It was meant to be a morale-booster for American troops during the Second World War. In 1943, American book publishers decided to sell ultra-cheap paperbacks to the armed forces, posted all around the world. But the publishers also took a gamble. Instead of printing the books the soldiers wanted to read, they decided to print the best they had to offer. “Over the next four years, publishers gave away 122,951,031 copies of their most valuable titles,” writes Yoni Applebaum at The Atlantic.
Some publishers worried that they would be forced out of business by this patriotic gesture. Their fears were unfounded. “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,” writes Applebaum.
After the war, the reading habit persisted. The hardbacks, printed two at a time on magazine presses to create books that looked more like albums, gave way to paperbacks. And while popular fiction gave ground, the sale of classic books remained steady.
A PATRIOTIC GESTURE & A PUBLISHING GAMBLE HAD CREATED A NATION OF READERS.