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

The Making of Little Blue Books
The Impressions of One Who Has Worked Among Them

The following is a reproduction of an article which originally appeared in the June 2, 1928 issue of the Haldeman-Julius Weekly. Minor typographical changes have been completed in order to improve consistency in visual presentation. Special thanks to Sharon E. Neet, Professor of History, University of Minnesota, Crookston for providing this article to haldeman-julius.org!

By Clarice Cunningham

The Little Blue Books are undeniably an international institution. Thousands of them go weekly to England and France; a group of them was exhibited last year in Moscow; Mexican newspapers carry occasional stories about them. And as for our own country, the fact that more than 250,000 books go to each one of the forty-eight states every year is proof enough of their popularity here. Certainly there is ample justification for the inclination to call their creator the Henry Ford of Literature.

However, there is little to suggest the cosmopolitan success of the Little Blue Books about the town in which they are made. Girard, in the extreme southeast corner of Kansas, the seat of Crawford County, has a population of perhaps three thousand. Only a sign just outside its limits which reads Girard: The Home of the Little Blue Book, and its first-class postoffice, suggest that there is any real connection between the town and the outside world. But at that, Girard — with its air of frugal cleanliness, its Square surrounded substantial courthouse and big, old-fashioned homes — is quite a pleasant-looking little place. It is the Fallon of the Haldeman-Juliuses' several short stories, and even if they do say in Caught: "to his unprejudiced eye, Fallon appeared as three homes, a barn and a chicken house," they patriotically, if a bit facetiously, add: "The town much preferred to welcome newcomers at about three o'clock of a sunshiny Saturday afternoon. At that hour, with the Square swarming with farmers, it seemed to warrant the boosters' proud phrase of 'City of the Second Class' . . . But Gordon came on a Tuesday morning, at an early hour, when even Kansas City was quiet."

Nevertheless, the Home of the Little Blue Books Girard certainly is — the Haldeman-Julius Publishing Company is just a block of the Square. The building that houses it is nineteen years old — a rectangular yellow-brick structure with additions rallying around its rear and a row of grandmotherly trees in front. It was built for one of the most widely discussed papers in America, the old Socialist Appeal to Reason, whose enemies called it the "frothy, lurid, flannel-mouthed, wild-eyed Appeal to Treason," but whose friends, the working people, bought for it a $25,000 press. The twenty-year history of the Appeal, begun in Kansas City in 1897, is a vivid story in itself. That paper was the unvanquished champion of the underdog, an enterprise whose head was ever "bloody but unbowed." It was always involved in some drastic reform or other, some law suit or other, and its founder, "One Hoss" Wayland, dramatically and tragically committed suicide.

And although the Appeal has been dead for almost ten years, reminders of it still cling to the building — plaster of Paris bulldog paper weights with You can't kick me around. Appeal to Reason on them: the name only partially scratched off the steel vaults: and the occasional reference to the Haldeman-Julius Company as the "Appeal" by Girard citizens. But these vestigial remains get scant attention; for all around them is the Blue Book industry, a growing concern in every sense of the word.

E. Haldeman-Julius, editor and publisher of the Little Blue Books, is just thirty-eight years old — an olive-skinned, vitally charged, perfectly dressed man with a half-mocking, friendly smile. Ever likable and supremely interesting he never fails to be, but there is a paradoxical quality about him that prevents his associates from ever being quite sure they know him. For although he operates a million dollar publishing house during the day and is disgusted with jazz, he takes nine-year-old Alice or Marcet to a movie two nights a week and hilariously cooks his own original dishes for them in the kitchen afterwards. His is a personality woven of many different moods — the list of his minor eccentricities is endless. But somehow the total impression he leaves is not one of eccentricity. Essentially he is a normal, far-sighted, hard-working businessman — with this distinction: he has cultural instead of Rotarian ideals, literary instead of Babbitt interests, individual instead of conformist standards.

