Book Propaganda: Edward L. Bernays's 1930 Campaign Against Dollar Books
"Mass production just ahead" was the slightly ominous conclusion to an editorial in the July 1930 Review of Reviews. That piece was one of many responses to the decision by four New York publishers in May 1930 to drop the price of new novels from $2 or $3 to $1. Their daring move, in the face of declining sales after the 1929 stock market crash, put to the test the principles of mass production in the book industry. Lower prices equals higher sales, some argued; while others feared for the very foundations not only of the book industry but also of book culture.
The short-lived dollar book plan brought into high relief the tensions that characterized the book industry in the 1920s, and the responses to it provide a site in which to explore the complicated negotiations between industrial and cultural production. The book industry is a particularly interesting site for investigations of cultural dynamics and distinctions for several reasons. The book as a medium and the production practices associated with it predate the development of mass culture. Therefore those practices had to be reshaped to mesh with the changes associated with mass production, mass communication, and consumer culture. As Richard Ohmann argues, the book industry went through a long period of extremely uneven and chaotic development. On the one hand, by the middle of the nineteenth century the book industry was producing what certainly qualifies as mass culture. Publishers produced and sold thousands of copies of inexpensive books with dependable frequency in a national market. On the other hand, Ohmann claims, one could make an argument that the book industry was the last culture industry to take a modern form. "Books were out of step with the rest of the culture industry: a telling statistic is that, across the entire period from 1850 to 1914, which surely embraces the rise of mass [End Page 231] culture, book publishing's share of all manufacturing value declined from 1 percent to one-fourth of 1 percent, even as it was quadrupling in absolute value." 1
As new forms of leisure and cultural forms developed consistent with the practices of a growing mass culture, books lost their dominant position within the culture industry. The struggle to bring the book in line with newer forms and practices of mass culture--the Book Publishers Research Institute is one skirmish--reveals tensions between mass and elite culture as well as the difficulty of adapting older practices of production and distribution to the possibilities presented by a rapidly changing society.
This essay focuses on the arguments surrounding the dollar book plan and in particular on the role of Edward L. Bernays as public relations counsel to the publishers who opposed it. Although the literary culture of the early twentieth century has been the topic of a number works, and Bernays himself and his role in the development of the field of public relations is the subject of several recent books, Bernays's campaign on behalf of the book industry has so far escaped notice except for a brief description in his autobiography. Bernays's papers, which are located in the Library of Congress, were processed in the early 1960s, but they have been open for research only since his death in 1995 at the age of 103. This essay draws on those papers as well as on editorials and articles in popular periodicals of the time to explore the debate surrounding the dollar book plan, the strategies Bernays employed to shape public opinion about books, and finally to place this episode in a broader context that explores the role of books in a newly developing mass culture. 2
The Golden Twenties, the Crash, and the Dollar Book Scheme
As was true in many aspects of American business, the book industry had taken advantage of the optimistic period of the 1920s to experiment with new forms of production, promotion, and distribution consistent with the new ethos of mass production. Publishers found ways of connecting with other media, which were growing in popularity. Newspapers began or expanded their book review sections; editors and reporters began to consider books as news, thereby increasing coverage of books and authors in other sections of the paper. In the New York Post, reviews frequently appeared on the front page. Publishers were quick to use the astonishing new medium of radio--through radio book talks or review programs--to bring books to [End Page 232] the attention of a broader audience. The growing motion picture industry looked to novels for stories, and many publishers produced "photoplay editions" of books that had been made into movies. 3
Publishers joined other industries in experimenting with national advertising. In 1920, Funk and Wagnalls spent an astonishing $45,000 on its national campaign for the Desk Standard Dictionary. Publishers also explored more unconventional ways of drawing attention to their books. In 1921, publisher Alfred Knopf hired an army of costumed sandwich men to walk through the streets of New York to advertise a new novel. That same year, the novelty of a phonograph record of popular novelist Harold Bell Wright reading his latest work stunned bookstore customers. By the end of the 1920s, publishers were using talent contests, billboards, and even skywriting to draw attention to their new releases.
Advertising and promotion were not the only ways that the book industry changed in the 1920s. Alternative distribution channels developed. The Book-of-the-Month Club and the Literary Guild, both founded in 1926, shook up the industry even as they increased the market for books. By the end of the decade, nine book clubs were selling hundreds of thousands of books to their members through the mail. By making large bulk purchases, printing their own editions, and relying on subscription sales, the clubs were able to sell new books at prices substantially lower than readers could find in bookstores. Department stores continued their controversial practice of discounting the price of popular books to bring customers into the store, a practice that the book industry fought vigorously but unsuccessfully. Reprint and paperback houses produced books that sold from fifteen cents to a dollar, primarily in nontraditional book outlets such as drugstores. But new books sold in bookstores were priced considerably higher, with prices ranging from $2.50 to $3.50 for a typical new novel.
