Publishing at the Home Front

© Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre,

The “London Moment” was characterised by deprivation and shortages. War economy took its toll on Brits and immigrants alike, influencing every aspect of daily life – food, transportation, mail, reading. At the same time, refugee academics and British intellectuals led vibrant debates about the post-war order. The conditions under which these debates took place are worth a look. They reveal the obstacles intellectuals and academics faced on a very practical level.

With the beginning of the Second World War, the demand for literature that either explained the war or took the readers’ minds off it was high. This inspired a “last glorious market boom” during the Battle of Britain.[1] However, with disrupted trade routes, the quantity of imported wood from Europe could no longer meet the demand on the British Isles. In short, there was not enough paper. An article in The New Yorker described this situation: “One of the direct results of events in Scandinavia is the diminished girth of that same august journal, The Times. From being a paper which only a strong man could manage on a crowded train, it has shrunk to svelte proportions. The cutting off of Scandinavian pulp supplies hit the papers hard last week.” Shortly after, paper was officially rationed. As a rule, every publisher could only use 60 percent of the paper he had needed in the year before the war. In 1941, this quota was further lowered to 37,5 percent. The bulk of the available paper went to newspapers and to the state-owned Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.[2] With up to six thousand new titles per year, it became the „countries’ largest publisher.“ It focused on printing government reports, ration books, identity cards, official forms and petrol coupons, but also publications aimed at a broader readership, like the famous and best-selling Beveridge Report.[3] This worried publishers who complained that the HSMO had privileged access to paper and could offer their books at a lower market price than trade publishers.[4] To make matters worse, on 29 December 1940, the historic publishing district, including the warehouse of the largest wholesaler for books, was largely destroyed during the massive German air raid later known as the Second Great Fire of London. 

As a result of bombings und paper rationing, books quickly went out of print and could not be reprinted immediately. In fact, publishers could no longer keep up with the rising demand for reading material.[5] These problems were exacerbated by interruptions in the distribution network within Britain and when exporting books to foreign markets.[6] Publishers, like every other employer, had to make do with less staff as a consequence of the draft. In 1945, the workforce in publishing had been reduced to half. While a considerable number of newly-hired female employees kept up the work,[7] the number of published books still plummeted from 14,904 in 1939 to 6,705 in 1943.[8]

Faced with these challenges, publishers tried to readjust to the new situation (which, by the way, prepared them for the post-war disruptions in the publishing industry).[9] For example, to save paper, they made the Book Production War Economy Agreement with the Ministry of Supply in 1942. This obliged them to adhere to new standards for the layout and typography in wartime books, enabling them to print more text on less paper.[10] As a result of their lobbying, the government also agreed to subsidise book exports and not to levy a purchase tax on books. An article in the Publishers’ Circular celebrated that the Treasury had acknowledged that „books in war time are indispensable necessities, and, as such, are entitled to preferential treatment. … In a word, the book industry is now by common consent a war industry.“[11] This was reflected in the character of advertisement in wartime publications, which catered to the needs and tastes of British and foreign residents of Great Britain, and London in particular.

At the same time, censorship made its mark on wartime publications. As the war was perceived as a “war of ideas”, the Publishers’ Circular wrote in 1939, “it may be most undesirable that a book should take a certain line which might be used abroad to give a wrong impression of the British outlook.” Thus, most publishers cooperated gladly with the Ministry of Information in order to avoid undermining the war effort. Publishers were also key to the debate around the post-war order as they offered the platform for „ideas and images that would shape a postwar era“.[12] Academic publishers like Oxford University Press concentrated on books of general appeal. The colourful Oxford Pamphlets on World Affairs, for example, reached a circulation of two million copies by 1940 – with its first issue published in 1939.[13] At the same time, scientific publications declined. Although there was a special allocation of paper to publishers of educational books (the “Moberly pool”), many British authors were involved in the war effort and could not deliver on planned projects or develop new ones.[14]

Contributions by foreign emigrés who had come to England in the 1930s or the early war years, partially filled the void, for example when publishing on questions of the punishment of war crimes and the post-war order. The publishing industry also became entangled with the fate of European academic exiles. Especially Kenneth Sisam, Secretary of the Delegates of the Oxford Press, was committed to convince both scholars and the Press to publish their work in English which “would provide German scholars with the necessary academic credentials to maintain a position in the university”, in particular after the war.[15] To be able to support refugee scholars whose work he wanted to see published in English, Sisam secured money from the Rockefeller Foundation. The first grant in 1941 amounted to almost £2,500.[16]

