Publishers Gave Away 122,951,031 Books During World War II

And, in the process, they created a nation of readers.

U.S. soldiers reading books from a military library in their barracks in Northern Ireland February 24, 1942. (AP)

In 1943, in the middle of the Second World War, America's book publishers took an audacious gamble. They decided to sell the armed forces cheap paperbacks, shipped to units scattered around the globe. Instead of printing only the books soldiers and sailors actually wanted to read, though, publishers decided to send them the best they had to offer. Over the next four years, publishers gave away 122,951,031 copies of their most valuable titles.

"Some of the publishers think that their business is going to be ruined," the prominent broadcaster H. V. Kaltenborn told his audience in 1944. "But I make this prediction. America's publishers have cooperated in an experiment that will for the first time make us a nation of book readers." He was absolutely right. From small Pacific islands to sprawling European depots, soldiers discovered the addictive delights of good books. By giving away the best it had to offer, the publishing industry created a vastly larger market for its wares. More importantly, it also democratized the pleasures of reading, making literature, poetry, and history available to all.

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."

Not everyone agreed. Some publishers worried that the books, reserved for soldiers, would flood back into the civilian market. Others were concerned that, if soldiers became accustomed to six-cent books, it would be impossible to sell two-dollar hardcovers.

Even those skeptical of the program as a business initiative, though, had to cede its power as a statement of American values. The Council contrasted its own efforts to distribute all kinds of books with the book-burning of the Nazi regime. "People of the Axis Lands are prevented by force from knowing the facts of the time, and are told what to think," The New York Times editorialized. "People of this free nation are supplied with the truth as free men see it and are confidently left to think for themselves."

The army and the navy endorsed the program, and in July of 1943, began shipping the books around the world. The Council aimed to produce one box of books for every 150 soldiers and sailors, and also sent boxes to smaller, isolated detachments. By the spring of 1945, the program shipped 155,000 crates of these Armed Services Editions each month, with 40 new books packed into each box. Wherever they arrived, soldiers tore them open, and began to read.

"Dog-eared and moldy and limp from the humidity those books go up the line," wrote a war reporter from the southwest Pacific. "Because they are what they are, because they can be packed in a hip pocket or snuck into a shoulder pack, men are reading where men have never read before." A lieutenant in the Marshall Islands wrote of seeing men devour books "by a dim flashlight under a shelter half, even after the air-raid siren has already blown and they should be in a foxhole." Another soldier reported that "the books are read until they fall apart."

Even as millions of books arrived overseas, demand often outpaced the supply. One rifleman who served in Europe recalled the books as "real life savers," but complained that the brass and rear-area units snatched them up before they could trickle down to the front-line troops. Another private, who managed to find just two books in three-and-a-half years, finally asked in desperation if he could just buy copies at his own expense.

The books were "as popular as pin-up girls," reported a GI stationed in New Guinea. Indeed, they often served much the same purposes. "The principal favorites," a study found, "are novels that deal frankly with sexual relations (regardless of tone, literary merit and point of view, no matter whether the book is serious or humorous, romantically exciting or drably pedestrian)." Sex sold. So did westerns and mysteries.

Despite this, the Council made a deliberate effort to skew its selections toward the more literary end of the spectrum. An early plan, drafted by the army scarcely a week after Pearl Harbor, specified that the books be "of a popular or recreational nature, with picture and cartoon books in quantity." The army simply wanted to entertain its troops. When the Council assumed control of the effort, it set its sights substantially higher.

The box of 30 or 40 books shipped to thousands of units each month might include This is Murder, Mr. Jones or a Zane Grey western, but also Carl Sandburg's poems or Tristram Shandy or The Making of Modern Britain. Almost all were available only as expensive hardbacks on the civilian market, and a few were original compilations made exclusively for the program. The goal, as W. W. Norton explained, was to offer "new books and books of enduring value," that might keep soldiers and sailors "in touch with thought and currents of life in their country." The Council on Books aimed not merely to entertain, but also to educate and inspire.

In this, publishers mixed high-minded idealism with enlightened self-interest. Stranded in overseas bases, fighting off boredom, many readers picked up books they might not otherwise have touched, grateful to have anything to read at all. Some were annoyed to be stuck with histories, poetry, or literary novels. Many more, though, found their first exposure to serious books addictive.

One GI with an unusual vantage point was Joe Allen, who went from the Council directly into the ranks as a private soldier, and had a chance to see its impact first hand. "You are instilling in them, whether you are aware of it or not, a taste for good reading that will surely persist come victory," he reported . "I have seen many a man who never before had the patience or inclination to read a book, pick up one of the Council's and become absorbed and ask for more." Soldiers are "acquiring a new habit, that of reading," concurred a lieutenant in the Pacific, writing that it would "result in additional book sales in the future."

The books belonged to the soldiers themselves. They passed them around. They sliced them apart to share in installments. They read them aloud to their buddies. Literature, no longer restricted to those who could afford it, became their common possession. A fighter pilot in the China-Burma-India theater reported that his British counterparts found the program "smashing," helpfully translating that as "super-dooper." The Armed Services Editions had, he wrote, "put good literature on a democratic (small d) level that it has never enjoyed before."

