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Book advertising is today a rarity, perhaps even a curiosity. But there was a time when it was both common and innovative. To prove that Dwight Garner has compiled a nice selection of American book advertisements of the twentieth century in Read Me (Harper Collins, 2009). The commentary is thin, but the volume will nevertheless cheer up bookish people.

Read Me focuses on literary books and is organized by decade. It does not purport to be ‘a comprehensive survey of American book advertising’ yet provides a good overview of the way in which publishers sought to market literature in earlier times. It also documents that the relationship between literary publishing and advertising was, in fact, not more than a flirt—it really got going only in the 1930s and had lost its verve by the end of the 1960s.

Garner thinks this is because publishers simply got more conservative as they increasingly got worried about losses. He adds that the decline of the book review field in conjunction with the ‘migration of readers to the Internet’ makes the ‘resurgence of print ads’ very unlikely.

Browsing through the ads myself, I had a different impression, being especially struck by the boldness of advertising and the lack of distinction between literary and commercial fiction.

For instance, one of the best ads was a two-page instruction manual published in ‘The Saturday Review of Literature’ on February 10, 1934 on how to enjoy Joyce’s Ulysses. This included a plan of Dublin, a list of characters (with their counterparts in Odyssey) and chapter summaries. The ad was introduced with the following encouraging words:

‘For those who are already engrossed in the reading of Ulysses as well as for those who hesitate to begin it because they fear that it is obscure, the publishers offer this simple clue to what the critical fuss is all about. Ulysses is no harder to “understand” than say any other great classic. It is essentially a story and can be enjoyed as such. Do not let the critics confuse you.’

In style, the Ulysses ad is not very different from a 1921 ad for a two-volume book on Etiquette which began with the headline ‘The price I paid for one little mistake’; or the 1926 ad for Winnie-the-Pooh, which also included a map.

Today the publishing market is much more regimented in terms of genres and sub-genres, literary and commercial fiction—and it is this, rather than financial conservatism, that explains why book advertising is no longer practiced or necessary. Advertising is essentially about seeking to popularize something by reaching out to a wider audience, and that is not how the modern book market works.

It is a pity really—for books and book ads alike.

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