Not only did the war itself change the way publishing operated – how it dealt with new government regulations and oversight, censorship, with paper shortage, with its staff being conscripted, even its offices being burnt down. What was published obviously also changed. Publishers adapted their programs to the burning political questions – as well as a desire for diversion – of a people at war. At the same time, exile governments and émigrés present in London changed the book market both as recipients and originators of books. Not only did publishers offer manuals and guidebooks as well as adapted their advertisement to the new audience. The émigrés themselves also raised new and different questions about the post-war order, and contributed a continental perspective to matters of the post-war social and international order (even if they were not always heard). From this perspective, the “London Moment” also made its mark on the publishing industry.

Further Reading

Blaschke, Olaf. Verleger machen Geschichte: Buchhandel und Historiker seit 1945 im deutsch-britischen Vergleich. Göttingen: Wallstein, 2010.

Hench, John Bixler. Books as Weapons: Propaganda, Publishing, and the Battle for Global Markets in the Era of World War II. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010.

Holman, Valerie. Print for Victory: Book Publishing in Britain 1939–1945. London: British Library, 2008.

Joos, Judith Claudia. Trustees for the Public? Britische Buchverlage zwischen intellektueller Selbständigkeit, wirtschaftlichem Interesse und patriotischer Verpflichtung zur Zeit des Zweiten Weltkriegs. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2008.

Rose, Jonathan. ‘Modernity and Print I: Britain 1890-1970’. In A Companion to the History of the Book, 341–353. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007.

Stevenson, Iain. Book Makers: British Publishing in the Twentieth Century. London: British Library, 2010.

Welch, David. World War II Propaganda: Analyzing the Art of Persuasion during Wartime. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2017.

[1] Iain Stevenson, Book Makers: British Publishing in the Twentieth Century (London: British Library, 2010): 110; Jonathan Rose, “Modernity and Print I: Britain 1890-1970,” in A Companion to the History of the Book (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007): 350–51.

[2] Olaf Blaschke, Verleger machen Geschichte: Buchhandel und Historiker seit 1945 im deutsch-britischen Vergleich (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2010): 107; Stevenson, Book Makers, 116f. Quote from “April 12 1940”, in: Mollie Panter-Downes, London War Notes 1939–1945, ed. by William Shawn. Persephone Books: London, 2014 (first ed. 1971), p. 63. All of the material in this book appeared originally in The New Yorker.

[3] Stevenson, Book Makers, 119f.

[4] Valerie Holman, Print for Victory: Book Publishing in Britain 1939–1945 (London: British Library, 2008): 127ff.

[5] David McKitterick, New Worlds for Learning: 1873-1972, vol. 3, A History of Cambridge University Press (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004): 288.

[6] William Roger Louis, The History of Oxford University Press; 3: 1896-1970 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013): 92.

[7] Stevenson, Book Makers, 122.

[8] Valerie Holman, Print for Victory, Appendix 1, 250.

[9] Also see the account of Georg Weidenfeld, Remembering My Good Friends: An Autobiography (London: Harper Collins, 1995).

[10] Holman, Print for Victory, 72.

[11] David McKitterick, New Worlds for Learning: 1873-1972, vol. 3, A History of Cambridge University Press (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004): 284f.

[12] Holman, Print for Victory, 193; Judith Claudia Joos, Trustees for the Public? Britische Buchverlage zwischen intellektueller Selbständigkeit, wirtschaftlichem Interesse und patriotischer Verpflichtung zur Zeit des Zweiten Weltkriegs (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2008), p. 285.

[13] Louis, OUP, 94.

[14] Ibid., 289.

[15] Sally Crawford, Katharina Ulmschneider, and Jaś Elsner, “Oxford’s Ark: World War II Refugees in the Arts and Humanities,” in Ark of Civilization: Refugee Scholars and Oxford University, 1930-1945, ed. id. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017): 8.

[16] Vgl. Oxford University Press Archives, CG62, “First Grant of $10,000 for Refugee Scholars, notified by letter of 20th May 1941: Final Report”, 12/04/1943. 

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