While experts prefer to limit its application to a fairly specific set of fiction series, the term "dime novel" is frequently applied in a lot of different ways to a lot of different materials. Additionally, the sort of fiction found in dime novels has also been published in other significant formats. This page describes some of the relatives of the dime novels.
Although “dime novel” implies hastily-written, sensational fiction, the physical formats and marketing techniques devised for dime novels were also applied to non-fiction, including joke books, song books, and a variety of how-to manuals promising to improve the lives of their readers in astounding ways. Examples of some of these types of items can be seen in Villanova's Collection.
In America, at the time of the dime novels, domestic copyright terms were shorter and international copyright law was non-existent before 1891. This situation allowed some publishers to make their fortunes by producing cheap reprint “libraries” containing unlicensed reproductions of foreign works and out-of-copyright domestic works. Writers were rarely, if ever, compensated for publications in the libraries, and publishers interested in paying their authors could not compete with the prices of their piratical rivals.
The cheap libraries started in 1874 with the Lakeside Library, which soon spawned imitators like George Munro’s Seaside Library and Norman Munro’s Riverside Library. Over time, the books evolved from a multi-columned, newspaper-like format (pictured at near right) into a paper-covered book format that was harder to distinguish from dime novels (pictured at far right). Cheap libraries faded out before the end of the nineteenth century due to a combination of market oversaturation and changes in copyright law.
Seaside Library: The Haunted Tower image courtesy of Lydia Schurman; enhanced by James Keeline.
Although the origins of the dime novel can be easily traced to a specific date, thanks to the fact that the generic term “dime novel” began as the Beadle brand name, this does not mean that fiction aimed at a popular audience started in 1860. Other traditions influenced the dime novel.
The “story paper,” which published fiction in a newspaper format, goes back at least to 1830. The typical story paper was eight pages long and contained installments of between five and eight serialized stories mixed with assorted filler material. One of the most successful and influential American story papers was Robert Bonner's New York Ledger. Other significant story paper titles included The New York Family Story Paper, Street & Smith's New York Weekly and Philadelphia-based Saturday Night. Many story papers were aimed at a family audience and had a variety of stories to appeal to different interests; some targeted more specific demographics, such as boys. Story papers survived well into the dime novel era, and both formats explored similar themes and featured similar authors; in fact, many dime novels were reprints of stories originally serialized in story papers.
Outside of the story papers, a few inexpensive American fiction series can be found prior to Beadle’s inaugural volume, though these all differ from the traditional dime novels in some regards – a very early specimen published in 1839 by Park Benjamin and Rufus Wilmot Griswold used a newspaper format rather than the later book format; the “pamphlet novels” of the early 1840s were shorter than the subsequent dime novels; and Ballou’s 1857 The Novelette cost at least twice as much as its dime novel successors.
Fireside Companion image courtesy of Deidre Johnson; enhanced by Kim Keeline.
The most famous British precursor to the dime novel is the penny “blood” or penny dreadful, usually a small booklet containing a small portion of a longer serialized work. The “bloods” first appeared in the 1820s and 1830s, taking advantage of a rise in literacy and industrial improvements which made it possible to market fiction to the working class. These early publications were clearly aimed at adults, drawing the reader in with graphic, gruesome illustrations and lurid subject matter like true-life crime stories and the adventures of outlaws. As the “bloods” evolved into the dreadfuls, more genres were introduced and some of the graphic material was toned down, and by the 1860s, many penny dreadful publications, starting with Boys of England, were aimed at children. Penny dreadfuls were not a phenomenon unique to England, nor was the content they offered exclusively British. An early and important influence was the French serial novel, or roman feuilleton, which first appeared in 1836. Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris was a particularly significant French example, seeing not just translation but also imitation around the world, and spawning a whole subgenre of “mystery of the city” fiction. Similar cross-pollination between Britain and America was happening even before the start of the dime novel era.
