Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Simplicity of Radio

In addition to applause cards (detailed in the preceding post), each 1920s Crosley radio came with an 80-page book titled The Simplicity of Radio. Carrying Powel’s byline, this book explained how radio worked, and how to operate and even build a receiver. Perhaps looking for a more cost-efficient means of having the book printed—and seeking yet another promotional opportunity—Powel contacted Emmanuel Haldeman-Julius, a Kansas publisher of small (3-2/3” x 5”) booklets about publishing The Simplicity of Radio in 1923.

Haldeman-Julius was an unusual publisher, a socialist activist who began publishing classic literature in 1919, intent on educating Americans. His press turned out the works of writers like Voltaire, Poe, Jack London, Balzac, and Oscar Wilde under the imprint of “Little Blue Books” and sold them for five or ten cents each. He also published non-fiction books written by experts on a wide variety of subjects, with titles like Typewriting Self-Taught and The Case for Birth Control. They were immensely popular; more than 100,000,000 Little Blue Books were sold in the 1920s alone. (He wrote a bestseller about his marketing techniques, The First Hundred Million, for Simon & Schuster.)

Powel, a voracious reader, had seen many of these editions and knew that they received wide distribution. Haldeman-Julius routinely solicited new works (even though most of his titles were reprints), and Powel contacted him about publishing The Simplicity of Radio. Powel reasoned, correctly, that radio being a new subject of great interest, Haldeman-Julius would want to publish his booklet.

As published by E. Haldeman-Julius, The Simplicity of Radio, by Powel Crosley, Jr., carried the subtitle The Little Blue Book of Radio, and was 32 pages in length. It was one of the few Little Blue Books that did not list Haldeman-Julius as copyright owner. Instead, the copyright notice read “The Crosley Radio Corporation, Powel Crosley, Jr., President.” Powel had learned enough about intellectual property from patents to know better than to give away a copyright.

There were a couple of specific benefits in having Haldeman-Julius publish the booklet. First, the Crosley Radio Corporation could buy copies of The Simplicity of Radio for less than it cost to have them printed locally. Second, the book was a great promotional device, as it featured Crosley radios and parts. It was also a sales tool; anyone who wanted a copy could request one free. And it was serialized in any newspaper that would have it, at no charge.

Powel may or may not received a royalty on sales; if he did, it was inconsequential, amounting to perhaps a fifth of a cent per copy. The important thing was that The Simplicity of Radio went through at least 20 editions between 1923 and 1929, each edition reflecting advances in radio technology. The final count on copies printed was probably several hundred thousand.

If the number of copies in the holdings of various city libraries was any indication, the book was popular. The New York Public Library, the Public Library of Cleveland, and the public libraries of Chicago and Los Angeles each counted more than 50 copies of the book among their holdings in 1925. I have three different versions of this, and Charlie Stinger has at least one more. You can find The Simplicity of Radio on eBay for five bucks or so.

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