America’s Overseas Editions

By March 1944, the Council on Books in Wartime, the body responsible for publishing the US Armed Services Editions, was already starting to think about the need for books in post-war Europe.  Not in an entirely disinterested way, of course.  This was a project sponsored by the Psychological Warfare Branch, made up of members of the US Army, the Office of War Information and the OSS, a wartime intelligence agency that was the predecessor of the CIA.  In the words of the official history of the Council, ‘Books were wanted which would give the people of Europe a picture of what Americans are like and what we had been doing since communications were closed’.  Not to put too fine a point on it, this was a propaganda exercise, and one that led to a substantial publishing programme.

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The Americans were undoubtedly right though to identify the need for books, and to prepare for it.  Within a relatively short time the US, along with the other Allies, found itself directly administering some quite large areas of Europe, and present in much wider areas.  Its ambitions were far more than just to keep the peace.  It wanted to do what it could to ensure there would never be another European war, and in pursuit of that goal it wanted to spread what it saw as American values of freedom and democracy, and suppress what remained of the philosophy of totalitarianism.

Within the directly administered areas in Germany, Austria and Italy, the US took wide-ranging control of almost all aspects of the media, through the Information Services Branch (ISB).  Press and radio were tightly controlled, as were other aspects such as theatre, cinema and even art.  But publishing was clearly an important area for the spread of ideas and as well as trying to influence and control the output of local publishers, the Americans issued their own publications, as did the British.

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For the British, the series of Guild Books editions, published in Germany and in Austria, were the gentlest form of propaganda.   The American equivalent, the ‘Overseas Editions’, were both more political and more explicit in their aim.  As John Hench described it in his ‘History of the Book in America’, the books were “intended  to reacquaint Europeans with the heritage, history, and fundamental makeup of the USA, plus a picture of our role in the war.”

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Overseas Editions were produced by a subsidiary of the Council on Books in Wartime, and shared some of the same production methods and some of the same titles as the Armed Services Editions.  But in other respects they were very different and posed particular problems.  The most obvious difficulty was the intention to publish in foreign languages.  That required translations, which took time, and it also required typesetters competent in those languages, who were in short supply.  Plans to publish in both Chinese and Japanese had to be dropped at a late stage.

Finance was also a significant problem, only solved in the end by an offer from Pocket Books to use its credit, in return for having its imprint on the finished books.  When this led to further problems though, Pocket Books waived its rights and no imprint appeared.

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In shape and size, the books were closer to Pocket Books than the unconventional oblong shape of the Armed Services Edition.   In one respect though they differed from both  Pocket Books and Armed Services Editions and almost all other American paperbacks of the time.   US paperbacks were almost defined by the colourfulness, even brashness  of their covers.  Yet the Overseas Editions have an extraordinarily restrained standard typographical cover, with just a small logo.   Did the Americans decide that brashness would not go down well in a more sober Europe, or was it just inappropriate for the more serious subject matter here?

Most of the books, including the Italian translations, but interestingly not the German ones, carry a short message on the front cover referring to how free publishing had been ‘interrupted by Axis aggression’.

A total of 72 books were published – 22 in English, 22 in French, 23 in German and 5 in Italian.  Some of the same titles appear in all four languages, but there’s also some variation.  Most of them are unashamedly patriotic works – Stephen Vincent Benét’s ‘America’, Bernard Jaffe’s ‘Men of Science in America’ and Walter Lippmann’s ‘US War aims’ were typical selections.  But there was also room for a small number of novels, notably Hemingway’s ‘For whom the bell tolls’ and William Saroyan’s ‘The human comedy’.

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Over 3.6 million books were printed, all of them in 1945, with the final shipment in November 1945.  The overall cost was $411,000, equivalent to around 11½ cents each, and as the books were sold at retail prices in each market, the project produced a profit for the Government, something that wasn’t in its original objectives.  Indeed a note in the books is quite specific that they are published by a non-profit organisation.

The books were widely sold, not only in occupied Europe, but also in North Africa, Syria, Turkey, the Philippines, China and Japan.  They’re still relatively easy to find in second hand markets in Europe, in Holland and Belgium as well as in Germany, France and Italy.

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Overseas Editions in German, numbered G1 to G23

 

 

 

 

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Posted on December 11, 2016, in Vintage Paperbacks and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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