The Little Blue Books are not, as you of course already know, E. H.-J.'s only publication. But they are his largest undertaking and (I say this confidently) his favorite one. I asked him once: "Don't you think of the Quarterly as the biggest thing you've ever done?" "No-o-o," he said, "the Little Blue Books." At which Marcet Haldeman-Julius, who understands her husband much better than anyone else, put it like this: "Manuel is awfully fond of the Weekly and the Monthly; and he really loves the Quarterly — it is his youngest brain-child. But the Little Blue Book idea is his eldest, and he loves it best of all." It certainly has been a gifted child, quite worthy of its parent. For, although they are famous everywhere, the Little Blue Books are less than nine years old.

About twelve years ago Emanuel Julius left the job of Sunday editor for the New York Call and came west to work on the editorial staff of the Appeal to Reason at Girard. The next year he married Marcet Haldeman, a native Girard girl who had been doing brilliant work on the stage until her mother's death made a return to Girard necessary. I thought it interesting that for months, while they wee both in New York, Manuel and Marcet lived in the same hotel, his apartment just above hers, yet were complete strangers until they met in Girard.

I first saw Marcet about two years ago, a day or two after my arrival in Girard. I was taken to the edge of town, just across its eastern limits, to a farm that was not a farm because it was so nearly and ideal place to live. There, on the terrace of the spacious many-windowed, frame house was its mistress — small, compact, fluffy-haired — and she greeted us with the most shining, gracious cordiality imaginable. My net impression was of a charmingly attractive woman about her husband's age, tastefully and simply gowned, with a soft golden voice and eyes that were really incomparable. Brown eyes they were (although only much later did I notice their color) through which flitted, unveiled, a constant stream of impressions — revealing, probably more than she knew, her enthusiasms and disapprovals. In them, too, was reflected extraordinary intelligence, and the tolerance and understanding which have made her at the same time a comrade to her family and E. H.-J.'s most valuable reporter. Marcet's photographs are very misleading. Most of them give her an entirely new personality, and fail to catch the sensitive, sophisticated, generous-hearted individuality that is so thoroughly herself. From them you may get a likeness of her features, but to know her own radiant magnetism you must go either to her writings, or to herself. We became friends during my stay in Girard, and sincerely, Marcet Haldeman-Julius is the most admirable woman I have ever known.

So, knowing a little about both Marcet and Emanuel as individuals, you can begin to understand why together they have accomplished so much.

During the year following their marriage the Appeal to Reason was put up for sale, and the Haldeman-Juliuses gradually became its sole owners. E. H.-J. edited the Appeal for a time, but so Marcet writes in What the Editor's Wife Is Thinking About, "as his point of view and convictions changed, it was inevitable since, in spite of his swash-buckling and Barnum-like moments, E. H.-J. is fundamentally honest — it was inevitable that, with the change of his ideas eventually the policy, and at last even the name, of the paper should change." In the first issue of the Haldeman-Julius Weekly, the editor announced very simply that the new paper was to have as its aim the betterment of man, as had the Appeal, but the betterment of man through his own individual effort. That phrase exemplifies the Little Blue Book policy, and explains, perhaps, why these little five-cent books have been able to succeed in such an incredibly short time.

All his life, E. H.-J. says, he has wanted books of his own; and while he was growing up — when he needed them most — he was unable to buy them. All books were expensive, and the price of a classic was incredible. Later, when he became acquainted with the publishing business, he began to wonder why books could not be printed that everybody could afford to buy. It could be done, and it should be — and the thought, having hibernated for years in the back of his mind, sprang up ready for life in 1919.

He began his "University in Print" modestly enough, with a small list of titles and small editions. They were called the Pocket Series, had red covers, and cost twenty-five cents each. Every book contained a classical work then — reading matter which other publishers were certain the general public would not buy — yet so many of them were sold, at twenty-five cents, that the price could be dropped after the first few years to ten cents each. When the five-hundredth Little Blue Book title was added to the list the Haldeman-Julius Publishing Company celebrated with a Grand Jubilee edition of Life and Letters, the literary magazine it was then publishing, and in it was printed letters and telegrams of praise and congratulation from eminent persons all over the continent — from almost every eminent person one could think of, in fact. Since then, however, nearly a thousand new titles have been put into circulation, and the Little Blue Books have long been selling.

