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When books went to war

I’ve spent a good part of my life collecting, researching and generally championing the Services Editions, issued to the British Armed Forces during the Second World War.   I’ve always felt that they have been unjustly neglected, particularly in comparison with the American Armed Services Editions, which are well known, well-researched and widely collected, including a full collection in the Library of Congress.

That contrast is heightened by a fascinating new book on the US editions, ‘When books went to war’.  Amongst other articles and research, there have already been at least two quite significant books published on the Armed Services Editions.  The war was barely over before ‘A history of the Council on Books in Wartime’ was published in 1946 (written by Robert O. Ballou from a draft by Irene Rakosky).  Then forty years after the launch of the series, an event to celebrate them was held at the Library of Congress in 1983 and a selection of papers published the following year as ‘Books in Action’, edited by John Y. Cole.

Books in action

The first of these works is referenced extensively in Molly Guptill Manning’s new book, while the second is surprisingly neglected.  The major new resource she has unearthed and used though is a wide variety of letters written by servicemen to authors and to the Council on Books in Wartime.  These are what make the book, transforming it from a dry bibliographical history or reference book to a vibrant and uplifting story of triumph and adversity – at times almost an emotional read.  It’s clear that many soldiers appreciated the books enormously, even to the extent that they transformed the lives of some servicemen, opening their eyes to a wider world and to new post-war possibilities.  The narrative of the book is also helped by setting it in the context of the Nazi book-burnings, contrasting American freedom and liberality with Nazi censorship and destruction.

When books went to war

It’s a very entertaining read and I’d recommend it to a much wider audience than most books about books, which are usually pretty dry and specialist. My one real reservation is, perhaps not surprisingly, that it again fails to give due credit to the UK Services Editions.  As usual, they’re mostly ignored, but in one section on the British publishing industry in wartime, the author claims that ‘book shortages … rendered distribution of free reading material to members of the Royal Army and Navy impossible’.   British troops are said to have gaped at the crates of Armed Services Editions (ASEs) supplied to American forces, marvelling at how well taken care of they were.   ‘Many British soldiers were left wondering: Why didn’t their government care for their morale needs by supplying paperback books?’

The answer of course is that the British Government did supply paperback books.  Not only did they supply around 500 different titles as Services Editions, but they were ahead of the Americans in doing so.  It seems likely that the ASEs were at least in part inspired by the British experiences in this area, although there is no acknowledgement of this.  The Penguin Forces Book Club issued a series of 120 paperbacks between October 1942 and September 1943 (on a subscription basis for army units, but effectively free to servicemen) and the main programme of Services Editions with wide distribution started in July 1943.  The first ASEs did not appear until September of the same year.

Penguin FBC5 Tarka the otter

Penguin got there long before the Americans

Of course it’s possible that ASEs reached some locations that British Services Editions never got to, leading to admiration or jealousy from the British forces.   And the Americans certainly had a greater range of titles and longer print runs, meaning the books are much easier to find today, but they were not the first.  They may even have been behind the Germans too, who published ‘Feldpostaugaben’, although on a slightly different basis, and I’m not sure over what period.   And the Swiss, who were not even fighting in the war, issued a series of paperbacks described as Soldaten-Bücherei, or Soldiers’ Library, at least as early as 1939.

Feldpost - Mensch und Geschichte  Soldaten-Buecherei - Reisebilder

Of course all of this is just my personal hobbyhorse.   It will be a minor or irrelevant point for most people reading the book and I doubt it will detract at all from their enjoyment of it.  In the end this is a story, more than a bibliographical work, and as a story it’s well written and enjoyable.  I hope many more people will enjoy it.

Penguin Services Editions

Penguin were really the first company to recognise the opportunity for Services Editions, when they launched their Forces Book Club in 1942.   But first to recognise an opportunity is not necessarily first to find the right way to exploit it and for once, Penguin got it badly wrong.   The Forces Book Club was a miserable failure, ending in September 1943 and leaving Penguin with significant quantities of unsold stock.

By that time other companies had stepped into the gap with much better designed schemes.  Both Collins and Guild Books launched long-running series of Services Editions in mid-1943 while Penguin retired to lick its wounds.   But by 1945 the Forces were starting to diversify their suppliers of Services Editions and there was another opportunity for Penguin to come in.

