Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Council on Books in Wartime, 1941–46

The Council on Books in Wartime logo designed by Alanson Hewes.

The attack on Pearl Harbor sparked great call to action by Americans. Patriotic young men volunteered for military service, while nearly everyone else looked for ways to offer their time and resources in support of the war effort. In early 1942 book publishing executives were meeting to figure out how they could contribute on an industry level. The Nazi party's infamous burning of books rallied American bookmen to the defense of free expression. Our nation's book publishers, libraries, and book sellers came together to form the Council on Books in Wartime.

The aim of the CBW was to promote the reading of books as a way to increase morale, share information, and encourage critical thinking among Americans. The happy side-benefit to the publishing industry was more book sales. Early in the war the CBW held public lectures and hosted radio dramatizations of books, but its most influential programs were the nonprofit publication of millions of paperbacks. First published in 1943, the Armed Services Editions were miniature format paperbacks of best-sellers which were freely distributed to American troops. These boosted the morale of homesick soldiers and fostered their post-war habit of book reading. First published in 1944, the Overseas Editions were translations of American authors which were given to the newly-liberated people in Europe and Asia. These were the first books available to a public which had suffered under totalitarian censorship.

The directors of the CBW included some of the most important American publishers of the decade. The men most recognizable today would be:
John Farrar, co-founder of Farrar & Rinehart (after WWII he founded Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Donald S. Klopfer, co-founder of Random House
Alfred A. Knopf, founder of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
Frederic G. Melcher, editor of Publishers Weekly (he helped found the children's book awards: Newbery Medal and Caldecott Medal)
William Warder Norton, founder of W. W. Norton & Company
Richard L. Simon, co-founder of Simon & Schuster

The war ended, and American servicemen began returning from overseas. With its job done, the council ceased operations on January 31, 1946. Records of it operations were donated to the Princeton University Library for posterity.

P.S. The Council on Books in Wartime enjoyed unprecedented cooperation among publishing competitors. From its beginning, the CBW's efforts worked with the coordination and support of the US government's Office of War Information. It's interesting to contrast this positive wartime relationship with a very recent example of publishers attempting to band together: To defend against's industry-damaging practices, five major publishing houses each worked out a deal with Apple to sell their eBooks at their preferred prices. This time the US government did not look kindly on the publishers' cooperation. Claiming antitrust laws had been violated, the Department of Justice brought suit against Apple, Penguin, Hachette Book Group, Macmillan, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster in the spring of 2012. To avoid legal costs each publisher settled out-of-court, paying a hefty fine.

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