This post by Dr Henry Irving examines how the Ministry of Information used books as a weapon of war.
Among the Ministry of Information (MOI)’s varied duties was the responsibility for issuing ‘National Propaganda’ to maintain morale at home, and influence opinion abroad. This task was approached through a variety of media; films were produced, radio broadcasts were organised, exhibitions were curated, and a vast number of posters were issued. Parts of this work will be familiar. However the MOI’s role as a major publisher is perhaps less well-known.
Books and pamphlets had assumed an important place in the MOI’s pre-war planning. Indeed it had been agreed that a publication entitled Why Britain is at War should be one of its first pieces of publicity. This intention can be explained by a belief that books and pamphlets would ensure that official messages had an enduring impact. Unlike films, radio broadcasts, exhibitions, and posters, such outputs were designed to last. This would require huge print-runs to satisfy demand, and a sensitive approach designed to appeal to audiences of all ages and tastes.
The MOI’s earliest publishing efforts were hindered by the atmosphere of confusion which surrounded the department during 1939-40. Its favoured methods at this time involved exerting influence on commercial publishers and (at the suggestion of the bookseller William Foyle) the insertion of leaflets into certain titles. The best example of these tactics can be seen in the short polemic Fifty Facts about Hitler. This book was published at the ‘suggestion of the Ministry’ by the War Facts Press (which is likely to have been a front organisation), was subsidised by the guaranteed purchase of 15,000 copies, and had a leaflet inserted into copies that were distributed by the Foyles’ Book Club.
How Hitler made the war: the inner story as told in the Foreign Office telegrams and documents abridged from the Blue Book and Sir Nevile Henderson's final report (Ministry of Information, H.M.S.O., 1939) [43 p.] [Price 3d]
Its first foray into direct publishing was less successful. Indeed its attempt to explain why Britain was at war by combining Foreign Office telegrams, documents abridged from the official ‘Blue Book’, and extracts from the final report of Britain’s ambassador to Nazi Germany became embroiled in an inter-departmental copyright dispute. The pamphlet (now called How Hitler Made the War) was nearly abandoned in October 1939, and W.H. Smith’s Ltd warned that ‘nobody would want to buy it’ after plans for photographic illustration were abandoned.
These experiments were important because they encouraged an increasingly professional approach to publishing. The first success came in March 1940 when the MOI published a 36-page pamphlet entitled The War at Sea under the auspices of the Continental Publishers ‘Picturefacts’ imprint. It was originally intended that this illustrated pamphlet would be freely distributed among British merchant seaman, but it was translated into French by Continental and successfully marketed across Europe and the Middle East. Over 470,000 copies had been sold by July 1940.
The Battle of Britain, August-October 1940
an Air Ministry account of the great
days from 8th August-31st October, 1940 (London: H.M.S.O., ) [31 p] [Price
6d or 20s for 50 copies]
This success was replicated a year later when the MOI revised an Air Ministry pamphlet called The Battle of Britain. Written by the popular author Hilary Saunders, the unassuming first edition of this 3d pamphlet had been a surprise best-seller, with 300,000 copies sold within a week of its release in March 1941. The revised edition was twice as expensive as the original but boasted an illustrated cover, eye-catching diagrams, and action photographs. It went on to sell more than 2 million copies in the UK alone (it is estimated that up to 15 million copies were produced when overseas licences are included in the total).
The Battle of Britain became the first in a series of large-format paperback books commissioned by government departments and published by the MOI. These so-called ‘Official War Books’ set out to ‘tell the British war story’. They were a remarkable success. By 1943, such books had sold over 20 million copies, and it was not unusual for individual titles to sell over a million. Market research conducted by the Ministry’s Wartime Social Survey (WSS) unit estimated that almost 60 per cent of the public had seen one or more titles (not including The Battle of Britain – which was treated as an exception). The series also made a profit of approximately £30,000 per year, which was re-invested into the MOI’s work.
As G.S. Royds (the MOI’s Controller of Production) explained in 1944, the series ‘began as something new on the bookstalls, a new kind of book in British publishing; today they are an established part of the country’s reading’. Perhaps more important still, no comparable effort was made by Britain’s enemies, meaning that the ‘Official War Books’ captured a global market. It had taken just four years for the MOI to establish itself as one the most successful publishers in the world.
You can find out more about the Ministry's publishing history in our post on 'Propaganda Bestsellers'.