The dime novel is a distinctly American type of fiction. In 1860, publishers Erastus and Irwin Beadle released a series of cheap paperback stories called Beadle's Dime Novels. They cost, of course, ten cents each.
The first book in the series was Malaeska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter by Ann Stephens. This was essentially a reprint of the earlier serial story published by Stephens in the Ladies' Companion magazine (February, March, and April 1839). As a dime novel, the story sold more than 65,000 copies in the first few months.
The first 28 dime novels were published with a salmon-colored cover and no cover illustration. They varied in size, but averaged about 6.5 by 4.25 inches (16.5 by 10.8 cm). A woodcut print was added to the cover with edition 29, and at that time, the first 28 stories were reprinted with illustrations.
The series ran for 321 issues and established nearly all of the conventions of the genre: lurid (often outlandish) plotlines, exotic locations and characters (sea stories, Wild West tales, railway and even circus adventures), and even the melodramatic double titles used throughout the series. The term "dime novel" quickly became a general term for the any sort of cheap, sensationalized fiction.
Around the time of the Civil War, the national literacy rate increased, and the dime novel was immediately popular with the young, working-class reader. By the end of the war, numerous publishers had jumped on the dime novel bandwagon. The various novels could be distinguished only by the titles and the color of the cover wrappers.
Examples of the genre included Bunce's Ten Cent Novels, Brady's Mercury Stories, Beadle's Dime Novels, Irwin P. Beadle's Ten Cent Stories, Munro's Ten Cent Novels, Dawley's Ten Penny Novels, Fireside Series, Chaney's Union Novels, DeWitt's Ten Cent Romances, Champion Novels, Frank Starr's American Novels, Ten Cent Novelettes, Richmond's Sensation Novels, and Ten Cent Irish Novels. Not all novels cost a dime, either. Some ran as high as fifteen cents, but were still lumped into the "dime novel" category.
Highbrow critics derided the dime novel, but the pocket-sized adventure tales were an instant success. You might even say they were the television of their day. Most Americans at that time were busy earning a living, with no time for "literary" novels. They wanted something easy to obtain, easy to read, and requiring no higher education to understand.
In 1874, Beadle added the novelty of color to their covers and began the New Dime Novels, which were often reprints of the original stories. Like the first run, the New Dime Novels ran for 321 issues, until 1885.
Much of the content, especially of the early dime novels, came from story papers: weekly eight-page newspaper-like publications usually costing five to six cents. These began in the mid-1850's and were immensely popular. Some of the titles continued for over fifty years on a weekly schedule. As the popularity of the dime novel grew, more original stories appeared. Most were stand-alone stories, but in the late 1880's, series characters like Jesse James and Buffalo Bill began to pop up.
In 1873, Beadle and Adams introduced a new format for their dime novels, 9 by 13.25 inches (229 by 337 mm), with only 32 pages and a black and white illustration on the cover. The first venture wasn't a success, but the format was so much cheaper to produce that they tried again in 1877 with The Fireside Library and Frank Starr's New York Library. Both titles caught on and soon the markets were flooded with ten-cent weekly "libraries." Frontier stories, which evolved into Westerns, were still popular, but the urban crime novel was gaining ground.
By the turn of the century, new high-speed printing techniques combined with cheaper pulp paper allowed publishers to switch gears and begin producing pulp magazines instead of dime novels. The last of the dime novel serials, Fame and Fortune and Wild West Weekly, were converted into pulp magazines in 1927, ending the era of the dime novel.
For those interested, the Stanford Library has an online collection of over 8,000 dime novels you can peruse.
Another good online collection is Nickels and Dimes by Northern Illinois University, with over 2,000 dime novels.