Is The Current e-Book Era a Second Pulp Fiction Era?

By Christopher Wills

Image from Pulp Covers

In this post I will briefly examine the similarities between the current e-book era and the early twentieth century Pulp fiction era.

Note I am not suggesting e-books are pulp fiction; I am suggesting the current e-book era has similarities with the Pulp fiction era.

What is Pulp fiction?

Pulp paper was made from cheap wood pulp which was widely available in the 19th century. Pulp paper is still used today in newspapers, magazines and yes… toilet paper.

In 1896 the fiction magazine, The Argosy, was published on pulp paper with untrimmed edges and no images inside or on the cover. It was eight pages of serialized fiction. Within ten years it was a weekly magazine selling 500,000 copies every issue.

The Pulp fiction era is considered to have been between 1896 and 1939, although if one includes cheap paperback books printed after the war, one could suggest the era continued until the 1950s. Paper shortages during the Second World War brought a decline in magazine sales and after 1945 new paperback publishers, comic books and television helped the decline in pulp magazines.

In 2004 Sony released the Librie in Japan which is acknowledged to be the first e-book reader with an electronic ink display.

However the e-book era probably started in 2007 with Amazon’s issue of their first e-book reader, the Kindle. The name came from the idea of kindle as fuel to start a fire, so the Kindle was a metaphor for fuelling the love of reading. Wood kindle is like wood pulp – spooky. The first Kindle sold out in 5 hours.

The e-book was possibly invented in 1949 although that was a mechanical device so maybe it should be called an m-book. Another version of an e-book was invented in the 1960s but that was based on an IBM mainframe computer so it wasn’t very portable.

So what are the comparisons between the Pulp fiction era and the current e-book era?

Pulp fiction made it cheaper to publish and sell short stories and serialized fiction which created a boom in magazine publishing, meaning many more people were able to write for a living and many more people were able to access their writing by buying the cheap pulp magazines.

E-books have made it much cheaper to be able to publish short stories and novels which has led to a boom in publishing, meaning many more people are able to write for a living and many more people are able to buy fiction to read.

The staples of early Pulp fiction were the many short story magazines like Argosy, Black Mask and Amazing Stories where writers were paid by the word. Longer story meant more income for writers.

Kindle Unlimited pays writers by page reads which is effectively paying writers by the word. More pages more income for writers.

Pulp magazines and books developed amazing colourful book covers which clearly defined the genre of the stories inside.

To sell e-books one is encouraged to get amazing colourful book covers that clearly define the genre of the stories one is writing.

But one might ask, hasn’t this always been true of books?

No. Go to your bookshelf, or your parents’ bookshelf or a library bookshelf and look at the covers of some older paperback books in some genres. Some are amazing and well designed, but many are not. I looked up James Bond book cover art and discovered a variety of styles. Some paperback James Bond books had no images on the cover at all; they only had text stating the title and writer.

Book covers have always been designed but only in the last thirty years or so have some traditional book covers started to conform to genre styles. Think Chicklit or Mislit. Some genres like Science Fiction and Westerns have always had a genre style image on the cover.

During the Pulp fiction era new genres were created and these genres became established as part of the fiction canon. A couple of examples are Science Fiction and Hard Boiled Detective stories.

Today in the e-book era many new genres and sub-genres have been created and have become established such as Paranormal Romance and Military Science Fiction.

Some Pulp fiction writers were writing huge numbers of words per day; some wrote up to 8,000 words. Imagine writing 8,000 words on a typewriter every day. That must have been before RSI was invented 😊.

Today many e-book writers write a few thousand words every day and some “write” even more using voice to text technology.

This is a bit more productive than the famous quote attributed to traditional authors such as Flaubert, Wilde and Conrad:

“I spent all morning putting in a comma and all afternoon taking it out.”


Some Pulp fiction writers had more than one pen name as they wrote in more than one genre.

Some e-book writers today use more than one pen name for the same reason.

During the Pulp fiction era writers were paid on acceptance for magazine stories and the rates of payment were agreed in advance. This transparency and speed of payment helped with the payment of bills.

Today one advantage e-book authors have over traditional writers is the quick payment of money for sales and the transparency of the amount of money earned.

So there are similarities between the Pulp fiction era and the current e-book era. Some may have concerns that comparisons between the two eras could introduce the idea of e-books being labelled as Pulp fiction.

Let’s examine this briefly. Many great writers wrote stories for Pulp fiction magazines to supplement their incomes and as part of learning their craft. These include:

  • Agatha Christie
  • Louis L’Amour
  • Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • Isaac Asimov
  • Arthur C Clarke
  • Joseph Conrad
  • Raymond Chandler
  • Philip K Dick
  • F Scott Fitzgerald
  • Dashiell Hammett
  • Robert A Heinlein
  • Frank Herbert
  • Rudyard Kipling – Nobel Prize for Literature
  • Elmore Leonard
  • Sinclair Lewis – Nobel Prize for Literature + offered but declined the Pulitzer Prize for Literature
  • H P Lovecraft
  • Upton Sinclair – Pulitzer Prize for Literature
  • Micky Spillane
  • Mark Twain
  • H G Wells
  • Tennessee Williams.

Personally I would not consider it an insult if my name was associated with some of those writers. What do you think?


About Christopher

Christopher has been a soldier, sailor, teacher, trainer and is now a storyteller. He has an MA in Creative and Critical Writing from the University of Winchester and has recently qualified as a Tony Buzan Licensed Instructor in Mind Mapping.

In 2019 Christopher published a 3 book Military SciFi series and will publish a non-fiction book to help writers.

He has a website in development titled Soldier Sailor Teacher Trainer Storyteller at http://www.crwills.com

Social Media: Twitter | Facebook | Amazon


This post first appeared on the ALLI blog on September 23rd 2019

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