Servicemen bound for Guadalcanal grab books as they board. (U.S. Navy)

Some of the selections were idiosyncratic. In 1945, Council picked out an older novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald that had never achieved popular success. It sold just 120 copies the previous year, and another 33 in 1945 before going out of print. The 155,000 copies of The Great Gatsby that they shipped out to the troops dwarfed all its previous print runs combined. Buoyed by that exposure, it would go on to become one of the great publishing successes of the 20th century.

More often, though, participation came at a substantial short-term cost for the publishing industry. No book generated more passion among its readers than A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a gritty coming-of-age novel. On a Pacific island, a lucky soldier given a new copy "howled with joy," but knew he'd have to sleep on top of it if he hoped to hang onto it long enough to finish it. A 20-year-old Marine "went through hell" in two years of combat, but wrote from his stateside hospital bed that the book had made him feel human again. It might, he conceded, be "unusual for a supposedly battle-hardened marine to do such an effeminate thing as weep over a piece of fiction," but he was now making his way through the book for the third time. In France, the colonel commanding an anti-aircraft battalion being shelled by German artillery found one of his soldiers reading the book between explosions. "He started to read us a portion ... and we laughed like hell between bursts. It sure was funny." The tough West Pointer later found a copy of his own, and was tempted to pull it out and read it while wounded and pinned down by enemy fire. "It was that interesting," he recalled, in a letter to the publisher.

But A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was not an old classic that had passed out of copyright, nor a title that had exhausted its market and sat languishing on a backlist. The coming-of-age tale was a bestseller in 1943, when ASE printed up 52,000 copies and shipped them abroad. It was third on the bestseller list in 1944, when ASE produced a second run of 76,000 copies. Civilian readers snapped up the expensive hardcover editions. GIs read the book for free. With royalties for ASE editions set at just a penny a volume, split between the author and the publisher, both were passing up enormous sums by allowing their book to be distributed as an Armed Services Edition. This was an act of patriotism, but also a gamble that they would benefit, in the long run, from such exposure.

And it was a real gamble. It was far from certain that GIs would continue to read after returning home, much less that they would look for serious books once lighter fare was again abundant. Sales had stagnated during the First World War, and then slumped with peace. Publishers feared the same might happen again. In World War Two, soldiers picked up books out of boredom and desperation. "They read them because they had nothing else to do ... or read," conceded Willis Jacobs, an army private returning to his job as an English professor. At home, though, there would be a host of alternatives competing for their attention. And how could former soldiers be persuaded to see books as valuable, when they had grown used to viewing them as disposable?

Jacobs offered an answer. Veterans would keep reading if books remained ubiquitous. Sell paper-bound books at newsstands and drugstores and grocers, and make them as abundant, and almost as cheap, as they had been during the war. "It won over the soldier; it can equally win over the civilian," Jacobs concluded. Some soldiers might abandon books, but "the reading habits acquired by millions ... are unlikely to be broken," agreed Time Magazine. "And the public appetite is certain to be fed and stimulated by mass production and distribution of books on an unprecedented scale."

Sales of paperbacks did slump, precisely as feared, in 1946. Surprisingly, though, it was the lighter fare that failed to sell. More serious works held their ground. Publishers adjusted, and redoubled their efforts at marketing. They found thousands of new outlets, precisely as Jacobs envisioned. They expanded their selection of titles, offering up literary novels, histories, collections of poetry, and books about science alongside their mysteries and westerns. Sales picked up. By 1950, publishers sold 214 million copies of 642 separate paperback titles, enough for every adult in the country to have bought a couple books.

Far from destroying the traditional market, H. V. Kaltenborn had prophesied back in 1943, cheap and abundant books would help it flourish. "Tomorrow's books will be sold to the public in ten cent as well as two dollar editions. And the ten cent book will make even the two dollar book more popular than it is today." The books cost a quarter. Otherwise, he was absolutely correct.

Suddenly, anyone who wanted to could fill a shelf with books. Paperbacks lost their stigma. The Armed Services Editions succeeded in "conditioning the younger generation to be perfectly at home with books in paper covers." The new technology, initially feared and scorned, proved to be the industry's salvation. Many readers first hooked with paperbacks later purchased hardcovers, fueling sales and providing the old-line publishing industry with a vastly larger market for its wares.

Students bought paperbacks for their courses, as they headed back to school on the GI Bill. Dozens of commercial book clubs flourished, sending a volume each month to their members. Once a marker of elite status, a shelf full of books became a membership badge in the burgeoning middle class. The decades following the war were boom years for the publishing trade, as audiences exploded and sales doubled and then redoubled again.

"No one in this world, so far as I know," the social critic H.L. Mencken once quipped, "… has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people." With the Armed Services Editions, publishers gambled that by putting good books in the hands of average Americans, they could cultivate an appetite for more. The publishing industry made a fortune by betting on the intelligence of the great masses, and proving Mencken wrong.