An article has been posted on the academic website TheConversation.com entitled “Book clubs and the Blitz: how WWII Britons kept calm and got reading.” This is by Nicola Wilson of the University of Reading. She explains the growth of book clubs and how they became increasingly important durng WWII as demand grew (especially after blackout enforcement became more strict) and supplies like paper and distribution networks shrank.
Wilson sees some similarities to the present situation of mandatory self isolation:
…Books were promoted by libraries and book clubs as the very thing to fight boredom and fill blacked-out evenings at home or in shelters with pleasure and forgetfulness. “Books may become more necessary than gas-masks,” the Book Society, Britain’s first celebrity book club, advised.
I’ve been researching the choices and recommendations of the Book Society for the past few years. The club was set up in 1929 and ran until the 1960s, shipping “carefully” selected books out to thousands of readers each month. It was modelled on the success of the American Book-of-the-Month club (which launched in 1926) and aimed to boost book sales at a time when buying books wasn’t common. It irritated some critics and booksellers who accused it of “dumbing down” and giving an unfair advantage to some books over others – but was hugely popular with readers.
The Book Society was run by a selection committee of literary celebrities – the likes of JB Priestley, Sylvia Lynd, George Gordon, Edmund Blunden and Cecil Day-Lewis – chaired by bestselling novelist Hugh Walpole. Selections were not meant to be the “best” of anything, but had to be worthwhile and deserving of people’s time and hard-earned cash.
Guaranteeing tens of thousands of extra sales, the club had a huge impact on the mid-20th-century book trade, with publishers desperate to get the increased sales and global reach of what publisher Harold Raymond called “the Book Society bun”.
How much this may have affected Waugh’s book sales is not entirely clear but may become more so when Wilson publishes the results of her research. She provides a summary in the posted article:
Throughout the second world war, the Book Society varied its lists between books that offered some insight on the strangeness of contemporary life and works of fiction – especially historical fiction – that took readers’ minds off it.
Titles in the first group include comic novels by the likes of E M Delafield and Evelyn Waugh, as well as forgotten bestsellers like Ethel Vance’s Escape (1939) (an unlikely thriller set in a concentration camp) and Reaching for the Stars (1939), American journalist Nora Waln’s inside account of life in Nazi Germany.
The 1986 bibliography of Waugh’s books lists several book club editions, but the only example of a pre-war book being republished by a UK book club during the war is Robbery Under Law. This was first published by Chapman & Hall in June 1939 and was reissued in 1940 by the Catholic Book Club (p. 12).
Put Out More Flags was published by C&H in 1942, and this was followed in 1943 by what the bibliography describes (p. 12) as a “Book Club Edition.” Illustrations of dustjackets and book covers on the internet suggest that this was issued by something called “The Book Club” rather than by The Book Society.
When Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited was published in 1945, the war was winding down, but rationing of paper continued. When the first edition was issued in May 1945, it was published jointly by The Book Society and C&H, with all but 300 of the initial run of 9000 taken by The Book Society. This was because the paper supply allocated to The Book Society exceeded that available to C&H. A similar situation prevailed in the USA where the issue date of Book of the Month Club edition required a postponement of originally planned publication of the Little, Brown trade edition by several months (except for a limited Little, Brown edition of 600 copies). See EWS 50.2 (Autumn 2019), p. 8.
Penguin Books paperback editions also helped meet readers’ wartime demand for Waugh’s books. They had published paperback editions of Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies and Black Mischief before the war and seem to have kept at least the first two of those available by reprinting during the war years. They also printed the first paperback editions of both Scoop and Put Out More Flags during the war.
It seems likely that e-book publishers may take the place of book clubs and paperbacks in meeting heightened demand during the current emergency. In Texas, libraries and book stores are closed as “non-essential” (as opposed, for example, to gun stores and firing ranges which are allowed to remain open). The public library (at least in Austin) is able to lend e-books, and booksellers also have the option to sell e-books as well as deliver hard copies ordered by email or phone. (Audio books may also be available if they can be emailed.) Whether any enterprising libraries or booksellers are offering curbside pick-up is unknown to me.
UPDATE (14 September 2021): The discussion of the US publication date of Brideshead had been revised based on new research.