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Book Review: Read Me: A Century of Classic American Book Advertisements by Dwight Garner

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There is nothing lacking in this collection of 20th century Americana. Read Me: A Century of Classic American Book Advertisements provides a lasting tribute to the impossibly hard act of publishing and promoting books, especially back when newspapers were the primary way to reach readers.

Browse through over 300 vintage book ads, from back in the day when the publishing industry took a gamble on anything. Some ads provide a first look at people who became great American classic authors, and some were only one-time wonders. As author Dwight Garner, a New York Times book critic and former editor at the New York Times Book Review, says: “Great books, like every other kind of book, are new only once, and only for a short time.”

We’re grateful to have  Read Me on our bookshelf. It documents the skill, craft, wit, and art that went into book promotion over the last 100 years, not exactly a lost art, but a treasure to have captured.

The publishing industry thinks it is living through dire times today, but imagine in 1937 selling books for 39 cents, and running a full page New York Times ad for a book retailing at $1.50. Read Me is organized by decade, so we are watching developments in the book industry over an entire century. We see dramatic shifts in style, levels of hype, and hidden suggestions of sexuality when the world was more prosaic. Through it all, what stands out is the magic-curtain effect of announcing an author’s newest book. The thrill is unchanged over the century.

Before the internet, book marketing was a whole different magic show. An ad was often the only chance to get a book noticed, not today’s frenetic 15,000 impressions per minute on the web.

In the introduction to Read Me, Dave Eggers acknowledges the publishing industry’s difficulty in getting “the books you love into the hands of a distracted populace, and your livelihood depends on it.” He speaks of a publisher’s ability to succeed with an advertising campaign as a critical factor in the livelihood of the author, whether that author can write another book, and whether the publisher, already broke, can live to publish other books. Down the sales chain, the publisher is betting on a book to pay the rent for bookstores and the mortgages for its employees. Is there a truer depiction of the publishing world?

If you’re in the publishing industry, you’ll spend time marveling at the marketing devices used to sell books over the years, from the eccentric to the pragmatic, all in honor of promoting and preserving the written word.

In what Garner calls the “intellectual and commercial conga line of dozens of people” involved in a book’s production, he has researched and brought us replicas of hundreds of yellowed ads from newspapers, journals, and magazines across America. As a collection, they capture the excitement of the rare new book by great writers we still read today, including Ernest Hemingway, Toni Morrison, Norman Mailer, and Joyce Carol Oates, billed in 1966 as “one of the great young writer of fiction in modern America.”

Garner cites Richard Ohmann’s essay The Shaping of a Canon: 1960-1975: “If a novel did not become a bestseller within three or four weeks of publication, it was unlikely to reach a large readership later on.”

Some book ads look like small news stories, others look like obits, such as the two-sentence ad for Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth in 1905 and a 1916 ad for Carl Sandburg’s Chicago Poems, back when books sold for less than $2.

Interestingly, by the late 1920s both authors earned larger ads, with Wharton’s ad touting A Son At the Front as her “greatest novel” and Sandburg meriting a full-page ad for The American Songbag in 1927.

As times changed, book ads stood still, perhaps until the liberated 1960s and 1970s. Authors became a brand and ads were more direct and provocative. Yet, starting in the 1970s, book ads yielded much of the sameness we see in advertising today, making it hard to differentiate, as more and more books were being published.

After a century of change and progress, Garner points to a 1995 ad for Andrew Sullivan’s Virtually Normal, which bears strong resemblance to an ad in the early 1900s for Rudyard Kipling’s’ novel, Kim. Perhaps this proves that, other than clearer typefaces and digital printing, not many things change in publishing. A 1995 ad for Dreams of My Father by a young Barack Obama shows the value in documenting a book, and an author’s rise to fame. And above all, shows that well-told stories of humble beginnings can bring inspiration to readers and fame to authors, in an industry that will never, never die.

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About Helen Gallagher

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/gordon-hauptfleisch Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Sold! Thanks for a fascinating review of a fascinating book, Helen. It’s an ideal stocking stuffer — my stocking, that is.