How the United States Army Popularized the Paperback

How the United States Army Popularized the Paperback

Monday, July 16, 2018

It’s June 5, 1944. A nervous soldier rechecks his gear before the impending invasion of Europe.

Rifle?...check. Ammo belt?...check. Paperback?...check.

That’s right – starting in 1943, the War Department sent millions of softcover books to troops fighting the war.

Called Armed Services Editions, or ASEs, they were lightweight paperbacks specially designed to fit into a soldier’s pocket.

The program started a few years earlier.

Responding to Nazi book burnings, American librarians wanted to fight back and show how freedom of the press was essential to our democratic ideals. They launched the Victory Book Campaign, which called on Americans to donate books that would be sent to service members.

Unfortunately, the books sent in were largely hardcovers that proved to be too bulky to carry in the field. They also included many not particularly suited to young men headed for battle (e.g., children’s books or titles like How to Knit).

In response, Lt. Col. Ray Trautman, chief of the Army’s Library Section, came up with the plan for the Armed Services Editions.

Using rotary presses designed for pulp magazines, they could print paperbacks very inexpensively.

To make them portable, they printed two books at once on the press, one on top of the other, cut the resulting pages, and stapled them together. The oblong result, looking much like a flip book, came in two sizes.

The smaller ASE was the size and shape of a postcard and could be carried in a shirt pocket. A slightly larger version was perfect for the hip pocket.

A committee of publishers (who were paid for each copy a royalty of one cent to split with the author) formed the Council on Books in Wartime to select suitable books for the ASE program.

The topics included adventure (Jack London’s The Call of the Wild), history (The Making of Modern Britain), humor (Is Sex Necessary?), poetry (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Paul Revere’s Ride and Other Poems), sports (a biography of Lou Gehrig), westerns (several Zane Grey novels), and many others.

The first batch of thirty titles were shipped out in October 1943, and they were an immediate sensation.

Soldiers starved for entertainment gobbled them up. (“They are as popular as pin-up girls” wrote one.) Month after month new books were sent out – a total of 123 million copies of 1,322 titles over the next four years.

Many of the ASEs were from well-known authors such as Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and Mark Twain.

Others had their reputations made by the program – F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby hadn’t been very popular when originally published, and armed forces’ fan mail for Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn outweighed that from civilians by a ratio of 10 to 1.

When the troops finally came home, they brought their love of reading with them.

The paperback format had never been popular before the war, but the Armed Service Editions changed that. By the end of the decade, paperbacks were outselling hardcover books by 10 percent.

Following that legacy, the AUSA Book Program is pleased to highlight three new softcovers from our publishing partner University Press of Kentucky: Advance and Destroy: Patton as Commander in the Bulge by John Nelson Rickard; Jacob L. Devers: A General’s Life by James Scott Wheeler; and Fighting the Cold War: A Soldier’s Memoir by John Galvin.

Publicity and Rights Manager Mack McCormick notes, “We often try to release paperbacks that dovetail with new hardbacks – for example, the paperback edition of Rickard’s Patton book will publish at the same time as Lawrence M. Kaplan’s Pershing’s Tankers.”

You’ll see more on the Kaplan book in a following column.

Until then, remember how the Army helped change the world of books.

To order copies of the new paperback editions of Advance and Destroy, Jacob L. Devers, and Fighting the Cold War, visit