I have often heard, as probably have you, exclamations of surprise that a Little Blue Book could be sold with profit at five cents. When the question of how it is done is put to E. H.-J. he answers with just two words, "mass production." And that is, indeed, the explanation. But no person who has not been through his plant can really comprehend what those two words mean, and so I am going to describe the whole process to you.

To make an inexpensive product, and make it well, it is necessary to produce inexpensively. Some firms manage this with economy, but somehow it never fails to show up in the product. And so E. Haldeman-Julius has adopted efficiency as his medium to success. He uses the best of what he needs, but he does so with a swift carefulness that makes use of all its value. As he himself put it: "We are like the stockyards — we use everything about the pig but his squeal."

To begin with, there is not a yard of waste space in the building. Large place though it is — even huge it seems to many visitors — when one realizes that the Haldeman-Julius Monthly, the Weekly and the Quarterly, and the Key to Culture, all with enviable circulations, besides the Little Blue Books and the Big Blue Books, are published there — not to mention the clothbound books that are sold through the company — the feat of doing it all from the one building is apparent. For, after all, the Appeal to Reason used the whole thing to publish just one weekly paper. Of course, E. H.-J. has needed buildings for storage, and he has them — a large one he built just behind the plant for paper storage and garage, and another even larger warehouse is across the street for storing Little Blue Books.

Perhaps it will make my later explanations easier if I give you a brief diagram of the plant's different departments. The basement is filled with shelf after shelf of clothbound books. The front hall on the main floor, into which the big door opens, has the editorial offices on its left and the mailing department, from which the Little Blue Books are sent out, on its right. Directly back of these departments, and occupying at least half of the entire floor, is the pressroom. Behind this is the bindery, and back of it the paper and supply storehouse. The second floor is not petitioned off as is the first one, and so forms a gigantic room containing a diversity of occupations. Roughly, the southern half of this floor is occupied by the composing room, where the linotypes, printers, etc. are; while the northern half contains the desks of the proof readers, who are a part of the editorial staff; the magazine files; and the checking department, to which the mail is brought for a careful checking of all orders.

The Haldeman-Julius plant is not crowded, for there is plenty of room to work easily and well; but thoroughly used it undeniably is, from the front hall with its welcoming boxes of books to the farthest corners of the top floor.

This same policy of efficiency is clearly apparent in the employes [sic throughout]. The editorial staff, which beside the editor himself, his secretary, and the train of stenographers and office girls, consists of three others, all of whom are young, very capable, and working toward the common goal of writers (whatever that may be). All the other employes. belong to labor unions — four different ones are represented there, I believe — and the majority of the employes. have been with the company for years.

The editorial department has three offices which open directly into each other. The main one is a large bright room overflowing with manuscript-covered desks, waste-baskets, correspondence and office girls — with a little window opening out into the hall where visitors may make their wants known without disturbing more than one person. Next to it is the old office, which, since the addition of a new office, is used chiefly for filing cabinets. E. H.-J. explained to me with some humor, but with what I knew to be a very truthful rendering of the facts, that he used this office also to receive the people toward whom he felt hostilely inclined, salesmen and agents usually. About his new office, which was built two summers ago and has a garage attached, there is an air of thoughtful leisure, in sharp contrast with the noisy action going on all about. Invariably as I entered it, from the business rush beyond, there arose from its richly colored rug, shelves of books, and softly filtering light a creative mood that made it in fancy what it was in fact — the headquarters of the motive power behind the institution.

In the main outer office is the desk of Lloyd E. Smith, the Assistant Editor. If he is before it, with his back to the world, he is reading manuscripts or writing advertising; if not he is up in the composing room, or down in the pressroom, or over in the storehouse directing the business of publishing three periodicals and the Blue Books.

Lloyd is the man "with the bluest eyes and the blondest hair" and the briskest walk in the state of Kansas. He is not a Kansas son, however — his lawph-cawf-hawf enunciation makes his eastern nativity quite unmistakable to all middle-Westerners. E. H.-J. had him come from Connecticut less than three years ago when a thoroughly efficient assistant was needed. At that time Lloyd was already the author of sixty Little Blue Books, and E. H.-J. had corresponded with him enough to feel sure he was the right person. So Lloyd Smith has charge of all the mechanics of the plant — in fact he stands between those mechanics and E. Haldeman-Julius, that the editor may put his mind on manuscripts and plans for the future.

