Few American publishers can boast that they have printed 300 hundred million books. Emanuel Haldeman-Julius (1889 – 1951), however, was one who could. An atheist and socialist who believed that the average American had a right to own a library of enlightening, useful and entertaining texts for a few cents a volume, Haldeman-Julius established the Little Blue Book series in the 1920s. Pocket-sized and ranging in subject matter from ancient culture and classic literature to self-help books and handbooks on making your own candy, the Little Blue Books sold in their millions each year, figured in the early education of such American writers as Saul Bellow and Studs Terkel, and anticipated in some respects the very popular ‘Dummies’ of today, though they were very much cheaper.
Rejecting the idea that a sensational cover would sell a book, Haldeman-Julius believed that it was the book’s title that did the trick. One journalist writing in John O’London’s Weekly dated December 8th 1928 described the publisher’s practice of re-branding books thus:
‘He…has found that those ‘pull ‘ best which suggest either sex, self-improvement, or attacks on respectability and religion….Whenever one of his reprints fails to sell 10,000 copies in a year he sends it to his ‘hospital’ , where it is someone’s job to discover the reason why . The text is analysed. If it is found wanting in sex, self-improvement or attacks etc., it is dropped. If the title is deficient in pep it is scrapped and another put in its place.
In this bright but simple way Mr Haldeman-Julius has often turned failure into success. Thus Gautier’s ‘Golden Fleece ‘ sagged badly under the name its author chose, but it went with a bang when Mr Haldeman-Julius turned it into ‘The Search for a Blond Mistress.’ Hugo’s ‘ Le Roi s’Amuse’ apparently puzzled the public, for only 8,000 copies were sold. Back it went to the hospital, and when it came out disguised as ‘The Lustful King Enjoys Himself ‘ 38,000 sexy Americans took it home and put it in a brown-paper cover. Maupassant, we are told, has been treated very successfully in the sex ward, while the Self-Improvement ward over the way has spruced up Schopenhauer and De Quincey so that you’d hardly know them. The ‘Art of Controversy’ becomes ‘ How to Argue Logically’ ( with an intense young man , finger to forehead, thinking of a number on the outer cover, perhaps) and the Essay
On Conversation has taken Tex and Mex by storm under the title ‘How to Improve your Conversation.’ So far there is no ward for altering texts or authors’ names. But you never know. Schopenhauer sounds very dull.
In 1951, at the height of the McCarthyite witch-hunt, Haldeman-Julius was found dead, aged just 62, in his swimming pool. A figure of interest to the FBI, he was suspected of being a Soviet spy; he also faced jail for tax-evasion. Today, his reputation as a mass-educator is down-played, but copies of the Little Blue Books are avidly collected, most going for $5 upwards. [R.M.Healey]