September 28, 2017

How Armed Services Editions changed publishing: THIS IS A COMPLETE BOOK — NOT A DIGEST


A US Serviceman reading an Armed Services Edition of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Via WikiMedia Commons.

Tucked amidst the musty pines of Payson, Arizona is the cabin of Zane Grey. A dentist and frontiersman at the turn of the century, Grey wrote bestselling adventure stories and westerns. Though his name has fallen out of popular culture, that rustic cabin on the Mogollon Rim still bears witness to his legacy — and continues to house several copies of the Armed Services Editions printing of his novel A Heritage of the West. At six-and-a-half inches wide and four-and-a-half inches tall, and bearing a legend that reads, “THIS IS A COMPLETE BOOK — NOT A DIGEST,” each copy serves as a reminder of how the paperback became America’s preeminent publishing format.

In early twentieth-century America, despite improvements in paper-making and bookbinding, the hardcover reigned supreme. As Cara Giaimo wrote in Atlas Obscura last week, “paperbacks were a bit more of a hard sell… without a mass-market distribution model in place, it was difficult to make money selling inexpensive books…. [I]ndividual booksellers preferred to stock their shops with sturdier, better-looking hardbacks, for which they could also charge higher prices.”

As Giaimo goes on to explain, the real reason paperbacks took off was World War II. Unable to lug larger books with them to the front, soldiers received Armed Services Editions as a stroke of genius. Deliberately sized to fit in a back or breast pocket, and light enough to be carried anywhere, these special-format books were produced in the millions and sent overseas to give US soldiers something to do. Giaimo writes:

Between 1943 and 1947, the United States military sent 123 million copies of over 1,000 titles to troops serving overseas. These books improved soldiers’ lives, offering them entertainment and comfort during long deployments. By the time the war ended, they’d also transformed the publishing industry, turning the cheap, lowly paperback into an all-American symbol of democracy and practicality.

Today, it’s doubtful that anyone tears up with national pride at the sight of a John Grisham book in the aisles of the Piggly Wiggly. But it’s good to remember that lightweight editions of all kinds of books once served as both a symbol of and a tool in America’s struggle against fascism. Today, mass-market editions, and other paperback formats, are a crucial part of the publishing landscape that, offering accessibility and convenience to readers.

For aficionados of staple binding, military history, and the evolution of the modern paperback, Molly Guptill’s excellent When Books Went to War tells the story of these books, and the soldiers who carried them in foxholes, barracks, and ships all over the world.



Peter Clark is a former Melville House sales manager.