Publishers gave away over 100 million books during World War II — good books, in a disposable format:
Serious books were hard to find before the war. An industry study in 1931 highlighted the book trade’s limited audience. Nineteen out of every 20 books sold by the major publishing houses cost more than two dollars, a luxury even before the Depression. Those who could afford them often struggled to find them. Two out of three counties in America lacked any bookstore, or even so much as a department store, drugstore, or other retailer selling enough books to have an account with a publishing house. In rural areas, small towns, and even mid-sized cities, dedicated customers bought their books the way they bought other household goods, picking the titles out of mail-order catalogs. Most did not bother.
There was another, less-reputable class of books, though, that enjoyed broader distribution. Cheap mysteries, westerns, and comics could be snapped up at newsstands in paperbound editions that cost far less to produce than hardcover books. Throughout the 1920s and ’30s, publishers tried to take advantage of this format to publish a wider range of books. Most efforts failed. Then, in 1939, two new entrants changed the equation. Pocket Books and Penguin Books each offered a mix of new titles and reprints of hardcover books, including some of a literary bent. More importantly, they sold these paperback books on magazine racks.
Americans could put down a quarter and pick up a book all over town, from train stations and drugstores. Within a year, Americans bought 6 million paperback books. By 1943, Pocket Books alone printed 38 million copies. “It’s unbelievable,” said the head of Random House. “It’s frightening.”
Old-line publishers had good reason to be scared. They were in the business of selling a premium product to an affluent audience. The sudden flood of paperbacks threatened to swamp their refined trade and erode its prestige. The cheap, disposable format seemed best suited to works of little lasting value. That Penguin and Pocket Books included some distinguished titles on their lists threatened the stability of these categories, even as their sales still tilted heavily toward the lower end of the spectrum. Paperbacks were expanding the market for books, but that market remained divided.
Then, war intervened. The key actors in the book trade organized themselves into the Council on Books in Wartime, hoping to use books to advance the war effort. In February of 1943, they circulated an audacious proposal. They proposed to print and sell millions of books to the army, for just six cents a volume.
Hardcover books could not possibly be produced so cheaply. But magazines could. So the Council decided to use magazine presses, printing two copies on each page, and then slicing the book in half perpendicular to the binding. The result was a book wider than it was tall, featuring two columns of text for easier reading in low light. The real innovation, though, was less technological than ideological. The publishers proposed to take books available only in hardcover form, and produce them in this disposable format.
The plan, breathtaking in its ambition, was sure to engender skepticism among publishers asked to donate the rights to some of their most valuable property. So the chair of the committee, W.W. Norton, took care to appeal not just to the patriotism of his fellow publishers, but also to their pursuit of profits. “The net result to the industry and to the future of book reading can only be helpful,” he explained. “The very fact that millions of men will have the opportunity to learn what a book is and what it can mean is likely now and in postwar years to exert a tremendous influence on the postwar course of the industry.”
The program turned The Great Gatsby into a success. Apparently A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was hugely popular with the troops.
(Hat tip to Steve Sailer.)