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Preserving The Genre: Pulp Fiction in the Digital Age

“Don’t judge a book by its cover!”

Nearly everyone has heard the proverb at least once in their lives—and not without good reason. It is a little piece of wisdom meant to impart an invaluable and universal life lesson: the value of people or things should not be determined on a whim based off on first impression. After all, appearances can be deceiving and it’s what is inside that truly matters most.

But this proverb is rarely applied to actual books and their cover art. In fact, studies and polls show that readers really do often judge a book—even an eBook—by its cover. While this may lead to readers potentially misjudging a great book and missing out entirely, there are some cases where judging a book by its cover are entirely appropriate, such as good old fashioned pulp fiction paperbacks.

These paperbacks are most notable for their whacky and eye-catching cover art, meant to convert lookers to buyers as they gawked at the provocative illustrations. Illustrations including sexy women in revealing clothes, men brandishing weapons, and even graphic depictions of violence—all covers arguably not commonplace today, but also much too detailed to translate well to a thumbnail image. But this doesn’t mean that pulp is incompatible with the digital age.


America’s pulp fiction period officially began in 1860 and fizzled out in 1955 after enjoying a couple decades of particularly heightened popularity around the time of the Great Depression. Industrialization brought the emergence printing technology that would vastly change the relationship between the average American, much more literate than before, and books forever.

The printing industry sought to capitalize on growing literacy rates and committed to making books more affordable by printing on wood-pulp paper instead of the rag paper which was in popular use at the time. Unfortunately, while wood-pulp paper was cheaper than its rag paper counterpart, it was definitely not as stable due to its acidity and cellulose composition. However, the instability of the paper was not an issue at the height of pulp’s popularity. Wood-pulp paper was incredibly cheap, meaning paperbacks could be purchased by middle-class Americans for mere pocket change, often just $0.25. They were meant for voracious reading, quick turn-and-burns as opposed to something designed to show off on a bookshelf.

Authors also benefitted from the pulp era. The period marks a significant time of innovation in literature and made way for the introduction of genre fiction never before seen on newsstands before—genres like hardboiled detective, western romance, and even science fiction. The era even lays claim to some prolific names in literature, such as sci-fi legends HP Lovecraft and L. Ron Hubbard, as well as detective story legends Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

While not scandalous by today’s standards, Pulps came under heavy criticism in American society for their contents, which frequently included crime, sex, and violence, among other exploitative themes. However, Pulp consumers couldn’t be deterred—amidst a bleak social landscape and the lurking Depression, readers simply craved escapist fiction. It is a craving that is on the rise again today, as evidenced by the increase in adult fiction sales year-over-year. The interest in adult fiction combined with our tendency to be nostalgic seems to suggest that modern society could see the return of Pulp, which even found itself trending on Twitter earlier this year.  

But in the digital age, does the Pulp-curious reader have the option of an authentic experience, or will they have to settle for a watered down and sterilized version of Pulp? Thankfully, there are some options—even with cover art fully intact.


Unfortunately, the use of wood-pulp paper has made the digitization and preservation of these books a daunting task. Unlike the process of scanning a typical book to .PDF, the groups that dedicate themselves to this mission are often faced with unique challenges posed by the wood-pulp due to its composition and age. Often, there are creases that need to be flattened, tears that need to be mended, or even multiple fragments that need to be put back together as a whole.

Thankfully, the Library of Congress, began a preservation initiative for their digital archive, which contains more than 14,000 different pulp titles. Initially, the Library began the task of digitizing by moving the paper-printed pulps to microfilm, or tiny little photographs. The issue with microfilm however, is its inability to properly preserve color intensity and image detail.

The Library recognizes the limitations of microfilm preservation and quickly resolved to split preservation duties between two divisions: the Collections Conservation Section, which is responsible for preserving the covers, and the Preservation Reformatting Division, which is responsible for the text.

Along with the Library, there are private organizations that dedicate themselves to digitizing these delightfully weird pieces of American literary history. Websites such as Radio Archives offer the pulp-curious reader not only digitized copies of pulps, but PDF, Mobi, and ePub formats, fully bringing pulp into the digital world and onto our eReaders—and just in time.