Book buyers were understandably confused by the wide range of book prices and became increasingly resentful of the cost of new books. If new production and distribution methods allowed some books to be sold cheaply (to say nothing of commodities such as cars and cornflakes), why did new books remain expensive? Newspapers and magazines took up the issue of book prices. An editorial in the New York Times claimed that high book prices might be enough to cause "abandonment of the reading habit." In 1925 an article in the New York Times Book Review claimed that book prices were too high because the book industry refused to or was unable to adopt sound business practices: "Publishing is the most disorganized and ill-managed industry in the United States today, save coal alone. Even the production and dispensation of chop suey is on a sounder basis than the publication and retailing of books." Other writers compared the content and price of books to that of magazines, complaining that the clothbound [End Page 233] format of the book was not enough to justify the difference in price, seemingly unaware of the subsidy of magazines by advertising. Throughout the decade of the twenties, however, the strong market for books of all sorts and the general prosperity allowed publishers to participate in what Publishers Weekly called "a panorama of optimism." 4
The year 1930 was another story, however. In the aftermath of the Crash, the publishing industry, like other industries, struggled to maintain sales in a difficult economic climate. The spring of 1930 seemed a logical time to try a drastic pricing experiment: three successful and relatively new publishing houses (Simon & Schuster, Coward-McCann, and Farrar & Rinehart) announced at a meeting of the American Booksellers Association that they would cut the price of their new books to just a dollar, gambling that sales would increase correspondingly. Doubleday quickly followed. 5
Response to the dollar book plan was immediate and spirited. The controversy centered primarily on the possibility of applying economic principles of mass production to the book industry. Those discussions highlight the tension between two significantly different understandings of the book: as commodity produced and sold for a profit and as the embodiment of an elite culture. On the one hand, production of books, like that of all goods, must be accommodated to the new methods. "Books can escape economic laws no more than other commodities, nor can the sellers of books," claimed an editorial in the Saturday Review of Literature: "The revolution in the production and distribution of goods which was furthered by Eli Whitney's invention of interchangeable parts and the mass production that followed, has already powerfully influenced the publishing industry." But the writer recognized that mass production depended on several conditions that not all books could meet. A mass-produced commodity "must be capable of standardization and the number of purchasers must be capable of extensive expansion." Three kinds of books meet those conditions: best-selling novels ("especially if it is of the popular type that has no intellectual or emotional barriers against the multitude . . . since they are seldom original, and a wide distribution can usually be predicted from the manuscript"); classics that have already established themselves and sell slowly but steadily, and "standard" books, such as detective stories, "where the reader buys a kind of book rather than a special volume." 6
Mass production also requires a mass-distribution system. The firm of Doubleday, Doran, one of the price-cutting publishers and one of the few publishers to own a printing plant, drew particular attention. Crucially, Doubleday had also developed its own distribution system with a chain of bookstores, making it the only publisher that could truly aspire to mass production, according to this economic analysis. 7
Although most were skeptical that the plan would ultimately succeed, [End Page 234] the potential benefits that mass production seemed to offer clearly caught the imagination of the public and of the popular press. Not surprisingly, however, most responses also speculated on the cultural implications of applying those principles to books. The positive argument was that lower prices for books would enlarge the market and therefore result in more people reading more books. The Literary Digest quoted approvingly an editorial in the Commercial and Financial Chronicle that made such an argument: "The final influence of retailing current novels at a dollar may be to so enlarge the list of readers as to popularize all books. If so, the general good and intelligence will be enhanced and low prices all around will aid both publisher and public." Similarly, a writer in Outlook and Independent speculated that the "deluge of low-priced books may so whet the public's appetite for reading that it will not only buy these books in quantities large enough to yield a profit but buy more expensive books also." However, other writers found no comfort in the prospect of an enlarged market for books. 8
Writing in The New Republic, Lewis Mumford agreed that there was probably an untapped market for books among readers of popular magazine, but the books those readers would want are not worth producing: "Once the attempt is made to reach this audience, the sort of book produced en serie will be the exact equivalent of Dream Stories and True Romances, and on the whole, violet-ray treatments and vacuum-cleaners and cheap motor cars take care of the surplus income of this group quite as satisfactorily as books possibly could, with a smaller amount of cultural degradation." These readers were appropriately being served by other material in other formats. Producing books for this larger market, he argued, would mean that fewer publishers would be willing to produce "good" books. Noting that serious books sold well in France and at lower prices, Mumford argued that some were confusing the symptom with the remedy. "The reduction of the cost of American books to a price comparable to that of French books would not be a remedy for the disease but a sign that health had come." Mumford also linked his cultural argument to principles of mass production, but to make a different point: prices of good books would come down only when Americans developed better taste in literature. "The circulation of books is an accurate reflection of the popular intelligence, in our present culture," he wrote. 9
H. L. Mencken focused on the ways that these cheaper books would affect the distribution system. Bookstores would face problems under the new plan, he claimed, as their profit margins fell and more nontraditional book outlets such as drugstores and department stores stole their customers. The result would be a degradation of the system that kept books separate from the rest of mass culture: "Buying books will cease to be the pleasant [End Page 235] adventure that it has been ever since the invention of printing; instead it will become a kind of vulgar shopping." Mencken made a case that the problem was not high book prices, but too many books--most of them bad. A better economic strategy would be for publishers to exercise more discretion in their choices: "Fewer books would mean not only better books, but also better sales for them. As things stand the bad ones offer heavy and stiff competition to the good ones." He did, however, find some good in the increased competition in book distribution. Undoubtedly some book stores would fail, but "the horde of vague and silly booke-shoppes run mainly by females amateurs would go first." 10
In short, the dollar book experiment offered both risks and opportunities. Writing in the Nation, critic Henry Hazlitt provided a detailed economic analysis of the cost of books and explained the economic rationale for the dollar books plan: "The plan cannot succeed unless the demand for books proves to be what economists call elastic--i.e., the number of books sold must increase in more than an inverse ratio to the reduction in price." On the one hand, Hazlitt noted, inexpensive tabloids flourished by expanding the market without hurting the circulation of regular newspapers. But books might be different. Financially, publishers would take a bigger risk on a dollar book: "Whereas today the publisher who wishes to avoid losses must ask himself whether a book is likely to sell at least 2,500 copies, he will have to begin asking himself whether it is likely to sell at least 5,000 to 6,500." Books that are "too (subtly or esoterically) good to have an assured mass appeal would be hurt by the plan. There is a possibility, in short, that the dollar-book field may develop into a sort of publishers' Hollywood. Certainly it would accelerate the present tendency toward concentrating advertising and selling effort on fewer titles." Hazlitt ended with the question: "Can mass selling be applied to belles-lettres? We must wait and see." 11
Typically, the response to the plan linked economic and cultural arguments, as observers struggled to work out the ways that the economic and industrial methods of a mass market/mass production consumer economy would affect an existing culture of books. In a different form, the same linked argument was used by publishers who were opposed to the dollar book plan as they struggled to engage public support against lower book prices.
