Why are the edges of paperback books colored?

Just curiosity, we were trying to figure out if it had any meaning?

I have a few thousands paperbacks and I’d say that at most 5% of them are colored, and every one is an older paperback. Moreover, they are color-consistent: Dell was green, Ace was pink, Avon was sort of orange, Pocket Books was red. That makes me think that there wasn’t anything functional about coloring, but that companies used it as an identifier to separate their books from other lines.

I would have said that since the publishers use such inexpensive paper the coloring hides the inevitable browning that comes with age.

I’m not understanding this. Browning isn’t an issue for years, if not decades. Publishers don’t print paperbacks for the ages; they expect them to be disposable. And edges don’t brown any more than pages do, and you’d think that brown pages would be far more off-putting. Browning is also not inevitable, and only the oldest paperbacks are likely to be on cheap paperback.

Eh, it was just a guess.

A quick search suggests it was decorative, like gilding the page edges of some hardbacks.

I was going to say that it was an imitation of gilding/silvering on hardbacks.

Old 25c paperback books were often distributed to newsstands by jobbers, who might have carried only certain publishers. It would have made it easier for them to look through a rack and find all the books that they had originally supplies to do inventory or to remove unsold remainders.

Except the coloring isn’t unique. I dug through my bookshelf, and found some duplicate colors for different publishers, although it did seem that a given publisher stuck to one color. As suggested, Dell is green, for instance, but so is Pyramid.

Dates may make a difference. Dell’s green was not consistent over decades.

I’ve got books with multiple colors from the same paperback publishers, and from over the same decade. If there’s a rhyme or reason to it, I don’t know what it is. They don’t do it to all o0f their books, either – some are uncolored.

A lot of my Lancer paperbacks have a purple colored edge to them.
Does anybody do this anymore? I haven’t seen a colored book edge in ages.

Couple of points:

  1. SFAIK, this is an American thing. Even the cheapest paperbacks in other countries have undyed edges.

  2. Even in the US, it’s the cheaper paperbacks that tend to have dyed edges.

  3. Could this be to do with the paper quality? If you use cheap semi-bleached paper, and don’t dye the edges, the book looks a kind of horrible vomit-brown. So you either pony up for pristine white paper, or you dye the edges.

There just aren’t that many cheap paperbacks around any more. The entire publishing market evolved from the early days, when most paperbacks were indeed cheap, although Pocket Books normally used good quality paper - and dyed their edges - and serious nonfiction houses like Mentor also did. By the 1970s a funny thing happened: paperbacks, which once were so page conscious that books were known to be stopped in the middle of a sentence if they hit their limit, started becoming fatter and fatter. That required better paper quality, since that quantity of thick cheap paper was physically impossible to handle by the binders. In addition, most hardbacks, including nonfiction, saw paperback editions. There was a swing away from paperback originals, since planning from the beginning to print both editions made more money. By the 90s, though, trade paperbacks became the preferred format over mass market paperbacks, so mostly only genre books (and bestseller is a genre) got paperbacks, while other books either got a trade paperback edition or had their original publication in trade pb.

This may be an American thing. The old Penguins I have show plain edges, but then they were famous for color-coding their covers and I don’t know if that served any of the same functions. But it’s a very old American thing. I’d say it’s probably been 50 years since any company did this regularly. And cheap pulp paper is a thing of the past as well. Paperbacks are sold for today, not tomorrow, and they are made to the standards of what moves them off the shelf.

Shelf! That’s another thing. Paperbacks were once almost universally sold in wire racks, either flat racks that had up to a half dozen books in a partition sticking out from the backing or circular racks that were movable to see all sides. In either case, the edges of the books were visible - totally unlike today, except perhaps in an airport. I wonder if color-coding the edges allowed canny buyers to go straight to publishers to search for favorite authors. Weak, but possible.

At one point I had my books sorted by publisher and number, and there was a distinct similarity in the spines of books published at the same time, which would have been more effective at giving cues than paper coloring. (I’ll check that tonight.) I certainly don’t remember noticing it, and I’ve bought lots of paperbacks.
I doubt that the buyers of books in circular racks would have noticed. (My library still has them for paperbacks.)

BTW here is a Yahoo answers for this question, which claims that the coloring was mixed with glue and tends to protect the edges.

That’s talking about gilding edges of hardbacks, an entirely different and far more complicated process. Applying a cheap dye wouldn’t have any protective value.

I read a book a year or so ago that had jet-black edges to the pages. That was clearly a conscious design decision rather than a standard publishing thing, though.

The paperbacks version of Wicked does the same (the edge is dyed green).