The mail comes into the main office five times a day, is opened by an electric device that swishes it all through in a few minutes, and is then checked and sorted by a corps of office girls. Little Blue Book orders are arranged according to the states they come from (there is a case with a pigeon hole for each state into which they are rapidly thrown), put on files, and taken upstairs to the checking or receipt department. Manuscripts are piled into wire baskets and taken to the editor, who, with Lloyd's help, reads them all. That does not mean that E. H.-J. does it all during business hours — he couldn't. Many, many times have I seen him blindly eating his lunch, his eyes and his thoughts on the prospective Little Blue Book or Quarterly article beside his plate. In the evening after dinner, too, when theoretically he is resting, the pages keep on turning.

Deciding upon the manuscripts is perhaps the most important part of making a Little Blue Book, for upon its ability to interest the public depends the book's success or failure. The most desirable pieces from classical literature were put into the list long ago, but by far the greater part of the series — around ninety percent of it — was written expressly for the Little Blue Books. With the permission of the Haldeman-Julius Company some of them have later been combined by the authors into clothbound books and have become great independent successes, as, for instance, were Isaac Goldberg's The Man Mencken and The Theatre of George Jean Nathan, and Will Durant's Story of Philosophy.

Writers of the highest reputation and authority — such as Joseph McCabe, John Cowper Powys, Maynard Shipley, Isaac Goldberg, James Oppenheim, and Ed Howe — have done most of the books, although manuscripts from young new writers are published, too, if they measure up to the same standards as all the others. I think that when John Cowper Powys said not long ago: "E. Haldeman-Julius has clairvoyance — if he takes a writer up he is made," he was simply expressing in a little different language the fact that the Little Blue Book editor has confidence in his own judgment, and is generous enough to give a good man a chance, wherever he finds him.

Once the manuscripts are chosen, they are carefully edited. Proofreading the Little Blue Books is one of the least monotonous jobs in existence — I can vouch for that, since I did it for a year. Most of the time it consists of reading the best stories and articles that have been written, and even a book on carpentering contains facts interesting enough for women to make conversation about.

But before the books can be proofread they of course must be put into type; and since electroplates are necessary for every Little Blue Book, this is all done by an electroplating firm in Kansas City. An electroplate differs from the type that the Monthly or Quarterly is printed from in that it is a thin copper plate with the type impression upon it (looking quite like a cut for a magazine picture, if you have ever seen one, except that it does not have the thick block of wood underneath it); while ordinary magazine type is set up in metal on a linotype, line after line, and must be assembled or "made up" before it can be put on the press and printed. Most of you have doubtless watched this done in some newspaper shop and understand perfectly why the weight and cumbersome quality of the type would make storage — which is necessary with the Little Blue Books since many editions of them are printed — utterly impracticable.

The electrotype company first sets the manuscripts up on the regular linotype, and only after proofs have been sent to the Haldeman-Julius Company and O.K.'d are the permanent plates made. Four Little Blue Book pages are grouped together, and a wax mold is made of them which is cast in metal. Then the sixteen plates — most Little Blue Book have sixty-four pages — are put in a sulphate solution and the type face of the plate is copperized. A book then consists of easily handled plates, which are sent to Girard and stored in the upstairs vault to await their turn at being printed. It is a brick fire-proof vault in which they are stored — a precaution taken both for the Blue Books plates and the magazine subscription lists, although the property is heavily insured and thoroughly equipped with fire sprinklers.