In comparison to Collins and Guild, the series of Penguin Services Editions was short – just 16 books, all issued in 1945 – and it was also quite diverse, in terms of both the format and the range of titles.   Most of the books were in the standard Penguin three-stripe covers, colours depending on genre, but with ‘Services Edition’ added under a line in the middle section, and they were numbered from SE1 upwards.

Penguin SE13

The standard Penguin format for Services Editions

There are however a lot of exceptions to the general rule.   There are books numbered from SE2 to SE9, but there is no SE1 (the book assumed to be SE1 is actually numbered 502) and there are two SE10s but no SE11.  There is no SE14 either, or SE16 or SE17, although SE15 and SE18 exist.    SE3 does not say ‘Services Edition’ on the front, while SE9 does, but without the line above it.  SE18 is in its standard Penguin Classics cover, with no middle stripe, so has ‘Services Edition’ in a different place, and SE10 ‘Within the Tides’, exists in two different covers. Perhaps most oddly of all, Bernard Shaw’s ‘Major Barbara’ exists in a version shown as a Services Edition in its printing history, but otherwise identical to the normal Penguin edition and with a price of 1 shilling marked on the cover.  Services Editions never carried a price as they were not for sale.

  Penguin SE9  Penguin SE3  Penguin SE18

Some of the variation in formats

For a series of just 16 books, this is a lot of errors or a lot of confusion, from a company that normally paid a lot of attention to the consistency of its branding and its numbering.  It almost suggests that Penguin were not taking this venture very seriously.

If one of the key errors Penguin made in the Forces Book Club series was that the choice of books was too serious and too highbrow, they seemed to have learned little in the intervening years.   In fact there seems to have been little thought given to what to publish – they just took whatever was on hand at the time, and it was a thin time.  By Penguin’s standards, they published relatively few books in 1945.   So into the Services Editions went a new translation of Homer’s ‘Odyssey’, a Virginia Woolf, three Pelicans, and a biography of Lady Hester Stanhope.  Surely no other publisher would have made a selection like that for a mass-market forces readership.

Penguin SE14

Price of 1/- on the cover, but referred to as a ‘Services Edition’ inside

Copies are still relatively easy to find, much easier than most other Services Editions, and it seems likely that a high proportion of the books were released onto the general market rather than going to service use.  Penguin brought an early end to their series in 1945, while other publishers continued into 1946, so there may have been mutual agreement that it wasn’t really working.  My best guess is that the edition of ‘Major Barbara’ was intended as a Services Edition, but never actually used as one – perhaps withdrawn at the last minute when a decision was taken to end the series, then bound into new covers and issued instead as a normal Penguin.

It seems odd to suggest, but did Penguin produce Services Editions just because it was their patriotic duty?  It certainly seems that their heart wasn’t in it.

The Penguin Forces Book Club

Penguin did not often get it wrong in the early days.   From the very start it seemed that almost everything they touched turned to gold.  Sales of their early books soared, but instead of just carrying on in the same direction they launched into a flurry of activity in all directions.  The main Penguin series launched in July 1935 and by the end of 1937 had reached well over 100 books.  But by then it had also been joined by a non-fiction series, Pelican Books, by a series of Penguin Shakespeare and by the first in a series of topical books on politics – the Penguin Specials.   All these were to go on to be long-running and very successful series.  Even in wartime, Penguin continued to innovate and expand in new directions.  The King Penguin series started at the end of 1939 and was to run for over 15 years.  Puffin Picture books followed in 1940, and Puffin Story Books in 1941.  Both series are still running today, in spirit if not in name.  Allen Lane it seems was a restless spirit, unable to rest on his laurels.

There was the odd exception and wrong turning of course.   The Penguin Illustrated Classics was limited to one set of 10 books in 1938, and launching a series of travel guides just before the outbreak of war was perhaps not the smartest idea.  But these were relatively small mistakes and quickly dealt with.   So the Penguin Forces Book Club stands out as an area where Penguin got it badly wrong and had to spend a lot of time and effort correcting their errors.

