What gives a book popular appeal? This question was raised repeatedly in the Ministry of Information’s Publications Division during 1941. The way that it was answered led to the creation of a ‘new kind of book’ and resulted in sales numbering in the tens of millions. By the end of the war, Ministry books were an established part of the country’s reading, yet this chapter in British publishing history remains little known.
The Ministry’s internal discussion over popularity began with the publication of a book which proved to be its most successful. The Battle of Britain, written by the popular author Hilary Saunders, was revised by the Ministry after it became a surprise best-seller in March 1941. The Ministry-edition boasted an illustrated cover, eye-catching diagrams and action photographs. It sold 4.8 million copies in Britain in the six months following its release.
The Battle of Britain’s success was followed by that of Bomber Command. This paperback was based on interviews with returning aircrews and promised to tell the story of a battle unlike any ‘fought before in the history of mankind’. Published just after the release of the Ministry of Information’s acclaimed documentary film ‘Target for Tonight’, it quickly sold 1.25 million copies. Robert Fraser (the head of the publications division) believed that figure would have been far higher ‘if only the copies could have been physically produced’.
These successes led to questions because Fraser understood that ‘the book is not an easy medium of propaganda’. They promised to have a longer-term impact than posters or radio broadcasts, but needed to reach a mass audience to be of any real use in shaping popular attitudes. Fraser believed the Ministry needed books that could sell in their hundreds of thousands; books that would become the subject of ‘newspaper and radio publicity’ in their own right. He concluded that this task required ‘little less than the exploitation of a new kind of book’.
The inspiration for these books was taken from The Battle of Britain and Bomber Command. They were to be cheap, their content was to be ‘dramatic, human, [and] lively’, and they were to be heavily illustrated. Indeed Fraser was adamant that ‘the pictures and captions … must tell a continuous story to those who will not read continuous text’. This obviously drew inspiration from contemporary illustrated magazines like Picture Post and Illustrated, but it is important to remember that the Ministry’s books were designed to be kept. They were to have ‘greater endurance … than other propaganda material’.
The Battle of Britain thus became the first in a series of large-format paperbacks referred to as ‘Official War Books’. Titles like Coastal Command, His Majesty’s Minesweepers, Roof over Britain and Transport Goes to War aimed to ‘tell the British war story’ by providing insight into particular parts of the war effort. This focus was consciously designed to ‘stimulate the effort of all other groups through psychological force of example and the evocation of team spirit’. With each book based upon at least one of the main themes of Ministry propaganda (the most popular being ‘the projection of Britain as a progressive, efficient, equalitarian democracy), they were also regarded as a good way of influencing opinion abroad.
The Official War Books were a remarkably successful venture. By 1943, the series had sold in excess of 20 million copies, and it was not unusual for individual titles to sell more than a million. Market research conducted by the Ministry’s Wartime Social Survey unit in that year estimated that 56 per cent of the public had seen one or more of the titles (not including The Battle of Britain). Perhaps more importantly, because no comparable effort was made by Britain’s enemies, the Official War Books were able to capture a global market. This made a profit of £30,000 and allowed the series to subsidise other parts of the Ministry’s work.
As G.S. Royds (the MOI’s controller of production) explained in 1944, the Official War Books ‘began as something new on the bookstalls, a new kind of book in British publishing’ but had quickly become ‘an established part of the country’s reading’. The Ministry of Information had established itself as one of the most successful publishers in the world and Robert Fraser’s aim to create ‘propaganda best sellers’ had been achieved.
A course on the communication history of the Ministry of Information is running as part of the 2015 London Rare Book School. You can see the details on the Institute of English Studies website and find out more about the Ministry of Information’s publishing history in this previous post.