Emanuel Haldeman-Julius : Pocket Series and the Little Blue Books

Little Blue Books and the Great Depression

The following is a reproduction of Emanuel Haldeman-Julius' reply to a question submitted by a reader, as published in Questions & Answers, 16th series, 1939, pp. 50-51. Found within are many interesting details about how his mailing list survived and the use of advertising to market Little Blue Books.

I like your habit of putting your cards face-up on the table, even when you're asked questions about your business as a publisher. If I'm not going too far, would you mind telling us how you managed to get through the depression?

Cover of Questions & Answers, 16th series.Just as I reached the 200,000,000-mark in Little Blue Book sales - at a time when it looked as though I was headed for the goal of a billion books sold via mail order - I got kicked all over the lot by the depression. Back in 1930, the public decided that book money could be used to better advantage for bread, so sales started going down, until if looked as though the bottom were zero. Magazine and newspaper advertising didn't bring enough orders to pay the agency. My own circulars and catalogues were considered a tremendous success if they brought in twice the cost of the postage, and many times I didn't even get that.

I studied the situation carefully and decided to wait until I got my house in order, for I realized acutely that many mail order abuses and wasteful practices would have to be corrected before I could return to the buying public again and expect action for my advertising money. I decided on hibernation, living off my fat. The fat, let me state quite frankly, was the list of 2,000,000 mail order book-buyers. The gravy was a stock of almost 12,000,000 books in a groaning warehouse. It was while Roosevelt was talking about the New Deal that I decided a New Day had come to the mail order business. We would have to make ourselves over - and, while the operation was painful, the patient recovered and is now doing better.

I looked over those 2,000,000 names - the list that was to keep me alive while waiting for the new day of mail-order prosperity to dawn. Here was my best bet - people who had brought before and who might buy again. But, new times demanded new measures. I decided on desperate, strict self-discipline. The first decision almost killed me when I decided to put it into practice.

The strategy called for a mailing of 2,000,000 Little Blue Book catalogues, in which I enclosed a special 50% discount slip. This credit certificate, I concluded, would bring action. It did. Just about 200,000 customers responded, roughly 10 percent. I decided then and there to issue the order that acted on my system like a knife - I told the fore lady in charge of the list to throw away the names of all customers, who didn't respond to the mailing. That meant 1,800,000 stencils went to the junk-man.

It was hard to cut my list from 2,000,000 to 200,000, but good business practice demanded that al1 dead timber be cleared out of the way. I didn't want the names of people who wouldn't buy at half price. I knew, furthermore, that 200,000 names constitute a formidable list, a sound enough foundation to build on. Those 200,000 names - increased by another 35,000 through various channels - kept the plant going until December, 1937, when I decided I was ready to shoot the works. I don't know just what it is - call it Mail Order Man's Intuition, if that means anything - but I just felt that the time was ripe to hit at the public through the great magazines.

Then I had my conference with the owner of the advertising agency through which I place copy. He suggested that I make use of the smaller media and gradually work up. But I vetoed that. I took this position: Times have changed. The publishing picture isn't what it used to be. There are new mass publications on the stands - picture magazines, and the like. Instead of buying a page in 10 magazines at $300 each. I'd rather put the entire $3,000 into one publication, because I want to reach the masses, not the esthetes and cultural aristocrats. I said I wanted to go along with the public - into Life, Look, Liberty, Radio Guide, and many others, including mass circulation newspapers like The Chicago Tribune. Then it was suggested that I start in these with small copy. But here again I said No. I would take a full page or nothing. A small advertisement would be lost. It carries no punch. A page - or nothing. I got my pages. At this writing, the plant is busy. Extra girls have been put on the job. The presses are working. The mass circulation magazines have turned trick.

I believe there's a lesson in my experiences for other mail order men. My business was sick. I cured it - from the inside. Most businesses are sick. They all have to be cured from the inside. Next, go where the biggest crowds go. Retail stores do it with central locations. We mail order men do it with invitations to buy in the publications that enjoy mass acceptance. Don't economize on space, once you have the right proposition and know from actual tests that your article has public acceptance.

The material above has been republished with the understanding that the Haldeman-Julius Company's associated copyright is no longer being enforced. All official petitions to the contrary will be acknowledged and adhered to at the request of any surviving copyright owner; just contact us.