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

The Morgue: What Happens to the "Failures" Among the Little Blue Books

The following is a reproduction of the chapter "The Morgue: What Happens to the "Failures" Among the Little Blue Books" from The First Hundred Million by Emanuel Haldeman-Julius. Originally published in 1928 by Simon & Schuster, it is published here under the terms of the Berne Convention.

By Emanuel Haldeman-Julius

This is the most painful part of my story. Those books that go into The Hospital and do not come out are consigned, with regrets, to The Morgue. The Morgue is filled with books that have not found a large audience among the readers of today. It is also filled with many a bitter lesson, and some experience, though negative, the value of which cannot be measured in dollars and cents.

I have never had a complete failure, if by that you mean a book that did not sell at all - a copy at least now and then. It appears that there is always someone to buy a few copies of any book you could possibly print and offer for sale, provided it is a good book of its kind. But I had as near a failure as I ever care to come with the Short Poems of Friedrich Hölderlin. It was a good book, but it was poetry, plus the fact that no one knew - or cared! - who Mr. Hölderlin might be. I printed 10,000 copies of this book. My confession is complete when I add that I finally baled, after a year and a half, 8,000 of these. This book went into The Morgue and stayed there, for it was certainly dead.

One book that went into The Morgue is still a profound regret in my memory. I hated to delete such a title from the list. I argued with myself, and for a time I let the book ride along merely for the prestige and the satisfaction it gave my amour propre. For Sir Richard Burton's version of The Kasidah has been a favorite of mine ever since I first read it as a young man. I always wanted to make an edition of that book available to the public at far less than the several dollars it usually costs. But The Kasidah kept coming into The Hospital. There seemed nothing that could be done with it. At last it was consigned to The Morgue. But one of these days I'll find a way to sell The Kasidah, at a fraction of a dollar, and it will be brought back to the light.

Just when does a book go into The Morgue and any remainder into the bales of waste paper? Well, as I have said, in order to sell Little Blue Books at a nickel apiece it is necessary for each title to sell to the extent of at least 10,000 copies annually, speaking in round numbers. If every book sells at least its quota, then, with 1,260 titles the total distribution must be 12,600,000 - in one or two bad years, and at first, the sales for a year fell below this figure, and in 1927 exceeded 20,000,000. Some books sell far better than 10,000 copies a year, and help to support those which fall behind and that it is, for one reason or another, desirable to keep in print.

In general, the rules which slate a book for The Morgue are not too drastic. But if a book sells less than 5,000 copies annually, and nothing can be done to increase that total, it goes into The Morgue and any remainder is sent to the baler. If a book sells 6,000 copies in a year I may keep it on sale, especially if it is a thoroughly good book, and lends prestige to the series. I may try to jump up that sales total - but the book may not immediately go to The Morgue even if it does not do better than 6,000 a year.

In a sales test made in 1925, in 400 orders selected for the test, ranging from twenty books each and over - up, in some cases, to as many as 100 books in a single order - not one order was received for the following books. These were, in other words, at the zero mark - most of the stock of them was standing still in the warehouse and accumulating dust. This is the list of dead-heads discovered in October 1925:

Those starred (*) were saved by title changes as discussed in the chapter entitled The Hospital. Those with a dagger (†) against them are in The Morgue, or soon will be. The others are still awaiting remedy or removal.

A glance at this list shows that it is crammed with titles of limited or rather scholastic appeal. Many of these sooner or later went into The Morgue. But I should explain that although not one person out of the 400 selected at random for this test ordered a copy of any one of these books, they did not actually stand still without a single copy ever being sold. Some of them, taking it by and large over a year with thousands of orders pouring in, would do around 5,000. Some of them were saved by the efforts of The Hospital, already described.

Then, too, it is never possible to make replacements wholesale. There is always a waiting list for The Morgue - unfortunately this will always be true in a list as large as that of the Little Blue Books - and as a rule those go into the discard first that somehow or other show on the inventory at 5,000 copies or less on hand. That is why some books are still waiting for The Morgue. Others, which it is necessary to drop, reach the deadline sooner. Some day, if a few of these books do not move at all, they will be dropped forthwith. I have baled, in one or two instances, as many as 28,000 or 30,000 copies of a book. This is expensive, but I needed the warehouse space and it is better to list a book which moves a little than to waste space on one which does not move at all.