In June 1930, just a few weeks after the four price-cutting publishers announced their plans, another group, led by Alfred A. Knopf, engaged the services of public relations counselor Edward L. Bernays to fight it. While these established publishers were troubled about applying the principles of mass production to books, they were eager to use the new principles of mass communication and propaganda to gain support for their position. [End Page 236]
Edward L. Bernays and the Book Publishers Research Institute
By 1930, Edward L. Bernays had successfully carved out a field of work he was one of the first to call "public relations counseling." His star-studded client list included President Calvin Coolidge, George Hill of the American Tobacco Company, William Paley at CBS, and Proctor and Gamble. In 1929, Bernays had orchestrated the worldwide celebration "Light's Golden Jubilee," which marked the fiftieth anniversary of Thomas Edison's invention of electric light. Bernays had worked for the book industry before. In the late teens and early twenties, he had helped the firm of Boni and Liveright introduce the work of his uncle, Sigmund Freud, to the United States, and he continued an association with Liveright to develop what were considered radical new ways of marketing and promoting individual books. 12
Bernays had spelled out the precepts of public relations in his books, Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923) and Propaganda (1928). 13 Echoing Walter Lippman, Bernays argued that the world had become too complicated for individuals--the masses--to make informed decisions about the many issues that confronted them. "Organizing Chaos," the first chapter of Propaganda, opens: "The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. . . . It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind" (9-10). According to Bernays, public relations is the specialized field of work that functions as the "executive branch" of the invisible government, interpreting new ideas and enterprises to the public: "The public relations counsel is the agent who, working with modern media of communication and the group formations of society, brings an idea to the consciousness of the public. But he is a good deal more than that. He is concerned with courses of action, doctrines, systems and opinions, and the securing of public support for them" (38). Drawing on the new work in psychology and sociology, Bernays explained how public relations counselors could influence mass opinion. The key, he claimed, was understanding the characteristics of mass consciousness: "In making up its mind its first impulse is usually to follow the example of a trusted leader. . . . But when the example of the leader is not at hand and the herd must think for itself, it does so by means of clichés, pat words or images which stand for a whole group of ideas or experiences. . . . By playing upon an old cliché, or manipulating a new one, the propagandist can sometimes swing a whole mass of group emotions" (50-51). Influencing public opinion often has to do with communicating [End Page 237] with the public through a trusted leader or with creating vivid or memorable verbal images. By identifying groups--and the leaders of those groups--and then carefully crafting communication to appeal to them, Bernays claimed, the skilled public relations counsel could create support for new ideas.
Bernays argued that his approach differed from the persuasive strategies that had been used by early advertisers. The old propaganda methods depended on repetition and stimulus-response techniques: "Suppose the old type of salesmanship, acting for a meat packer, was seeking to increase the sale of bacon. It would reiterate innumerable times in full-page advertisements: "Eat more bacon. Eat bacon because it is cheap, because it is good, because it gives you reserve energy" (53). By contrast, the new techniques of salesmanship emphasize the "group structure of society and the principles of mass psychology": "'Who is it that influences the eating habits of the public?' The answer, obviously, is 'The physicians.' The new salesman will then suggest to physicians to say publicly that it is wholesome to eat bacon" (53). A key element of the new propaganda, then, was to enlist the support of trusted authorities who would communicate information to the masses.
Another crucial aspect was establishing relationships with leaders of groups who could help his clients, but those groups must also see an advantage in the relationship: "The leaders who lend their authority to any propaganda campaign will do so only if it can be made to touch their own interests. There must be a disinterested aspect of the propagandist's activities. In other words, it is one of the functions of the public relations counsel to discover at what points his client's interests coincide with those of other individuals or groups" (59). Bernays saw the trade or industry associations that had become so important in the twenties as important vehicles for his strategies of mass opinion formation. Competition among products of the same sort was a given. The new competition was interindustrial or intercommodity as apparently unrelated industries affect each other as they compete for the consumer's dollars and time. Consider the situation of a firm selling pianos: "What are the true reasons why the purchaser is planning to spend his money on a new car instead of a piano? Because he had decided that he wants the commodity called locomotion more than he wants the commodity called music? Not altogether. He buys a car, because at the moment it is the group custom to buy cars" (82).
The modern propagandist, Bernays claimed, works to create circumstances that will modify that custom. To increase sales of pianos, he worked to identify coalitions of groups that would benefit by the change. He looked to architects and decorators, who could increase their business by designing music rooms, and to musicians and society leaders, who would increase their prestige if more people valued music (55). Ideally, the industry's own [End Page 238] interests would be linked with a broader social good: "The development of public opinion for a cause or line of socially constructive action may very often be the result of a desire on the part of the propagandist to meet successfully his own problem which the socially constructive cause would further, And by doing so he is actually fulfilling a social purpose in the broadest sense" (73-74). In such a way, Bernays claimed, the public relations counsel could fulfill his or her obligation to "bring order out of chaos" while at the same time advancing the interests of his or her client. For Bernays, public relations was a practice that went far beyond advertising and promotion in support of sales or marketing. His interest was in shaping public opinion and creating support for issues and ideas. Essentially he wanted to create change for what he saw as a greater public good while at the same time solving the problems of his clients, which were generally linked to new forms of industrial production and consumption.