Another significant trend in British popular fiction was the Yellowback, which rose to prominence in the 1850s after some early experiments in the 1840s. These books fall somewhere between traditional cloth books and dime novels in terms of price and quality, being bound in paper-covered strawboard rather than paper alone. They contain much of the same sort of material as the later dime books: a mix of non-fiction, reprinted classics and original, sensational fiction. The books take their name from their covers and spines, which were almost always a distinctive shade of yellow. Upon this yellow background were printed full-color illustrations, and these illustrations were one of the keys to the books’ success. Much like today’s “airport novels,” Yellowbacks were marketed to rail travelers, and the bright, distinctive covers made them attractive to their target audience and thus, for several years, a tremendous commercial success. To confuse matters slightly, the original Beadle books were also sometimes referred to as “yellow-backs,” though they come from a different tradition, and the publishers insisted that the color was actually salmon.
The dime novel disappeared gradually, with the books slowly declining in popularity and evolving into other forms. According to dime novel scholar Eddie LeBlanc, the last original dime novel was produced in 1915, but reprints remained available until 1933.
While dime novels were fading out, pulp fiction magazines were on the rise, providing serious competition to their predecessors. General interest titles like The Argosy (a successor to the Golden Argosy story paper) offered a wide variety of fiction between a single set of covers, and genre-specific titles like Detective Story (the pulp replacement for the Nick Carter Stories nickel library) introduced readers to many new authors and characters. Some dime novel publishers, particularly Street & Smith, found great success in this market, and some of the titles from the pulp era remain alive today (the Analog science fiction magazine, for example, is the direct successor of Street & Smith’s Astounding Stories).
Today, there is nothing on the market quite like a dime novel, but echoes certainly remain. What is today usually called “genre fiction” owes some debt to the dimes, and while every genre is capable of offering a bit more literary depth than the dime novels ever attempted, some of the more formula-oriented publishers (such as Harlequin and Kensington/Pinnacle) produce output with more than a passing resemblance to their forebears. Juvenile series fiction like Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys also might not exist in its current form without the precedent set by dime novels; indeed, the famous young detectives were the invention of a former dime novel author, Edward Stratemeyer.
1. Lydia Cushman Schurman, "The Librarian of Congress Argues Against Cheap Novels Getting Low Postal Rates" in Pioneers, Passionate Ladies, and Private Eyes: Dime Novels, Series Books, and Paperbacks, ed. Larry E. Sullivan and Lydia Cushman Schurman (New York: Haworth Press, 1996), 61.
2. Lydia Cushman Schurman, "The Effect of Nineteenth-Century 'Libraries' on the American Book Trade" in Scorned Literature: Essays on the History and Criticism of Popular Mass-Produced Fiction in America, ed. Lydia Cushman Schurman and Deidre Johnson (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002), 100-1 (references to author Ouida receiving "conscience money" from publisher George Munro), 106 (discussion of Harper's attempting to compete through the author-compensating Harper's Square Library but losing money in the process).
9. Madeleine B. Stern, "Dime Novels by 'The Children's Friend'" in Pioneers, Passionate Ladies, and Private Eyes: Dime Novels, Series Books, and Paperbacks, ed. Larry E. Sullivan and Lydia Cushman Schurman (New York: Haworth Press, 1996), 200.
20. Edward T. LeBlanc, "A Brief History of Dime Novels: Formats and Contents, 1860-1933" in Pioneers, Passionate Ladies, and Private Eyes: Dime Novels, Series Books, and Paperbacks, ed. Larry E. Sullivan and Lydia Cushman Schurman (New York: Haworth Press, 1996), 13.
23. John T. Dizer, "Authors Who Wrote Dime Novels and Series Books, 1890-1914" in Pioneers, Passionate Ladies, and Private Eyes: Dime Novels, Series Books, and Paperbacks, ed. Larry E. Sullivan and Lydia Cushman Schurman (New York: Haworth Press, 1996), 83.