Penguin FBC4 The worst journey in the world I  Penguin FBC5 Tarka the otter  Penguin FBC7 Disraeli

The basic idea was a good one.  There were lots of people in the Services with time on their hands for reading.   Even the front line troops were not always continuously occupied by the business of war, and behind the lines there were plenty of air raid wardens and the like who had long hours of inactivity to pass, as well as all the wounded servicemen in hospitals.  The public had already been asked to send in books they had read and the Services Central Book Depot would send them off in parcels to service units.  Printing paperback books specially for the forces was not only a good idea, but one that was eventually to result in the massively successful programme of Services Editions in the UK and the equivalent Armed Services Editions for the US forces.

It was a good idea and Penguin was there first. Unfortunately they got the details wrong in almost every respect.  Their marketing was wrong, their distribution model was wrong, their financial model was wrong, their choice of titles was wrong and their numbers were way out.  The agreed model was that Penguin would provide 10 books each month, so 120 books in a year at a cost of 6d each, a total cost of £3 to be paid as an advance subscription. But service units didn’t want to pay in advance for books that they would receive over the year and they were not impressed with Penguin’s choice of titles.  The first monthly set of 10 books included 2 crime stories, but also 2 scholarly Pelicans (‘Cine-biology’ and ‘Ur of the Chaldees’), 2 current affairs books from the Penguin Specials series and a memoir on life in China.   Future monthly selections followed a similar pattern. Publicity for the scheme seems to have been limited, and from an initial planning estimate of obtaining 75,000 subscriptions, the numbers reduced to around 6,350 in January 1943, four months into the project.

The books of course are rare today, some of them extremely rare, but overall they’re perhaps not as rare as might be expected from such low numbers, and they crop up in a variety of formats.  Penguin may well have printed significantly more than 6,000 and then had the problem of how to get rid of them.  I’ll come back to this some time in another post.

The Collins Services Editions

Running for over 20 years and over 1000 books, the White Circle paperbacks from Collins were for a long time a familiar sight, not only in Britain, but in Australia, Canada and India.  Nowadays though their Indian editions are little known, and it’s difficult to find out anything much either about their series of Services Editions, produced for the British Forces from 1943 to 1946.

Collins c254  Collins c219

Collins contributed far more books than any other single publisher to Services Editions during the war.   Although the Guild Books series was longer, the Guild was an association of over 20 publishers, with no individual publisher providing more than 20 to 25 books.  Collins themselves provided at least 6 books to this series, in addition to 164 books in their own series.

They also seem to have met well the brief provided by the Services for the type of books required.  In earlier correspondence between Allen Lane and the Services Central Book Depot, about the Penguin Forces Book Club, Lane referred to the Services asking for three categories of book -‘warm’ fiction, westerns and crime.  Penguin’s inability to meet this requirement was one of the reasons for the failure of the Forces Book Club.   Collins though were a perfect fit.  They were probably the largest, and certainly the best known, publisher of crime fiction, through the Collins Crime Club.  Their White Circle series already included a large selection of westerns, and although I’m not entirely sure what warm fiction is, I suspect that many of their general fiction titles probably fell into this category.

Collins c215   Collins c238

As with most of the other Services Editions, there is no complete list of the titles in the Collins series, and to the best of my knowledge, there is no collection of them in any library.   There is an incomplete list on my Services Editions website, and although I can’t entirely tie up numbers and titles, I think I know the titles of all but 3 books.    The western titles in yellow covers seem to be particularly difficult to trace, presumably because they were more frequently read than the others and disintegrated more quickly.   I’d love to hear from anybody who has knowledge of these books, or even better has copies of them.

As with the Guild Services Editions, there are problems in identifying first printings and reprints. In the case of Collins the printing dates are shown correctly, but previous printings are not shown. For instance a copy of ‘Murder at Lilac Cottage’ by John Rhode, might show the printing history as ‘First published 1940. Services Edition 1946’. This looks like a first printing of the Services Edition, but fails to mention the previous printing in 1943. The best clue to this is the numbering of the books – books numbered roughly from c201 to c242 (or with no number) were first printed in 1943, from c243 to c283 in 1944, from c284 to c349 in 1945 and from c350 onwards in 1946. As ‘Murder at Lilac Cottage’ is numbered c217, a 1946 printing must be a reprint.

Collins c211   Collins c227

Of course reprints are much easier to find than first printings, and a high proportion of the books that turn up nowadays are those that were sold on to W.H. Smith for general sale when the Services Editions scheme came to an end in 1946. Perhaps 10 million copies of this series were originally printed, but the numbers remaining today, particularly of the early titles, are a tiny, tiny fraction of that.