In 1930, Bernays would put his strategies of propaganda to work for a segment of the publishing industry. The publishers--Alfred A. Knopf, Donald Brace of Harcourt, Brace, and Henry Hoyns, head of Harper and Brothers--who approached Bernays in the spring of 1930 presented him with a number of problems: the publishing industry was seriously divided over the price issue; the economic structure of the book industry was unstable; the industry itself had become the subject of public speculation and commentary--much of it unflattering. In addition, many harbored a nagging suspicion that the book was faced with stiff competition from other leisure pursuits and media forms. In spite of the evidence that the book industry was growing and adapting to the new economic and cultural climate that developed in the 1920s, books and reading seemed to be in a peculiar position in American culture. More books were published than ever before, but at the same time they seemed to be a less significant part of everyday life. 14
Bernays suggested a double-pronged approach to the group of publishers. The short-term goal was to convince the public and price-cutting publishers that dollar books were not in the public's interest. The long-term goal was to increase the market for good books, an elusive term much used but never defined. His strategy therefore acknowledged both the commodity and cultural status of the book. His campaign was an attempt to link the book's high-status cultural role to a particular form of industrial production and distribution--the clothbound book sold at full price through traditional bookstores. 15
In accord with his views of "the new propaganda," Bernays proposed the establishment of an organization that could provide seemingly authoritative information and help to shape public opinion and behavior that would provide support for the publishing industry. Knopf, Brace, and Hoyns, functioning as an executive committee, engaged Bernays for a three-month [End Page 239] period to establish the Book Publishers Research Institute. The Institute was essentially what public relations practitioners today would call a "front group," a seemingly independent organization that conducts research and communicates information in the public interest. In reality, the organization is funded by and works for a client that has a clear agenda. Although the Book Publishers Research Institute had its own letterhead and a staff person, Edwin Bailey, who was presumably an employee of Bernays and also working on other projects, it existed only as part of Bernays's campaign. The Institute served as the seemingly objective voice of the segment of the publishing industry who were Bernays's clients. The following description of the activities of the Institute is based on the internal memos and reports, correspondence, copies of news releases, and clippings found in Bernays's papers. 16
Bernays's first move was a frontal attack on the dollar book scheme that used both economic and cultural arguments. He began with a statement issued by the members of the Institute (the original three publishers joined by eight others) that responded to the "reckless price-slashing." Its consequences would be, the statement claimed, "even more of a threat to the public than they were to the publishers themselves." Bookstores would be forced to close, leaving readers to the books available in cigar stores, grocery stores, and drugstores. "What the eventual character of this literature will be we leave the public to judge for itself," the statement warned. Publishers will become "mere mass production printers" with "the dollar only in the minds of everyone concerned with it and quality of literature no factor." It is a "sad spectacle to see our creative effort set back a generation, because of any sudden and shortsighted policy." Indeed, if the price-slashing spreads to other industries, it could wreck America's entire business structure. "Every man and women concerned with finance, industry or commerce and with the cultural development of America must feel uneasy over the incidents of the past few days in the book business." 17
During the next month, Bernays laid the foundation of a plan that he hoped would educate the public on the financial structure of the book industry and its importance to American progress. In a 30 June report, Bernays listed three objectives:
1. To inculcate an appreciation in the public of the sound underlying economics of the book publishing business.
2. To develop an understanding of the one dollar reprint situation.
3. To stress the importance of maintaining the present economic stability of the book publishing industry in the interests of American education and progress. 18 [End Page 240]
To accomplish those objectives, Bernays and Edwin Bailey developed strategies that reflected Bernays's understanding of mass psychology and social relationships. The plan incorporated key principles of Bernays's approach: gain the support of groups with similar interests, draw on respected leaders to set an example, create "news" that would keep the media's and the public's attention on the issue, and develop new patterns of thought and practice.
The first step was a research program that would provide the information that would be the basis of their program. The Institute subscribed to a clipping service to find and evaluate material appearing in the press about the book industry, especially the dollar book plan. Results of a questionnaire sent to publisher members of the Institute provided Bernays with average costs associated with the publication of a book, which were then used in media releases.
Second, the Institute began a program of media contacts, in accord with Bernays's contention that the public relations counsel must be continually on guard against the publication of misinformation. "We are reading the weekly and monthly publications," Bernays reported to the executive committee, "with a view to 'nailing' either erroneous presentation of point of view or other statements." 19
To establish the Book Publishers Research Institute as a source of authoritative information about the book industry, Bernays and Bailey first wrote to editors of five hundred newspapers explaining its work: "Publishing is founded upon definite practices and principles. It will be the function of the Institute to endeavor to establish just what these are and then to interpret them to the public." To counter the accounts that claimed that publishers could still make money with dollar books, assuming that lower prices would substantially increase demand, the Institute offered alternative figures that showed considerably higher costs and lower profits. The letter ends: "Our calculations have been very carefully worked out and we believe they should be an authoritative starting point for future discussions of the economic aspects of book publishing. We are convinced that they prove the economic fallacy of changing present price standards unless book standards are to suffer." 20
Most important, Bernays and Bailey identified newspapers and magazines that had run stories or editorials on the dollar book scheme and divided them into three categories: those supportive of the Institute's view of the situation, those opposed, and those on the fence. A letter to supportive editors praised them for their thoughtful analysis and provided the new figures developed by the Institute. The letter sent to papers with negative articles or editorials began: "We have read with much interest your recent on the subject of book prices, and the temperate and deliberate tone of your [End Page 241] utterance encourages us to believe that you may welcome information which will perhaps cast a somewhat different light on the subject." 21 The letter to the "on-the-fence" publications contained the most comprehensive statement of the Institute's position on the dollar book plan, with special attention to the question of whether the lower costs typically associated with mass production could be applied to the book industry, a topic that had apparently captured the imagination of many: "Theoretically, it is interesting to apply the mass production idea to books, but it would be just as illogical to assume that millions of people would go to exhibitions of the higher forms of art if they suddenly were made cheap or free." In addition to providing the Institute's financial figures, this letter argues against the dollar book scheme on the basis of distinctions between different levels of culture. Just as only a minority of Americans appreciate fine arts, book sales (at least those of good books) are limited by the education level of Americans: "As a matter of fact, every publisher knows that his market is limited by public taste and public education, and that some of the most worth-while books he brings out can never be big sellers and big profit-makers--at least until many obscure cultural factors have worked together to enhance the numbers of the seriously reading public. Price alone cannot do this." Lowering the cost of books will hurt the "creative geniuses" who write them: "If we want gifted writers, if we seek to foster creative genius, then we must keep the price of books at a level that allows a fair recompense to those who write them." 22 It will also hurt the booksellers who distribute them, presumably leaving the field to hack writers producing those low-quality books sold in drugstores and train stations.
This argument was developed at greater length in a news release sent to two thousand newspapers headlined "How an Original Edition Differs from a Reprint." The release lays out figures that show that a typical new release priced at $2.50 returns only a few cents per copy in profit to the publisher. The economic rationale for the $1.00 reprint, the release explains, is its success in the original edition. Sale of the original edition covered the typesetting and promotion costs and advance royalties. This system of higher-priced original editions and cheaper reprints is the basis of both literary and economic stability for the industry: "The present system of passing reprints of successful books on to the public at low prices has given that part of the public which is willing to wait, and perhaps must wait, the advantage of mass production without depressing literary or cultural standards." 23 The release makes clear the distinction between original issues and reprint editions, linking the former with cultural matters and the latter with mass production.
