Looking back at classic book ads

Book advertising’s print heyday is behind us. But it was beautiful while it lasted.

– Dwight Garner, Read Me: A Century of Classic American Book Advertisements

Read Me book cover

Dwight Garner’s book Read Me begins by pointing something out that is often overlooked: getting a book published and into a reader’s line of sight is a long, difficult process involving many people, and only if the author is really, really lucky is there a book tour, public appearance and ad campaign. Read Me focuses on the fascinating history of book advertisements.

According to Read Me, the world’s first paid print advertisement for any product was for a book. It appeared in 1647 and became a template for all book ads that followed. Throughout the 1700s and early 1800s, book ads appeared inside other books, on print posters and in newspapers. As it is today, word of mouth advertising has always been the book’s best friend.

Eloise book ad

Early examples of book ads in the 1900s were pretty boring, using typography as their main design element. Some of the copy was corny by our standards (“It’s New! It’s Different!”), but some of it was great: “You’ve never met a hero like Tarzan — his marvelous adventures — his strange wooing — and you’ll never forget him.” (From a 1914 ad for Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes.)

By the 1920s, book ads started to use author photographs. Publishers even used the public personas of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway to create a series of face-off ads with Fitzgerald as the ultimate city boy and Hemingway as a macho man. By the 1930s, book-critic quotes were used in the ads, and in the 40s and 50s, provocative imagery and headlines were becoming more common. But one thing was certain: no one really knew if book advertising was effective. I doubt they even know that now.

A Farewell To Arms book ad

Lolita book ad

Book ads hit their stride in the 60s and 70s with titles like To Kill a Mockingbird, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Bluest Eye and The Bell Jar. But they took a dive in the 80s and 90s. Not even books like Less Than Zero or The English Patient got interesting ads during that time.

To Kill A Mockingbird book ad

Now here we are in 2013 where book advertising still exists but not like before. I see the occasional book ad in the subway or online but it isn’t usually very memorable. The only interesting book ads I’ve seen in recent memory haven’t been for specific books but for reading in general, like these 10 Brilliant Book Ads.

As fewer people buy books and publishers have less money to spend on things that may or may not make a difference on sales, book advertising might become a thing of the past. And that’s a real shame, if you ask me. Read Me is an interesting look back at an art form that we probably won’t ever see again.

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