Booknotes: The old guard versus the upstarts

How greaders, booklooters, greepers, blifters and biblioacquisiacs were found to be a menace to the book publishing industry

Mike Selby

In 1930, the publishing firms of Simon & Schuster, Farrar & Rinehart, and Doubleday were the new kids on the block. As such, they were much more sensitive to the rise and fall of book sales than their seasoned counterparts.  And in 1930, sales were definitely down.

Not only had the Great Depression swept across the United States, but book prices had risen greatly since the end of World War One. By the end of the 1920s, a new work of fiction in hardcover had become out of reach for most of the book buying public.

To combat this, the new upstarts had a plan. All three firms agreed to offer their brand new books for only one dollar. They announced this strategy publicly in May of 1930, coupled with their new philosophy that “printed books ought to be generally inexpensive and not merely affordable.”

The seasoned publishing firms, which included Knopf, Harcourt Brace, and Harper & Brothers, were not amused. They responded swiftly with an attack on two fronts. Their first move against the dollar book plan was relatively simple, as they were not the only ones against it.

Surprisingly, much of the book buying public were against the dollar books as well. Books held a special place in the culture, and discounting their price reduced them to an unexceptional commodity, like a toaster or vacuum cleaner.  Newspaper editorials also criticized this move en masse. Believing cheap books were “not in the public interest,” and would result in “cultural degradation.”  A universal horror was expressed at the thought of books being sold in department stores or drug stores, instead of the usual outlets,

Even H.L. Mencken chimed in, stating dollar books would be “a degradation of the system that kept books separate from the rest of mass culture.” He also felt cheaper books would only be available in “the silly booke-shoppes run by female amateurs.”

While all this is simply downright elitist and silly, what came next was just ridiculous. The second phase of the publishers attack on the dollar book scheme would simply build on the first. To do this they hired the public relations guru (and Sigmund Freud’s nephew) Edward L. Bernays.

Wasting no time, Bernays quickly set up The Book Publishers Research Institute — a bogus entity which would churn out fake studies supporting the interests of his employers. Bernays then focused all his energies in an attempt to disparage and discredit the most unlikely of victims: the friend who borrowed a book.

Bernays was somehow under the ludicrous impression that this was the villain who was the true enemy of the publishing industry; the one responsible for “the death of six thousand book retailers.” The friend or family member who one may loan a book to is “the wretch who raised hell with book sales and deprived authors of earned royalties.”

But what to call this obvious menace to society? Bernays actually held a contest, asking the public to submit names they felt suitable. Terms like “greader,” “libracide,” “booklooter,” “bookbum,” “greeper,” “bookbummer,” “bookaneer,” “book buzzard,” “book sneak,” “blifter,” and “biblioacquisiac,” were reviewed and judged by a panel of New York’s literary elite.  “Book sneak” was the winner, submitted by a high school English teacher of all people, who (with no trace of irony) was awarded 50 books for his efforts.

And then it was all just quietly over. The dollar book publishers had decided not to follow through with their plan. This wasn’t because of any of the above, but because their accountants advised against it. While genre fiction would be offered at one dollar, mainstream books would be discounted gradually and overtime.  Bernays and his Book Publishers Research Institute was no longer needed; he was disheartened anyway when “book sneak” never caught on.

As 1931 rolled around, both new and older publishers were forced to band together as a new common enemy was at hand: The Jazz Age. With it, new music, plays, movies, radio, magazines, and dance clubs which were destined to cause  the “abandonment of the reading habit.”  Would books even be needed in 1932?