Mass-production techniques would come into play only when a mass audience was established, leaving book publishers the economic flexibility [End Page 242] to pursue what they considered their cultural responsibilities, which involve considerable financial risk: "For the publisher in bringing out a new book, the matter of price or profit cannot be the motivating consideration if he is to maintain the traditional high standards of his calling. He must publish books of uncertain fate by new authors and books of outstanding merit which are not widely sold and cannot be but which are necessary, unless our cultural and intellectual life is to become static and therefore sterile." In fact, the segment of society who buys those more expensive books are also fulfilling an important cultural role: "It is the people who are willing and able to pay two dollars and a half for a book while it is fresh and new who really make it possible for others to have the same quality of literature later in reprint for lower prices." 24 Those who buy original editions, then, are the opinion leaders for book culture; principles of mass production can be successfully applied to book publishing--but only after the publishers and readers with taste have exercised their responsibilities.
A second strategy focused on group connections and coalitions. The objective here was to establish the value of the book industry in an economic sense. A letter to trade and professional associations of book binders, typesetters, engravers, and printers asked for their cooperation in disseminating accurate information about the costs in book publishing, reminding them of the higher wages and improved working conditions associated with increased costs: "We believe that if your organization would cooperate by disseminating information on its own authority as to the increased cost of your part of the production and reasons for it, public acceptance would be increased and stabilized conditions in the industry which would redound to your interest as well as to ours, would be established." Arguments associated with the very real fears of economic instability after the Crash of 1929 were surprisingly absent in Bernays's campaign, although the above statement hints at them. 25
Bernays made other efforts to link the interests of the book industry to broader concerns. Letters to state departments of education connected the stability of the book industry with educational progress; letters to chambers of commerce and other business groups drew on the concept of "enlightened self-interest" to suggest that all involved in business should promote reading. The Institute offered to help government statistical and census bureaus develop accurate figures on the publishing industry. A letter to deans of business schools suggested that the publishing industry would be a good topic for student research. 26
In an effort to generate some national momentum for the campaign, a letter was sent to state governors proposing that each state--one at a time--proclaim a "book week." The argument relied on a combination of patriotic duty and fear. While the United States was an industrial leader, "There is a [End Page 243] growing expression among discriminating thinkers in America, and especially abroad, that our cultural and intellectual level is not keeping pace with our economic and industrial progress. And while it is no final criterion, the fact is often pointed out that we are far behind some European countries in the number of books we publish." Americans must be convinced that reading is "part of their duty as individuals and citizens." The request, the letter admitted, was undoubtedly "furthering the interests of all publishers of good books." But, according to Bernays's strategy of enlightened self-interest, that private interest was linked to a broader social good. "We will be doing a genuine service if we can really win more Americans to sound reading habits." 27
Bernays also looked to leaders to show the masses by example the importance of reading good books. He wrote to two hundred leading Americans (J. P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, and Pierre S. du Pont, among others) asking what they read and distributed a news release that described their responses: "The fiction that the business man indulges only in light reading has been exploded by a survey of the reading habits of forty-three nationally prominent Americans, just completed by the Book Publishers Research Institute. The average time devoted to serious reading by these men was two hours per day." Biographies and history were the preferred genres, and most chose to keep the books that "represent permanent interests and to give detective stories, light novels, and other ephemeral literature to hospitals and like institutions." 28
Outstanding Americans of the past were also readers, according to another release distributed by the Institute. Drawing on autobiographies and published letters, the long (six-page) release illustrates the apparent importance books and reading played in the lives of such prominent Americans as Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Theodore Roosevelt, and a lone Englishman, Samuel Johnson. 29
"Society ladies" were asked to present from the women's point of view the importance of reading in their lives: "Good books are certain insurance against bad taste, stupidity and boredom. This the opinion of distinguished women in society and in the professions who contributed to a survey recently conducted by the Book Publishers Research Institute." One release provided the results of a survey of Wellesley College graduates, who were found to read much fiction but few mysteries. According to the release, Wellesley was chosen "because it was considered as representative of a women's college of the east and one upholding definite cultural standards." A brief attempt to get the opinions of working men was apparently abandoned for lack of response. 30
The Institute developed and distributed a number of news releases, either picking up on existing research on books and reading or by developing their [End Page 244] own. The strategy was simply to keep books in the public eye. For example, the Institute provided a small stipend to a graduate student at the Wharton School of Finance to conduct a study of the reading habits in Scranton, Pennsylvania; that project provided fodder for several releases. Responding to a "best novels" list that had generated media attention earlier, the Institute solicited a number of critics to compile a list of the world's one hundred best novels of all time. The release is notable for its avoidance of any literary discussion, confining itself to reporting numbers and differences between the first and second lists. 31
The Institute sought the advice of psychologists who studied the reading process to provide material for releases on speed reading and increasing reading comprehension. As Bernays explained the strategy to Alfred Knopf: "I believe there are lots of 'quick-and-easy knowledge' people who would welcome things of this sort and who would feel that reading was more worth while if they felt it was more definitely acquisitive than it is for people today." The result was a release, based on a book entitled The Art of Rapid Reading, that claimed that "the fairly intelligent book reader can learn to read and comprehend fully fifty per cent faster than the usual rate." Another release claimed that "Brain Not Eye Determines Reading Speed." These releases, which clearly were aimed at a slightly different audience, Bernays explained to Knopf, had an underlying objective: "they would give us material into which we could inject our economic and cultural propaganda." In Bernays's view, the significant competition for the book was other uses of leisure time. The "quick-and-easy knowledge" readers may not have been identical with the readers of "good books," but an appeal to them fit within Bernays's broader goal of developing support for books as they competed with newer media forms and leisure-time activities. 32
Bernays struggled to find a way to address the peculiar problems the book industry faced in a mass-production consumer economy: Unlike candy bars or motor cars, books were not used up or worn out; unlike fashionable clothing or popular music, books (at least the good books Bernays claimed to promote) maintained their value. The "used book problem," as it was intriguingly referred to in the Institute's planning memos, was troublesome for two reasons. First, people had limited space on their bookshelves. Bernays feared that when bookshelves were full, people were less likely to buy new books. Second, new books were often lent to friends, who then did not buy copies for themselves.
