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 1931highlighted 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."
In February of 1943, Council of Books in Wartime circulated an audacious proposal. It proposed to print and sell millions of books to the army, for just six cents a volume.
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...