The atmosphere of a pressroom is indescribable. Its roar is deafening, its floor is always cluttered with odds and ends, and sometime during your visit there, if it is for any length of time at all, you are quite certain to acquire a long oily smudge, probably along the back of a treasured garment. Yet you like the pressroom immensely and quite understand why pressmen are pressmen. When you look down upon a pressroom — as from the stair platform just inside the one at the Haldeman-Julius plant — something about it inevitably catches at your imagination. The presses are like huge tractable beasts, who purr and switch their tails as they work for their smudgy union-allied attendants. At the Haldeman-Julius Company this animate quality is most startling, for the presses are automatic and run on for hours with only a casual glance from a pressman. However, happy-go-lucky though a press seems to be about its job, should one sheet of paper get out of place ever so little the whole machine stops, and patiently awaits the coming of a man to straighten out its difficulty.

The company has six such presses, and as you come down from the stair platform and walk across the big high room toward the south, three of them — the Hadgman, the Campbell, and the Pony (for thus are they named and called by everyone) are on your left; and the Miehle, the Rotary, and the Perfector (a Miehle it is also) are on your right. At times Blue Books are run on all these presses, except the Rotary which is not a book press; and during rush sales when a great number of books are needed, one hundred thousand can be printed in eight hours. For the usual daily job, however, they are printed on the Perfector and one other press, and their covers on the Miehle.

The Perfector is the largest, newest, and most efficient press in the shop. It is kept going continually and has never printed anything but Little Blue Books. Its chief excellence lies in that fact that it can print a sheet which is big enough to hold four Little Blue Books (42 x 58), and print only one side at a time; and so the covers, which need but one side printed, are run on it, thirty-two covers each of two different books (or sixty-four covers) being printed upon every sheet of paper.

Ten thousand, at least, of every book on the list are printed every year — twenty thousand of many, and one hundred thousand of the best sellers. They are all stored across the street in the warehouse, to be used as they are ordered, and a most careful and perpetual inventory must be kept in order to know when the new edition of the book should be printed.

I happened to be talking with Bill Shivener, the pressroom foreman, when the edition of one Little Blue Book was complete and ready to be taken off the Perfector. The plates were removed, cleaned, and taken upstairs to their place in the vault, while the plates for the new run were brought down and put on the press. The forms were locked, one sheet printed to be O.K.'d by Lloyd or E. H.-J., and the paper piled in its place ready to go.

The Little Blue Book plant uses tons of paper every day. Most of it is stored in a capacious, rather dark, cold storeroom at the back of the main building, but as much of it as there is room for is brought in by the presses to warm. Cold paper can hardly be used at all as it generates electricity, sticks together, and clogs the press. Or, if it gets through, it fails to "jog" (which term I will explain in a moment), and caused trouble in the bindery. Pieces of tinsel which look exactly like Christmas decoration are tied over the presses to make this static less bothersome, and give quite a festive appearance to the otherwise very practical-looking pressroom. Bill told me that some Kansas University boys who went through the plant at Christmas time remarked upon the spirit that thus emphasized the holiday atmosphere, and so far as he knew, the boys were never disillusioned.

The paper is put into a rack somewhat higher than the rest of the press, and fed automatically by a clawlike little wheel that scrapes up the corner of each sheet. To show me how interdependent the parts of the press were, Bill Shivener tore a little corner off a sheet or two in the pile which was about to be put in the rack, and cautioned me to watch them go through. They simply didn't — each time one was on top the press stopped, and the imperfect page was removed before the little automatic feeder could continue with its work.

The sheets are sucked through with a tremendous hum, around a cylinder that prints one side, and over a second one which prints the other side. As I have already told you, four Blue Books are printed on every sheet, but just before they come out of the press the sheet is cut down the middle, and henceforth the books go on their way in pairs — "two up," the shop expression is. The sheets then come out into two "joggers," which are mechanical arrangements of long narrow boards that straighten the pages into two even piles in much the same way you or I would even a pack of cards with our hands, if it were necessary to leave them lying on a table. Should the static cause the pages to stick together, you see, jogging would not be possible. The platform onto which the finished sheets come off the press is a movable one, and when it is full the Little Blue Books are hauled to the next stage of their making — the bindery.

