”

Hammer Rockwell? Knife in his teeth? “Of all the ridiculous, made-up, nonsense,” Stone sputtered. “I’ll have you know, all my knives were safely stowed in their sheaths when I made that climb.”

  • Do you like your fictional heroes larger than life? Or do you prefer more realistic story lines?
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For those who love to smile as they read, bestselling author Karen Witemeyer offers warmhearted historical romance with a flair for humor, feisty heroines, and swoon-worthy Texas heroes. Karen is a firm believer in the power of happy endings. . . and ice cream. She is an avid cross-stitcher, and makes her home in Abilene, TX with her husband and three children. Learn more about Karen and her books at: www.karenwitemeyer.com.

25 thoughts on “Dime Novels – The birth of the paperback”

  1. I loved how you used the dime novel in your book! I like my heroes to be realistic, but sometimes it’s fun to read about a hero who is larger than life. πŸ™‚

    • Thanks, Faith. I had so much fun writing those segments. I do even more with them in the follow-up novella that will focus on Dan and Marietta. Dead-Eye Dan can’t ride off into the sunset alone, you know. πŸ™‚

  2. Hi Karen, great blog! I’ve scoured antique shops and everywhere for a Beadle Dime Novel. I’m fascinated by them. People in the East back then had such a hunger for stories and articles about the American West. And some people still are today. I think if it had lived back that era, I would’ve written those.

    I love larger-than-life heroes. The bigger and bolder the better. Maybe that’s because in Texas we already have that tendency born inside us. We like to stretch things a bit. So I want that in the stories I read.

    I’m curious, do you own a dime novel?

    Congrats on A Worthy Pursuit! Stone Hammond sounds like my kind of hero and I love that name! This has got to go on my Kindle!

    • Thanks, Linda. No – I’m afraid I don’t own a real dime novel, but what a treat that would be! They printed them well into the 20th century, so there are some more modern ones out there. Talk about true escapism. Gotta love it!

  3. Hi Karen!

    I loved this history of the dime novel. And of course I love the adventure stories of the West. No wonder they caught on — even today, I think we owe much to the adventure of the time novel.

    • So true, Kay. These were the first books marketed completely to the general public – not to the educated or upper classes. The stories were for everyone. That’s where true genre fiction began.

  4. Thanks for the info on how dime novels started. So in a way that is how paperbacks became about cheaper than hardback books.

  5. Hello Karen…interesting about the dime store novels, had not thought of them in long time. mostly I like down to earth realistic heroes but the occasional larger then life adds a little zest. I want to read this new novel of yours. thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks, Pauline. Hope you get a chance to try out Stone and Charlotte’s story. There are a couple scenes where Stone lives up to his dime novel reputation, but the rest of the time he’s pretty down to earth, so hopefully you’ll get the best of both worlds. πŸ™‚

    • Thanks, Ann! I like looking at those crazy dime novel covers and try to imagine the story that goes with it. Especially the one with the Indian maiden with the tomahawk. πŸ™‚

  6. Sometimes over exaggeration is fun but I mostly like sticking to reality. Such a cute story!

    • I agree. I don’t want things too cheesy or over the top, but I do like a good sigh-worthy hero that lives up to my fictional expectations. And those aren’t always grounded in reality. Ha!

    • We do want out characters to resonate as real and true to life even as they create an opportunity for us to escape our own reality. It’s an interesting blend. πŸ™‚

  7. i like both,,i like reading a wide variety,,but i tend to love the ones that are more believeable

    • Mr, too, Vicki. Sometimes it’s fun to just get carried away with larger than life characters. It’s what happens every time I watch an action movie with my husband. James Bond is definitely larger than life. πŸ™‚

  8. Hi Karen, what a terrific post! I think I go for larger-than-life because I am so boring LOL. But as an avid reader, I’m good with realism, too. I just gotta have a happy ending. I can’t wait to read about lookalikes Stone and Hammer!

    • Me, too, Tanya! Happy endings are a must for me. πŸ™‚ Oh, and Stone and Hammer are actually the same person, just one is the fictionalized dime novel version and one is the real man. Or as real as my novel character can be. Ha!

  9. This was fascinating! I am scouring my mind trying to remember if I have ever actually seen a dime novel! My grandmother was a “saver” and had so many things in her farmhouse. This sounds like such a delightful read!

  10. The exaggeration found in the dime novels makes for an exciting story, but is far from realistic. True, we are all capable of great acts of courage and strength in extreme situations, but that is a rare occurrence. I doubt I would want a hero to be running around, always putting himself in danger that way. The poor heroine would be gray before her time. A nice guy who steps up when needed is a better choice. Many who are heroes have their stories exaggerated and are often embarrassed at the retelling.

    It would be nice if a publisher could reprint some of the old dime novels. It would be fun to read them. Actually, if you read some of the serial type books written for men (similar in size to Harlequins), the dime novel is alive and well. When I worked at the library, the men were making nasty comments about romance books, as they checked out their adventure books. I read one just to see what they were like. Good grief. Women are brainless twits with boobs, and the hero can take on a 30 man band of outlaws singlehandedly after being beaten to within an inch of his life and staked out in the sun all day. Of course he wins, rescues the women and children, brings in the bad guys, and rides off into the sunset with the saloon matron with the great set of “melons” sighing as the best thing she ever had leaves.

  11. WOW!! I would love to read these dime novels.of course back then a dime wasn’t such a small amount. would love to have your new book. You could look at those covers and make up a novella about what you think happens, right? That would be great.
    GOD bless. Love this blog. Maxie > mac262(at)me(dot)com <

  12. I love it all… it doesn’t matter. Thank you for today’s topic, I always wondered about those. It’s generally portrayed as a dark secret to read them. I would have been one of those gals hiding them under my pillow!

  13. Great post! First the fascinating history, then the funny excerpt! I love reading about the Old West. We had a set of Time-Life books years ago about the Old West, husband and kiddos and I all avidly read them.

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