- Book Propaganda: Edward L. Bernays’s 1930 Campaign Against Dollar Books
“Mass production just ahead” was the slightly ominous conclusion to an editorial in the July 1930 Review of Reviews. That piece was one of many responses to the decision by four New York publishers in May 1930 to drop the price of new novels from $2 or $3 to $1. Their daring move, in the face of declining sales after the 1929 stock market crash, put to the test the principles of mass production in the book industry. Lower prices equals higher sales, some argued; while others feared for the very foundations not only of the book industry but also of book culture.
The short-lived dollar book plan brought into high relief the tensions that characterized the book industry in the 1920s, and the responses to it provide a site in which to explore the complicated negotiations between industrial and cultural production. The book industry is a particularly interesting site for investigations of cultural dynamics and distinctions for several reasons. The book as a medium and the production practices associated with it predate the development of mass culture. Therefore those practices had to be reshaped to mesh with the changes associated with mass production, mass communication, and consumer culture. As Richard Ohmann argues, the book industry went through a long period of extremely uneven and chaotic development. On the one hand, by the middle of the nineteenth century the book industry was producing what certainly qualifies as mass culture. Publishers produced and sold thousands of copies of inexpensive books with dependable frequency in a national market. On the other hand, Ohmann claims, one could make an argument that the book industry was the last culture industry to take a modern form. “Books were out of step with the rest of the culture industry: a telling statistic is that, across the entire period from 1850 to 1914, which surely embraces the rise of mass [End Page 231] culture, book publishing’s share of all manufacturing value declined from 1 percent to one-fourth of 1 percent, even as it was quadrupling in absolute value.” 1
As new forms of leisure and cultural forms developed consistent with the practices of a growing mass culture, books lost their dominant position within the culture industry. The struggle to bring the book in line with newer forms and practices of mass culture—the Book Publishers Research Institute is one skirmish—reveals tensions between mass and elite culture as well as the difficulty of adapting older practices of production and distribution to the possibilities presented by a rapidly changing society.
This essay focuses on the arguments surrounding the dollar book plan and in particular on the role of Edward L. Bernays as public relations counsel to the publishers who opposed it. Although the literary culture of the early twentieth century has been the topic of a number works, and Bernays himself and his role in the development of the field of public relations is the subject of several recent books, Bernays’s campaign on behalf of the book industry has so far escaped notice except for a brief description in his autobiography. Bernays’s papers, which are located in the Library of Congress, were processed in the early 1960s, but they have been open for research only since his death in 1995 at the age of 103. This essay draws on those papers as well as on editorials and articles in popular periodicals of the time to explore the debate surrounding the dollar book plan, the strategies Bernays employed to shape public opinion about books, and finally to place this episode in a broader context that explores the role of books in a newly developing mass culture. 2
The Golden Twenties, the Crash, and the Dollar Book Scheme
As was true in many aspects of American business, the book industry had taken advantage of the optimistic period of the 1920s to experiment with new forms of production, promotion, and distribution consistent with the new ethos of mass production. Publishers found ways of connecting with other media, which were growing in popularity. Newspapers began or expanded their book review sections; editors and...