A free gift – no strings attached
The book industry has never been shy of using a marketing stunt or two to publicise its wares, and these days it puts a lot of its efforts behind World Book Night, when it gives away a lot of free books. At the end of 2010 it launched what I think was the first World Book Night, with the catchy slogan ‘The largest book give-away ever attempted’. It was nonsense of course, and at the time I suggested a comparison with the Hutchinson Free Victory Gift promotion in 1945, when a single publisher gave away as many books as the whole of the book industry was planning to do on World Book Night.
Arguably the entire programme of Services Editions during the Second World War was an even bigger book give-away, indeed on a totally different scale. But there the comparison is getting a bit strained, because although the books were issued free and strictly ‘not for sale’, the publishers were still being paid for them in one way or another.
Hutchinson’s Free Victory Gift for the Forces however appears genuinely to be a publishing group giving away a million books for free. It was a stunt too of course, no doubt done with more than one eye on the publicity to be generated from it, but even so a remarkable gesture and one that doesn’t seem to have come with any catch. You didn’t have to sign up to a book club, or (in modern terms) give your e-mail address and risk being bombarded with junk mail. You didn’t have to show any evidence of previous purchases. The books were simply offered for free to the armed forces through the Services Central Book Depot, to mark the ‘Glorious Victories’.
I’ve never been able to find any records of what was given away or exactly how, so I can only judge from the evidence of the books themselves. And it’s not easy to find them. You wouldn’t believe how easy it seems to be to make a million books disappear. In more than 25 years, I have found fewer than 20 copies and heard or seen reports of a handful of others, to make up a total of 30 known titles. I suspect there may be many more out there to be found, but it’s certainly possible that of the original million books, no more than a few hundred now remain. They’re printed on poor quality wartime paper, were probably sent all round the world to some pretty inhospitable environments, and the vast majority have just been thrown away.
There is a standard cover in various different colours specially printed for the give-away, but the books themselves don’t seem to have been specially printed. They were just existing stock given a new cover, and so it probably wasn’t really a series, it was just whatever happened to be on hand at the time. It may be that there were 50,000 copies of one book and only 10,000 copies of the next, and it may never be possible to establish a full list of titles. I’d still like to get as much information as I can about them though, so if you have any, or know anything about them, please get in touch.