In the bindery the large printed pages become books. They are first put through the folder — low, wide, flat machines that whisk the pages through five different slits and send them up from each one folded in half. (To go into the folders the piles of pages must be even, and if they do not come that way from the press, the straightening must be done by hand — hence the importance of jogging.) There are four folders in the plant, each with a daily capacity of 25,000 books, and their ability to fold a sheet five times instead of the usual four makes them different from other folders. In fact, E. H.-J. had the struggle of his life to get them. The representatives of three different manufacturers told him that such folders had never been made, and that they couldn't be made. So E. H.-J., who swears he knows nothing about machinery, went out to the bindery to study the standard four-folding machines for an hour, and when he came back he not only informed the manufacturers that it could be done, but he told them how. Then he ordered his folders, and got them.

The sheets come from the folding machine in a form twice the length of a Little Blue Book — two Blue Books fastened together, one above the other. Thus they are taken to one of the two stitchers — long, narrow, sewing-machine-like devices displaying impressively conspicuous spools of wire. A long steel bar with marked spaces just long enough for "two up" books protrudes from one end of each stitcher, and works in rhythmic jerks toward the center of the machine. Astraddle the bar in one of these spaces the partnered books ride toward the spools of wire, and as they go their blue covers, which go "two up" also, are dropped over their backs. At last they are drawn down under the four footlike steel devices, and are firmly fastened together with four pieces of wire.

The trimmer, their last-but-one stop, is a pair of blades so sharp and with so much force behind them that to cut the rough edges from two sturdy piles of Little Blue Books the operator seems to do nothing but let the blades drop. And after the trimmer comes the cutter, appropriately called the guillotine. It has just one powerful blade and when it falls between the "two-up" books they are made single and perfect individuals.

There they are packed in boxes and taken to the warehouse to wait, with eleven million others, while the process of their sale is carried through its final stages. Orders for an average of 25,000 Little Blue Books come in every working day across the desks in the main office. The checking department upstairs compares the remittances enclosed with the number of books ordered, sees that the desired titles tally with the numbers given, makes shipment labels for the whole order, and sends them down to the mailing department which, remember, is just across the hall from the editorial offices.

If you have ever been in the employes part of a postoffice, and can remember how the back side of the private boxes looked — just pigeon hole after pigeon hole — you have a fairly accurate idea of the mailing department of the Haldeman-Julius Company. If you can imagine three walls of these pigeon hole cases, forming a little three-cornered room, each pigeon hole crammed with Little Blue Books and with the number of the book written above it you have the idea exactly.

There are four such three-sided cases in the department, each case containing compartments for a complete set of Little Blue Books. Five girls can work comfortably at each case filling the orders, at the speed of an order a minute; a half dozen are kept busy refilling the cases from boxes brought over from the warehouse; and perhaps a dozen others check the books gathered with the orders to see that they are correct. Then the Blue Books are packed, labeled, sacked, and taken by the company truck to the postoffice. Always, let me impress upon you, is this done the same day the order is received — often, indeed, within the same hour.

This promptness, of course, as well as the company's extensive advertising policy, has had much to do with the world-wide reputation of the Little Blue Books. But the deep, underlying principle of their success lies in the spirit which prompted E. Haldeman-Julius to create them, that of publishing for the people the things they want to read, and selling them at a small price.

His conception of "what the people want to read" was a source of great amazement to publishers eight years ago — today they are taking tips from him. "I have always assumed," I once heard him say to a group of guests, "that my readers are interested in the same things I am."

"But you are interested in everything — except baseball," someone protested.

"The people, then," said E. H.-J. with amusement, "go me one better."

On this assumption he has increased his Little Blue Book list, and since his interpretation of "everything" is "everything worth while," the series has become an encyclopedia of information — being by word count as well as variety of subject matter, larger than the Encyclopedia Britannica.

A story E. H.-J. once told at dinner comes back to me. He was talking about Upton Sinclair. "I remember the first time I met him." He said. "I was in New York for a day or two and he called me up — said he would come around to my hotel. Two other fellows were there when he came, and we were drinking a bit of rye. 'Uppy' doesn't drink. He sat on the bed watching us, and then he got up and pointed his finger at one of the other men, he said: 'You can drink yourself to death if you want to, but Haldeman-Julius can't — he has important work to do.'"

He has, indeed — but he had done much that is important, already.

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