In the preceding list you will notice, if you look carefully, two books taken from the Bible. It is customary to cite the Bible as the best selling book in all publishing history - but I must be intrepid enough to point out that this does not mean it is the most widely ready book in print. On the contrary, for, as I have already proved, a Little Blue Book is purchased, if any book is, in order to be read - and no one, generally speaking, will buy the Bible in Little Blue Book form. I have both The Sermon on the Mount and Other Sayings of Jesus and Essence of the Bible, besides the two listed above, and all are poor sellers.

I once had a compilation of the Words of Jesus, made by Henry C. Vedder, in two volumes, nicely couched in the best of modern English. I think that modernizing the language of an ancient book is desirable - but people do not care for the Bible in modern English. They do not want to read it anyway, you see - or at least they don't want to make any sense out of reading it, and want it just because it is the Bible and one really ought to have one somewhere on the premises.

To sell the Bible you must publish it between black covers. The standardized stiff blue card covers used for the Little Blue Books mean, in the eyes of purchasers, that it is not the Bible. For the Bible is not a book - it is an object, a fetish, a piece of furniture. A large mail-order house once tried to sell a clothbound Bible - in blue or red covers. They were forced to abandon the project - people did not want the Bible just as a book.

But criticisms of the Bible - ah, that is something else entirely. People eagerly purchase all sorts of adverse comments on the Bible, the truth about its origin, the sources of its myths and legends, a collection if its self-contradictions, facts about forgeries of some of its books, discussions of whether Jesus ever lived or not - as the Little Blue Books of this kind have shown. The facts about this will be found in Chapter V.

Among the recent consignments to The Morgue there is Oscar Wilde's Critic as Artist, which I kept in the list for a long time as two volumes in the Little Blue Books. At an earlier date it was found necessary to eliminate Poe's Marginalia, and Critical Excerpts from Poe, and Poe as a Literary Critic. It is disappointing to have to remove these books, but there was no alternative. They are not books that it is feasible to sell on a basis of mass production.

I did not so much regret the passing of the Poems of Philip Freneau. I readily saw that Freneau was in the same depths of obscurity as Hölderlin. It was a bad mistake to put such a book in the list in the first place. The same is true of Sainte-Beuve's essays on Chesterfield and Rabelais. Good as they are, they were out of place in the general scope of the growing series and they could not be effectively grouped for the best selling emphasis. Likewise, the Essay on Swinburne, by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch.

In a somewhat different class was the History of Printing, by D'Israeli. This simply seemed to be an example of limited interest. An original work, published in the Little Blue Books for the first time, called A Newspaperman's Estimate of the Fourth Gospel, by Olin Wellington Archer, met the same fate for the same reason. I should also list here Charles J. Finger's decidedly interesting brochure entitled England in Shakespeare's Time. It went the way of the others, for no other reason than that it had limited appeal.

Certain expansion-centers in the growth of the Little Blue Books would now and then stray beyond the precise boundary set by commercial success. I mean by this that the public would express a desire for a certain class of books, and, to meet this desire, new books being printed of the same class would exceed - when things had quieted down and the first flutter of popularity was over - the capacity that mass production would justify. A clear example is the Greek and Roman drama classification, translated chiefly by Alexander Harvey. It became necessary to withdraw some of these books, including Iphigenia at Aulis, by Euripides, Oedipus at Colonus, by Sophocles, The Clouds, The Birds, The Knights, The Acharnians, The Wasps, and The Peace, by Aristophanes; The Captives and The Pot of Gold, by Plautus, The Self-Tormentor, by Terence, and so on. A few of these classics, in accord with the popularization of the works of antiquity, as discussed earlier in this chapter, are being retained. There is a real demand for a very limited list of this kind of reading.