To solve the first problem, he drafted a letter that the Institute would send to community social service agencies suggesting a plan by which they could create libraries for their organizations at no cost. He suggested that the directors of these community agencies "approach your local bookseller and suggest that his clients turn in their used books for your use when they [End Page 245] buy new books. This will be of advantage to the booksellers because it will increase the available space for new books in the homes of their customers." Ever conscious of the value of publicity, the letter also suggested that the agency inform local newspapers of the plan. 33
The second problem--the practice of borrowing books--led Bernays to try some more creative solutions. An attempt to get manners maven Emily Post to issue a statement against the practice apparently was not successful. But he used some of the "new propaganda" techniques to create a vivid image associated with the practice. The Institute sponsored a contest to come up with a name for the despicable people who borrowed books. The news release that announced the contest claimed that the new word hopefully would end "the pernicious habit of borrowing books from friends and even casual acquaintances who have helplessly watched their libraries dissolve in the careless hands of book borrowers." (However, the release stresses that the "coined word shall in no way designate the person who borrows books from public or lending libraries.") "Like the word 'scofflaw,' it is hoped that when a word has been added to our vocabulary stigmatizing the person who uses his friends book shelves, the use of such a word will discourage this odious practice by definitely placing it among the social improprieties." Book Weevil, Borrocle, Bogswogglers, Greader, Libricide, Booklooter, Bookibitzer, Booknapper, Book Poacher, Book Bum, and Bookaneer were among the words submitted. The winning word was "Booksneaf." But, as Bernays admits in his memoirs, it never really caught on. 34
The book-borrower naming contest was among the last activities of the Book Publishers Research Institute. In August the Institute had solicited the support of more publishers, printers, binders, and typesetters, which apparently resulted in only five new members. Bernays's original three-month contract had been extended to six. And the Institute had in the works a number of plans, including development of graphic material that showed the economics of book publishing, radio book talks, and a children's book review contest. 35 But in January 1931, at the end of the second three months, the publishers declined to renew the contract. Material in the Bernays papers does not provide a definitive reason for the decision; in his memoirs Bernays claims the Institute's activities had successfully solved the original problem. According to Bernays, his campaign was responsible for the demise of the dollar book plan and also encouraged the National Association of Book Publishers to initiate the Cheney Report on economic conditions in the book industry. The reality, of course, may be more complicated. (But as Bernays himself wrote, "in an era of mass communication, modesty is a private virtue and a public fault.) 36
The Bernays papers contain a copy of a letter from F. P. Keppel, president of the Carnegie Corporation, which had sponsored its own study of books, [End Page 246] to Alfred Knopf commenting on the Institute's activities: "Many thanks for letting me see the record of the Bernays activities. They don't seem to me to dig in very deep, and sooner or later I am sure the publishers will have to go into things in a more fundamental manner than either Bernays or Cheney is capable of." The letter ends with a dig at Bernays's use of the term "research": "Have you noticed how the word research seems to be going the way of the Alaska Sable and similar trade names? Whether it is too late to rescue it I don't know." Bernays suggested that Knopf defend the Institute by explaining to Keppel that the work of the Institute was a propaganda technique, "an expedient to bring about some kind of favorable response from the public." He ends: "Incidentally, I wonder whether Keppel recognizes that our use of the word 'research' in the Institute's name was of itself propaganda." 37 Notes from a November meeting show that members of the executive committee of the Institute were to make a presentation to the National Association of Publishers, presumably asking for support, taking care to show that the Institute was not duplicating the work of O. H. Cheney, whose work on the economics of the book industry was funded by the Association. 38
Whether or not Bernays's claims of success were accurate, by January 1931 the price slashing that had threatened to divide the publishing industry seemed to have disappeared. An article by Henry Hazlitt from The Nation that appears in the Institute files explains that the dollar book experiment was over: "The dollar book, ushered in but a few months ago with banners and trumpets, is already dead. Only one publisher, apparently, will continue to put out new volumes at the dollar price, and even these will be confined to lighter fiction. The revolution is over." But, Hazlitt cautioned, publishers ought not go complacently back to their old ways. He writes: "The danger is that the failure of the dollar book may discourage publishing enterprise on its commercial side just at a time when it most needs to be stimulated." The book industry did need to experiment with new financial structures--more gradual price decreases that might slowly build a broader base of readers, or the possibilities of advertising in books. But books, he claimed, would have an uphill battle and publishers would have to be prepared to change with the times: "Even the most efficient marketing methods, of course, will not increase book sales to more than a limited extent. For the rest, the publishers must hope for an advance, necessarily slow, in the level of the national culture, and an increase of the book-reading habit in the teeth of the whole restless modern spirit and the intense competition of the newspapers, the magazines, the theater, the talkies, the radio, dancing, bridge, ping-pong, golf, and love." 39
It was that worry--that books could not compete with the newer "jazzier" media forms--along with serious concerns about the long-term financial [End Page 247] stability of the book industry--that led to a number of studies that explored the status of books in American culture. The Cheney Report, funded by the National Association of Book Publishers, Books: Their Place in a Democracy, funded by the Carnegie Foundation, What People Want to Read About: A Study of Group Interests and a Survey of Problems in Adult Reading, a report commissioned by the American Library Association, were all published in 1930 or 1931. All addressed the problem of how to get people to read books in an age of radio, cars, movies, and magazines. All suggested that the book industry would have to find ways to respond to those changes and "popularize" books and also apply more modern mass-communication techniques to the their promotion of book reading. Bernays's Book Publishers Research Institute was such an attempt, and as such it reflects the age's concern about the position of literary or high culture in a mass-culture environment. 40
Mass Production and High Culture in the Book Industry
