Photo Credit: Flickr/Missouri State Archives
That’s right. Publishers are giving away books. Over a hundred million of them. Just kidding. This is not something I can imagine ever happening again. I’m sure the major publishers have some kind of charity or school program that offers books for cheap or for free, but I highly doubt that it’s on the level of what I’m about to tell you.
Remember that thing called World War II? Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia and Churchill and FDR. I’m sure you’ve read about it in the history books, but there’s a part of the story you likely haven’t heard. Before I get into what happened during the war as related to books, you should know that they were not quite as available as they are now. Bookstores may be closing, but you still can get your hands on just about any book you want by way of Amazon or Abebooks or another retailer near you. With that being said, publishers took a chance in 1943. They began selling paperbacks for just six cents to the Army. These cheaply made books were manufactured using magazine presses.
You might be thinking so what. What’s it matter if publishers were selling books cheaply to the Army and soldiers stationed around the world. Well it matters because these books soon became wildly popular during the war. You can imagine the living conditions and the thoughts of never returning home of some of the soldiers. But then these books start arriving from America. I won”t exaggerate the role these books played during the war, but the Army eventually could not order these books fast enough to meet the demand of the soldiers and the publishers could not ship out a new batch of books soon enough. The books were often read until they were no longer a book, until they fell apart. Suffice it to say that a single book could be read by dozens of soldiers in lesser war torn areas.
Publishers gave away a grand total of 122,951,031 of these cheap paperbacks over the next four years. Read that number again. 122 million! Guess what the result of all their efforts was? Though paperbacks were sold prior to the start of the program with the Army, the titles weren’t the same as their hardcover counterparts and all books were hard to find because of how few bookstores existed at the time. During and after the war this changed. Rather than pay $2 for a hardcover, paperbacks were just a quarter. The everyday person could afford them and soon millions of Americans were reading.
So again, what was the result of all the work of the publishers during those few years? They helped create an America that wanted to read.
You can read a great article about all of this here.