At the end of 1927 I find that the series of proverb collections in the Little Blue Books, as series, is a failure. At first there were only nine of these books - Chinese Proverbs, Irish Proverbs, Russian Proverbs, and so forth. People were much interested in the early days - these collections have always been a unique feature of the University in Print, embodying, as they do, the crystallized wisdom of various races and nations. But as a wider range of popular books was offered, interest in this form of reading dwindled, until now only three or four of these books are successful - notably the Proverbs of China and those of Ireland. The others - there are nineteen books of proverbs in all as I write, and I may retain half a dozen - are slated for The Morgue. They have to go. Even pointing out, by the catalogue listing, that these proverbs are the best wit and wisdom of large groups of humanity has done no good. In general, it has been shown that readers are not interested in such collections.

Occasionally I have found it necessary to send a biography to The Morgue. As a general principle, however, a biography can usually be saved with proper attention to the title, provided it is a good piece of work. The Life of Keats was one of the first to go, and also Whistler: the Man and His Art. For some reason not altogether clear to me the lives of painters and poets, as individuals, do not interest the greater portion of the reading public. I also killed a lengthy critical study of Shakespeare and his plays. Among others, there was Diderot and the French Encyclopedists, probably too pedantic in tone and, withdrawn for much the same reason, Hauptmann and Sudermann, by George Seibel. Among the first to go, incidentally, was an old-timer, The Trial of William Penn. Another old-timer, a Life of Columbus, was sent to The Morgue, only to be replaced, with fair success, by an edition of The Diary of Columbus in 1492.

As I have shown from the beginning, the general development of the Little Blue Books has been along broad lines. Few books of a particular nature, isolated from others similar to it, get into the series. Now and then this has happened, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. Among the failures were such titles as When the Puritans Were in Power (although there is now Rupert Hughes' Facts About Puritan Morals), Voices from the Past, Satan and the Saints, State and Heart Affairs of Henry VIII, James Anthony Fronde's Science of History, and so forth. Others of this class, successful and still in the list, are Twenty Years Among African Negroes, Max Beerbohm's Defense of Cosmetics, Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, and so forth. I cannot, of course, predict how long some of these titles will stay in the list. Some of them I am determined to keep, but others will have judgment passed upon them by the actual verdict of the buyers of the books.

There is one general rule The Morgue taught me. At one time I thought that longer works, like Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, could be issued in a half dozen or so volumes of the Little Blue Books, making the whole work cost much less than a dollar. I tried this idea out with two-volume, three-volume, and four-volume works particularly. Every one of them has been a failure and principally for the reason that when books are offered in this way, your choice at five cents, readers will buy the first volume only, to see what it is like, and then never get around to ordering the rest. A contributory objection, no doubt, is that there is something forbidding about a work in several small pocket-sized volumes. If a book is to be carried in the pocket, and that is one of the points in its favor, then it must be in some sense of the word a brief book.

Among the many-volumed works sooner or later to be found in The Morgue are The Jungle, aforementioned, and Frank Harris' Man Shakespeare (4 vols.), Psychical Research (2 vols), Words of Jesus (2 vols.), Dante and Other Waning Classics (2 vols.), Upton Sinclair's Millennium (3 vols.), and so forth. Although the objection may be advanced that some of these books are, by their nature, as compared with other single-volume works in the The Morgue, destined to such a fate, I can also cite the example of the Memories of Madame de Pompadour, which was formerly in two volumes and not a satisfactory success. It is now in one volume under the title: Memoirs of a French Royal Mistress. The only best seller in more than one volume is Dante's Inferno.

A solution of the difficulty has been to give the separate volumes their own titles. This was done with the Arabian Nights, and it is at present being tried with the four volumes of Emerson's Representative Men and the four volumes of Frank Harris' Contemporary Portraits. These latter two, being biographical in nature, are being identified by the men treated in the separate volumes, in the manner of single biographies. This treatment has not always been possible, I am sorry to say.

The story of The Morgue has been a long one. It has, indeed, been much longer in existence than The Hospital. Buried in it is more than one corpse, long since a skeleton to haunt the editorial closet. Such ghastly relics as these I hesitate to exhume. But I have vowed that I would tell a straight story, and tell it honestly. In some ways it is ghoulish, but I owe it to the demands of this chronicle to state the facts.