In one sense, the dollar book plan and the responses to it (as documented in the activities of the Book Publishers Research Institute) reflect a struggle over how the industry should and could respond to innovations in production, marketing, and distribution. In another sense, this footnote to the cultural history of the early twentieth century documents an ongoing negotiation between the demands of elite and mass culture. If the industry were to produce books for the elite as well as books for the masses, it must find both the economic means to do so and the techniques for distinguishing among the cultural products it offered. Therefore Bernays's press releases outlining profit margins (reprints versus new books) and distribution channels (bookstores versus drug and department stores) serve both economic and cultural ends. Yes, the goal of his campaign was to solidify public support for books and the book industry, but it also served the need for cultural categories. Aside from the material directed at the "quick and easy knowledge people," Bernays's campaign relied heavily (but vaguely) on the notion of the book as a respected cultural form. The arguments that he articulates in the Institute's letters and news releases work hard at linking the elevated status of the book to a particular arrangement of mass production and distribution: good books are not cheap; they are first issues, bound in cloth, and sold in bookstores (not drugstores or train stations) to people who have the taste to appreciate them. [End Page 248]
His goal was to develop public support for higher book prices and to reinforce the notion that books and reading were a crucial component of the culture. It was therefore to his advantage to keep the definition of "good book" fuzzy. The rhetoric of the campaign exploited the notion of the book as an elite form, but it seemingly allowed a wide range of readers (or, more significantly, book buyers) to feel they could participate in that culture if they bought books at full price in bookstores. As Janice Radway argues, "[E]very book sale could generate two forms of profit. On the one hand, it could generate cash for its publisher. On the other, it could also produce perceived changes of status in the individual who bought it because the more traditional discourse about the book had managed to associate the social prestige of learning with the particular technology for producing that learning in the first place, that is, with the leather- or cloth-covered book itself." 41 The cultural value of a good book, therefore, can stem from the economic and industrial arrangements that produce the physical object and launch it into the marketplace, as well as from the book's contents. The format, distribution channel, and price are crucial markers in distinguishing a book as either mass or elite culture, merging its cultural and commodity status.
The book industry produces and promotes a wide-ranging heterogeneous supply of titles. That situation--the expectation that production of high culture exists in the same market along with mass culture--puts literature and serious writing in an unusual situation compared to other cultural forms (such as opera, dance, and the visual arts), which developed separate institutions that provided support outside the market. Yet few would argue that book publishing and distribution is a cultural democracy, where all books are created and valued equally. Literary critics, university English departments, lists of books for the "well-read," and the creation of anthologies or series of "classics" are powerful forces that define and patrol the limits of serious culture. But these forces exist outside the institutions that support production, and they come into play only after a book appears. What is of interest, then, are the more subtle strategies of demarcation that take place as part of the publishing and marketing process.
Lawrence Levine and Paul DiMaggio have each argued that a central project of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was to create institutions that could distinguish the culture of the elite from the culture of the masses. During that period, Levine writes: "Cultural space became more sharply defined, more circumscribed, and less flexible than it had been. Americans might sit together to watch the same films and athletic contests, but those who also desired to experience 'legitimate'theater or hear 'serious' music went to segregated temples devoted to 'high' or 'classical' art." Similarly, DiMaggio traces the development of the Boston Symphony Orchestra [End Page 249] and the Museum of Fine Arts as examples of the new institutions that were necessary to erect and patrol the boundaries between high and popular art: "Not until two distinct organizational forms--the private or semi-private non-profit cultural institution and the commercial popular-culture industry--took place did the high/popular-culture dichotomy emerge in its modern form." In the first half of the twentieth century, the high-culture model was extended to theater, opera, and dance as each developed a support system of nonprofit institutions that took those forms of culture out of the commercial marketplace. But no such clearly defined institutions emerged to distinguish among high and popular culture in book form. Bernays's campaign highlights the tensions that resulted as "good books" sought their place in a mass marketplace. 42
Ann Haugland teaches in the School of Journalism at Middle Tennessee State University. Her previous work has appeared in Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, American Journalism, and The Lion and the Unicorn.
1. Richard Ohmann, Selling Culture: Magazines, Markets, and Class at the Turn of the Century (New York: Verso, 1996), 22-23.
2. See, for example, Ann Douglas, Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1995); Joan Shelley Rubin, The Making of Middlebrow Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992); Janice A. Radway, A Feeling for Books: The Book of the Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997); Michael Kammen, American Culture, American Tastes: Social Change and the Twentieth Century (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999). Two recent books about Bernays and public relations are Larry Tye, The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations (New York: Crown, 1998); and Stuart Ewen, PR! A Social History of Spin (New York: Basic Books, 1996). Bernays's autobiography (Biography of an Idea: Memoirs of a Public Relations Counsel (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1965) provides a brief description of his work with the publishing industry. The Bernays papers in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress consist of 120 linear feet; the material related to the Book Publishers Research Institute are Boxes 120-23.
3. This brief description of the nature of book publishing in the 1920s is indebted to John Tebbel, A History of Book Publishing in the United States, Volume III: The Golden Age Between the Wars, 1920-194 (New York: R. R. Bowker, 1978). Based heavily on the book industry's trade journal, Publishers Weekly, Tebbel's history is primarily descriptive but provides a reliable account of events and developments within the industry.
4. Quoted in Tebbel, A History of Book Publishing, 64, 72.
5. Bernays, Biography of an Idea, 485; Harry Hansen, "War on the Book Front," Outlook and Independent 155 (11 June 1930), 220-21.
6. "Book Prices," Saturday Review of Literature 6 (7 June 1930), 1101.
7. "Books at New Lows," Outlook and Independent 155 (4 June 1930), 176; Hansen, "War on the Book Front."
8. "The Cheap Book War," The Literary Digest 106 (2 August 1930), 17; "Books at New Lows."
