No, that’s not an insult or a racial slur. The word refers to what is essentially 19th century pulp fiction, cheesy swashbucklers, penny dreadfuls and the like.
And now, for those who can’t get enough of these, you can find loads online, courtesy of Emory University:
Yellowbacks were cheap, 19th century British literature sold at railway book stalls, with colorful, sensational covers to attract buyers. While some were well-known books such as “Sense and Sensibility,” many of the yellowbacks were obscure titles by authors unknown today. “They were the equivalent of a popular novel you’d read on a plane today,” says David Faulds, MARBL’s rare book librarian.
However, be forewarned, this is more like a raw data dump when looking through titles. There are no quick synopses to tell you what’s what. You’ll need at least Adobe Acrobat reader for these, so no special equipment (i.e., Kindle or Nook) although this writer at Research Buzz was going to send it to a Kindle.
Here’s a quick sample of a few titles:
A Race for a Wife, by Hawley Smart
Robert the rover, or, Adventures on the Spanish Main, by William Stephens Hayward (honestly, how can you resist?)
The Cloud King, by William Stephens Hayward (perhaps the Tom Clancy of his day?)
The American, by Henry James (wow!)
Mildred’s cross, or, The high road to ruin, by William Stephens Hayward
There are over 1200, so lots to choose from. And I must give credit where credit is due: I found this via a Tweet from @torbooks! Maybe Twitter does have its uses after all.