In my younger days I was a Socialist journalist. I mean this in a political and something of a fanatical sense. All young men who dream dreams are fanatics. When I was in my twenties Socialism was a more important issue, under that name, in America than it is now. People were interested in Socialism. It was being talked about. People wanted to read about it. But the interest passed and Socialism waned, until now it is really a dead issue from any bird's eye point of view you may choose. It lives only here and there. I cannot go into the causes of this decline here. That would make an essay by itself, if not a whole book.

But in The Morgue you will find the remains of an early Socialistic debauch of mine in the Little Blue Books. I can call it nothing else, for the list of such titles is, as I look back at them now, appalling. They went into The Morgue because they ceased to sell. I have space to mention a few of them, and I think the titles are of enough interest to justify it. There was, for example, Kate O'Hare's Prison Letters. That brings back many an almost forgotten memory. Then there were the following: The Socialist Appeal, From Terror to Triumph (Soviet Labor Laws), Jack London's Dream of Debs, Shall Church Property Be Taxed? (A Debate), Socialism vs. Catholicism, Socialist Pepper-Box, Keir Hardie Calendar, Fight for Your Life, Solution of the Trust Problem, and so forth, and so forth. In the Little Blue Books as they are today you will find issues of the hour treated in a practical, truth-telling way, visionary aspects aside. For example, Anna Louise Strong, in a series on Russia, gives the facts about the Soviet Union, as in How the Communists Rule Russia. Arthur Garfield Hays tells his side of the story in What I Saw in Russia, and so on. Two debates on Socialism are also still in the list, so that the subject has fair representation.

So much for one large area in The Morgue. Another generous group brings back another phase of the Little Blue Book idea in the process of growth and transformation. Many of the titles consigned to The Morgue have been dropped to make room for better books. I mean this in a strictly critical sense, entirely aside from whether the books will sell or not. For there are some books in The Morgue, about which I now propose to tell, which were very good sellers - and yet they were withdrawn.

I refer to a series of a dozen or so books dealing with the improvement of the mind, the personality, and that sort of thing. How to Strengthen Mind and Memory was the title of one of these books; How to Be a Leader of Others was another. I withdrew these books because they were false. They did not give the facts, but drew rosy pictures, fostered erroneous views of life - in short, these books were nothing but bunk. They were killed, all of them.

Then, later, it became possible to approach similar subjects from a more scientific point of view. I found a way to offer the facts, instead of falsities, and you will find most of those earlier books replaced in the series as it is today by books that are sound and authoritative and tell the truth about life. For example, William J. Fielding discusses personality in The Puzzle of Personality; Leo Markun has written The Psychology of Leadership and Facts You Should Know About Will Power, and so on.

The Morgue has taught me that the public does not want large doses of highly-colored propaganda. Some people regard any presentation of facts as propaganda, but I use the word here to signify books that abandon reason and logic and facts and set about creating fanciful notions based entirely on the imagination. The Morgue has also taught me that the public does not want bunk if it can get the truth. I feel entirely justified in killing some earlier self-help books, for the new Self-Improvement books thoroughly live up to their aim and do honor to the series as a whole.

The Little Blue Books have taken shape as a series of wide appeal. The policy expanded to be nearly all-inclusive: those were dangerous days, full of publishing risks. In those days I talked of going on and on, to two thousand titles, even to ten thousand titles. But I soon saw the only outcome in that direction would be a gigantic warehouse, full of an assortment so large that no one could make a real choice, and so expensive that no one could get any real benefit from it. From a rather indefinite intention to publish almost anything to sell for a nickel, the conflicting forces brought to bear upon the Little Blue Books, as they were offered in the market, chiseled out for them a policy of their own.

The Morgue has removed from the list, and is still removing from the list, those titles that do not coincide with this policy of good books with a wide appeal. That is why Ernest Dowson's Pierrot of the Minute is in The Morgue. That is why the literary criticism of John Cowper Powys, his essays on Emily Bronte and Henry James and the rest, are destined for The Morgue. That is why Theodore M. R. von Keler's concise summaries of many of the lesser-known operas will all find themselves one of these days in The Morgue - some of them are already there. These are good books, but they are not of wide appeal.