9. Lewis Mumford, "Publishing: Old and New," New Republic 64 (October 1930), 176-78.
10. H. L. Mencken, "Conditions in the Book Business: Editorial," The American Mercury 21 (October 1930): 151-55.
11. Henry Hazlitt, "The Economics of Dollar Books," The Nation, 11 June 1930, 676-77.
12. Bernays, Biography of an Idea, 277-95.
13. Edward L. Bernays, Crystallizing Public Opinion (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1928); and Propaganda (New York: Horace Liveright, 1928). In the following paragraphs, the numbers in parenthesis refer to pages in Propaganda.
14. Robert and Helen Lynd found that in 1925 the Middletown public library contained fifteen times as many volumes as it had in 1890, but the reading circles and literary discussion groups had disappeared. The Lynds concluded that although more people might skim a wide variety of printed material, including newspapers and magazines, fewer people devoted their evenings to reading (Robert S. and Helen Merrell Lynd, Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture [New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1929]).
15. "The Struggle over the Book," chapter 4 in Janice Radway's A Feeling for Books, outlines the historical development of several conflicting meanings of the book in American culture.
16. The original members of the Book Publishers Research Institute were: Harold Kinsey, Cosmopolitan Book Corporation; Frank Dodd, Dodd, Mead & Company; Donald C. Brace, Harcourt, Brace & Company; Henry Hoyns, Harper & Brothers; Alfred A. Knopf, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.; Alfred McIntyre, Little Brown & Company; Horace Liveright; William Morrow, William Morrow & Company; William Thompson, G. P. Putnam's Sons; Frederick A. Stokes, Frederick A. Stokes Company; E. S. Mills, Longmans Green & Company. In September 1930, five new members joined: C. H. Wilhelm, The Haddon Craftsman; Bennett Cerf, The Modern Library; Richmond Mayo-Smith, The Plimpton Press; N. H. Schrifte, Harriss Wolff Estate; J. B. Ballou, Vail-Ballou Press. "Members of the Book Publishers Research Institute," Box 123, Bernays papers.
17. "Statement," 29 May 1930, Box 120, Bernays papers.
18. "Report on the Activities of the Book Publishers Research Institute," 30 June 1930, Box 120, Bernays papers.
19. "Memorandum to the Executive Committee," 9 June 1930, Box 120, Bernays papers.
20. "Report on Activities of the Book Publishers Research Institute, Exhibit 4, Letter to Editors of Newspapers," 30 June 1930, Box 120, Bernays papers.
21. "Report on Activities of the Book Publishers Research Institute, Exhibit 6a, Letter to go to papers having negative article," 30 June 1930, Box 120, Bernays papers.
22. "Report on Activities of the Book Publishers Research Institute, Exhibit 6c, Letter to go to 'on the fence' newspapers," 30 June 1930, Box 120, Bernays papers.
23. "Report on Activities of the Book Publishers Research Institute, Exhibit 3, How an Original Edition Differs from a Reprint," 30 June 1930, Box 120, Bernays papers.
25. "Report on Activities of the Book Publishers Research Institute, Exhibit 7, Letter to Employing Book Binders Association, et al.," 30 June 1930, Box 120, Bernays papers.
26. "Report on Activities of the Book Publishers Research Institute," 30 June 1930, Box 120, Bernays papers.
27. Letter to Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, Box 121, Bernays papers.
28. "What do Outstanding Americans Read?" Box 121, Bernays papers.
29. "Great Americans have been Great Readers," Box 120, Bernays papers.
30. "Books Essential to Living, Say Outstanding Women," "Wellesley Graduates Primarily Readers of Fiction," Box 120, Bernays papers.
31. "Study Shows Fiction Comprises Three-Quarters of Entire Reading," "Children Enjoy Reading Books Most in Autumn," Box 120; "Composite List of World's 100 Best Novels of All Time," Box 123; Bernays papers. Other releases picked up and recirculated book-related material in the media, such as a speech to a nurses group, an article about a library in Eugene, Oregon, and lists of books prepared by various groups.
32. "Letter to Alfred A. Knopf, 19 June 1930, "How Readers can Improve Speed Fifty Per Cent" and "Brain-Not Eye-Determines Reading Speed," Box 120, Bernays papers.
33. "Report on Activities of the Book Publishers Research Institute, Exhibit 20, Suggested letter to social service institutions," Box 120. Bernays papers.
34. "English Language to have New Word," Box 120; "Are You a Booksneaf?" Letter to Mr. Morrow and Mr. Brace (no date), Box 123, Bernays papers; Biography of an Idea, 488.
35. "Memorandum, Meeting of October 22nd, 1930," Box 123, Bernays papers.
36. Quoted in Tye, The Father of Spin, 75.
37. Letter from F. P. Keppel to Alfred Knopf, 12 September 1930; letter from Edward L. Bernays to Alfred A. Knopf, 16 September 1930; Box 122, Bernays papers; R. L. Duffus, Books: Their Place in a Democracy( Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1930).
38. "Notes on the November 21st Meeting of the Executive Committee Meeting of the Institute," Box 123, Bernays papers.
39. Henry Hazlitt, "Dollar Books: An Autopsy," The Nation, 7 January 1931, 18-19.
40. O. H. Cheney, Economic Survey of the Book Industry, 1930-31, New York: National Association of Book Publishers, 1931; R. L. Duffus, Books: Their Place in a Democracy (Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1930); Douglas Waples and Ralph W. Tyler, What People Want to Read About: A Study of Group Interests and a Survey of Problems in Adult Reading (Chicago: University of Chicago Press and the American Library Association, 1931).
41. Radway, A Feeling for Books, 145.
42. Lawrence W. Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), 234; Paul DiMaggio, "Cultural Entrepreneurship in Nineteenth-Century Boston: The Creation of an Organizational Base for High Culture in America," in Rethinking Popular Culture: Contemporary Perspectives in Cultural Studies, ed. Michael Schudson and Chandra Mukerji (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991), 374; idem, "Cultural Boundaries and Structural Change: The Extension of the High Culture Model to Theater, Opera, and the Dance, 1900-1940," in Cultivating Differences: Symbolic Boundaries and the Making of Inequality, ed. Michele Lamont and Marcel Fournier (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 21-57.