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Why were the books published for American soldiers during World War II printed in landscape format? What was so special about these books?

To very briefly answer the second part of the question: They were special because they revolutionized the publishing industry in America. (And I’ll get back to this shortly).

As for that first part…

The Armed Services Editions, as they were labelled, were small, flat paperbacks, sized to fit inside the shirt or trouser pockets of a soldier’s uniform.

Image: Some of the Armed Services Editions books, sourced from Library of Congress archives.

But why specifically landscape? After all, a book with the same dimensions printed in portrait format would do the job just as well.

This is interesting, so I’ll hope you’ll forgive me if I rewind a bit to the state of the publishing industry in the U.S. before the war.

When the 1930s rolled in, quality titles from major publishers were expensive to buy and hard to find.

There were only 500 real bookstores across America, and they mostly stocked hardcovers, which cost between $2.50 and $5 each. Crunch those numbers into an inflation calculator and that’s in the $40-$80 ballpark at today’s prices. Yikes!

Yes, there were paperbacks available too, but these were mostly trashy fiction, printed on cheap, newsprint-like ‘pulp’ paper. (It’s where the term “pulp fiction” comes from). These were looked down on, both by large publishers and by the public, and suffered from poor distribution.

That changed just before the war started when the newly-launched Pocket Books seized on an idea from British publishers Penguin (which had enjoyed stunning success a few years prior in markets across the Commonwealth), and launched better quality mass market paperbacks in the U.S. They put out a mix of new titles and reprints of popular hardcovers, priced at just 25¢ each.

Just as important was how they distributed them. Even in 1939, there were only 2,800 bookstores in America. Instead of pitching to them, Pocket Books decided to approach magazine distributors and sell their paperbacks at the tens of thousands of newsstands, drugstores, lunch counters, subway and bus stations…basically any retail space that could fit in a wire rack.

The books sold well, simultaneously horrifying and opening the eyes of the large, established publishers.

And then came World War II.

As early as 1940, it was becoming apparent that the United States might have to enter the war, and in September that year, President Roosevelt reinstated the draft. Over the next couple of years, millions of Americans found themselves far from home, having to balance periods of intense activity with mind-numbing boredom.

Shipping books to keep the soldiers occupied was an obvious answer, but the army didn’t have enough funds to service the demand; and volunteer book drives, which started off strong, faded after a while. Moreover, the heavy, bulky hardcovers were poor companions on the field.

Image: Some of the books received during the volunteer drive. Source: Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library

That was when Ray L. Trautman, a young officer who headed the army’s Library Section, and H. Stahley Thompson, a graphic artist with the army, came up with a brilliant idea: Enlist the country’s major publishers in the war effort and print millions of books which would be distributed to the troops for free. The government would pay for the printing (which eventually worked out to 6¢/copy) plus 10 percent for overhead.

The publishers agreed, as long as the books went overseas, and were kept out of the civilian market to avoid cannibalizing their sales.

There was still one issue to be resolved, though. The presses that these publishers used weren’t equipped to handle print runs that went into the millions. Moreover, learning from experience, the armed forces were looking for these books to be slim, pocketable paperbacks.

Five printing firms that could manage large runs (and offered to print them at a deep discount) then stepped forward. However, they all used rotary presses designed for larger-sized magazines, not pocket-sized books.

That was when someone came up with a bright idea. Print the books on magazine-sized pages, but set them up stacked two-up; then slice them horizontally in half.

And that was how the Armed Services Editions wound up getting printed in landscape format.

Over the next four years, the army would print 123 million books—including some of the most valuable titles from major publishers—and provide them to soldiers for free.

They were devoured in the field by homesick, lonely GIs, who read, shared, and passed them on until the books fell apart.

Image: A hospitalized soldier reading an Armed Services Edition book. Source: Library of Congress

So what made these books extra special?

The entire effort transformed America into a nation of readers. Publishers who feared their margins would be in tatters instead found the post-war market for books had exploded. Millions of soldiers who had discovered the joys of a good read were now hooked. And authors, many of whom were flooded with fan mail from GIs, took pride in being part of a revolution.

It was no longer considered low-brow to read a paperback, and classics and critically-acclaimed fiction finally made their way into the mainstream.

The wartime project had disrupted an industry and democratized culture in America.

Hardcover publishers, who until now were content with selling reprint rights, started embracing this popular new format themselves.

The Age of the Paperback had well and truly arrived.

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