There has at times been a current, topic-of-the-hour phase of the Little Blue Books. In general, this is not worthwhile. Sometimes it is all right to put in a book that will stay for perhaps a year and then drop out. I refer to such dated items as the 1926 Price Range of Stocks, 1927 Directory of Radio Stations, 1924 Republican and Democratic Platforms, and the like. The fad of crossword puzzling brought a couple of crossword puzzle books into the list, but these will stay. Their sale is nothing like what it was during the height of the craze, but is it good enough to be worth devoting a number or so to. When the Ku Klux Klan finally fades into oblivion, it may be that the two books on the Klan will go into The Morgue. Meanwhile, there is enough interest to sustain them. And there is no reason why The Best Jokes of 1926 should not sell for years to come, like the O'Brien short-story anthologies.

I am sorry that such a book as Dr. Isaac Goldberg's Guide to Cervantes should have had to go to The Morgue. But even this tells its helpful story. I can put alongside it Goldberg's Dante: An Esthetic View, and Julius Moritzen's Significance of Georg Brandes and also his August Strindberg: Literary Enigma, all of them now in The Morgue, and say to you that this again proves the evolution of the Little Blue Books into a general series of wide appeal. Why is it that Dante's Inferno is a good seller, while an introduction to Dante as a whole goes begging? There is only one answer. The reading public is willing to accept guides to anything except reading, speaking generally. People would rather read a famous book by Dante than read about him. They will accept a tabulation of good books, like John Cowper Powys' One Hundred Best Books, but they do not care for the significance of Georg Brandes or anyone else when it is written like a thesis for a collegiate degree.

I am sorry, just as I know many who read this candid account will be sorry, that the story, in some of its aspects, is not different from the truth. I would like more than I can say to have kept many of these books out of The Morgue. I wish I could keep them before even that small portion of the public which would like to buy one of them now and again. But I am not playing hit or miss, like some playful god - like, at a venture, the Setebos fancied by Caliban in Browning's poetic description of theology on the island! I am not putting in this title and taking another out just because I think I should. It is all a matter of figures, as the Efficiency Expert would say if I had one. The books are wanted or they are not wanted - it is quite simple.

As for general conclusions from The Morgue, it can all be summarized by simply saying that the reading public, viewed as a whole, wants book that are not too esoteric, not too high-hat, not too refined and highbrow. People as a mass want books for everyday appeal and value, which does not at all mean that they want badly-written books, or books that deal insincerely or half-heartedly with the subject treated.

The worst classes of books, from my point of view, as a publisher in mass quantities, are poetry, literary criticism, biographies of less than international figures and personalities that are known by people of special education or limited interests, compilations of any sort except fiction or humor and work of the better known masters, and the large group of books usually called belles-lettres for want of a better name. On the whole, I avoid both the familiar and the formal essay, unless the subject is of wide appeal. Books of orations and speeches are not desirable as a class, though I have succeeded very well with a large group of debates. The printed drama as a group is decidedly not in demand.

If I could have given myself, when I began the Little Blue Books, advice that I now might offer out of my nine years' experience, I would have said something like this: "Whenever you consider a book for publication, pick out twenty-five imaginary readers for it from all levels of life. Pick out a college professor, a scientist, a college student, a highschool boy and a highschool girl, a day laborer, a factory worker, as stenographer, a housewife, a school teacher, a hobo, a chorus girl, an editor, a doctor, a lawyer, a soda-fountain clerk, a waitress, a Pullman porter, a millionaire, a salesman, a bootblack, an undertaker, a grocery man, a preacher, and a tired business man - and put yourself in the place of each one in turn, and ask yourself candidly whether such a person would buy the book for the price you are selling it if he had the chance. If fifteen out of the twenty-five would probably buy the book, then I would recommend putting it into the Little Blue Books. If less than fifteen would be likely to buy it at some time or other, its success as a Little Blue Book would be doubtful. If less than ten would buy it, its failure would be assured."