The Atlantic Bookshelf: Conclusion

A wrap up of book reviews from Edward Weeks

How many book readers are there in the United States? No one knows the answer, but it is stimulating to guess. We proceed by inference. If we lump together the circulation of the popular magazines (including the wood pulps) and multiply by three, — an average of three readers a copy is not excessive, — it is my conservative guess that there are approximately thirty million Americans who read magazines. Can we infer that these thirty million also read books? Not by a long shot. Name me one book whose substance, variety, popularity, and price can compete with the Saturday Eveniny Post, True Story, or Cosmopolitan. Obviously our magazine industry feeds a public most of whom have neither the inclination nor the money to buy books.

It has long been my inference, based on the performance of our best sellers over a period of years, that there are half a million Americans who follow contemporary literature and who buy, borrow, or at any rate read, the half-dozen leading titles each year. Within this somewhat fickle army is a corps of more diligent readers, perhaps as many as 250,000 — call them Discriminators — who read hard and steadfastly not only the popular books but those that matter. Then along comes Gone with the Wind, whose sale during its first year amounted approximately to 1,200,000 copies. Taking into account the enormous traffic of the lending libraries, it is safe to count four readers to every copy: this means that there are close to five million Americans who will read a new book provided they can be exceptionally excited. To summarize, then, we have — always by inference — three grades of new book readers: —

250,000 Discriminators

500,000 General Readers

5,000,000 Exceptional Readers

I underscore the word ‘new.’ Because we know that there is a vast indefinite reserve of readers who shy away from new books but who will purchase reprints in the lower price levels. The Cuneo books, reprints of Mark Twain, Dickens, Fenimore Cooper, manufactured in huge editions and sold through the newspapers for 39 cents a copy, have reached millions of these unhabitual book buyers. The problem that keeps every ambitious editor awake nights is how to produce and promote a new book which will reach a larger fraction of those who have eyes and can read. I’d like to say more about this later.