IN the postwar decade the United States has been deeply concerned with problems of international communication and particularly with the flow of information and ideas from this country abroad. Our efforts in this field have had two principal objectives. The first has been to counter Soviet propaganda and bring other countries to a fuller and therefore, we hope, more friendly understanding of the United States and its policies. The second has been to make technical knowledge available as a means of assistance in economic development abroad.

Massive though our program has been, it has generally been conceived in relatively narrow and short-run terms. The effort at political persuasion has been concentrated largely on immediate issues. Technical assistance has been devoted primarily to providing the skills for particular projects and programs rather than raising the general level of economic competence. In general, all overseas information efforts have been in the charge of agencies with rather specific and limited purposes and under pressure to produce immediate results. Hence there has been a tendency to rely for communication primarily on ad hoc missions and madeto-order materials: broadcasts, press stories and specially prepared pamphlets and films. Since books constitute a more generalized medium of information, one less easily controlled and more slow to produce results, they have been used less.

Recently there have been evidences of a marked change of emphasis in this regard. Vice President Nixon, on his return from his first visit to the Orient, is reported to have stressed inexpensive books as the foremost of the information needs of the United States in the area. In the State Department Bulletin for October 17, 1955, Nelson A. Rockefeller, then Special Assistant to the President, stated: "Because we have so long delayed a really major effort in this field of books, a major program is now absolutely necessary."[i] And in the terse language of the President's Budget Message of last January appears this significant sentence: "Overseas libraries will be expanded, and increased emphasis will be given to supplying books to foreign readers at low prices." This shift in emphasis has already been reflected in increased allotments for the use of books by the United States Information Agency and the International Coöperation Administration.

In part, of course, this more intensive concern with books is simply a response to the extensive Communist use of books, pamphlets and leaflets as propaganda materials. Visitors abroad have been repeatedly struck by the ubiquitous presence in many countries of editions of Soviet works, translated and well bound, at prices obviously below the cost of production, and by the profusion of free or inexpensive Communist pamphlets. Less apparent but probably more important has been the major Soviet effort at international cultural exchange over the last few years, which has placed large quantities of Russian scientific and technical works and general literature in libraries and universities in Europe, Asia and, in less degree, Latin America. More direct and strident forms of open propaganda through printed materials have generally been left to local Communist Parties in order to avoid the onus of direct Soviet interference in local affairs.

Although the apparent success of this Communist propaganda effort has been one reason for the demand that we try to offset it by similar methods, the fact is that the greater emphasis on the use of books is primarily a result of a changing conception of the objectives and appropriate techniques of an American program for increasing international communication. It is being more and more recognized that the position taken by this or that foreign government with respect to major international problems is not determined by short-run sparring over the interpretation to be placed on particular events but rather by their own basic attitudes and long-range evaluations of the world situation. Perhaps the difficulty of manipulating public opinion in other countries to support predetermined American positions is also being understood; and with that is coming acceptance of the idea that the best hope for a unity of purpose lies in a candid sharing of fundamental values and concepts from which a common approach to problems can arise.

Similarly, aid in the process of economic development is now generally accepted as being a very long-term undertaking, which must include a massive program of general scientific, medical, engineering and administrative training and a vastly enlarged educational effort. There has been a significant shift of emphasis from short-range demonstration projects to longer-range efforts to help build up the research and teaching resources of institutions in less developed countries.

These converging purposes--to combat the Soviet use of printed propaganda and to address efforts at international communication to broader and more lasting subjects--have thus combined to demand a more effective use of American books. The possibility that the United States Government will undertake to do this means that careful thought should be given to determining the proper rôle of American books abroad and how it can best be realized.

II

Let us begin with a sober look at the limitation on books as a means of international communication and at the difficulties in the way of their use. In the first place, more than half the adult people in the world cannot read a book, and of those who do read, only a small minority read English. For most of the world's people a hard-cover book is an impossible luxury and to procure even a paperbound book involves an imposing expense. In most areas outside Western Europe, only the largest cities are likely to have adequate bookstores, and in many important countries the whole machinery of local publishers, dealers and libraries by which books are brought to readers hardly exists. Dollar shortages, tariffs and other commercial barriers combine with the inadequate organization of the book trade to impede further the flow of books, as does the absence in most foreign countries of any ready means of learning about American publications.

Perhaps the most important limitation is one that exists in the United States as well: only a minority even of those who can read well and have access to books are in fact readers of books, especially of serious books. To read a serious book requires thought and sustained attention in a degree to which most persons are unaccustomed; a book is therefore not likely to be read unless it serves a significant personal need or interest. The bare mention of these difficulties makes it clear that American books, with rare exceptions, cannot directly reach really mass audiences abroad.

The audience that can be reached, however, is of major importance. In Great Britain and the dominions, American books in either the original or British editions circulate as freely as they do here. In Western Europe and Latin America the use of English by scholars, scientists, engineers and political leaders is far more widespread than the use of any foreign language here, and the facilities for producing translations are good. English is increasingly becoming a lingua franca, especially in those parts of the world where newly formed nations lack a common tongue. In the Middle East and Asia, where obstacles to the use of books are particularly formidable, it is a safe guess that there are 10,000,000 people who read English reasonably well. This is a large audience in itself, and one likely to grow. More important is the fact that it includes most of the men who control the governments and the economy of the area and most of those whose creative thought provides intellectual leadership and transmutes Western knowledge to meet Asian needs. The Soviet Union enjoys no such advantage.

Moreover, in just those countries in which language, literacy and economic barriers make the wide dissemination of books most difficult, the resulting scarcity itself affords a special opportunity. In the great hunger for books in such a country, for example, as Indonesia, every worthwhile book we can help make available assumes a special--even unique--importance, an importance much greater than that of any one publication competing for attention among the abundance in London or Paris. It is cause for concern that in some countries this demand for reading matter in English is being supplied in part by the unsold remainders of rather sleazy publications, including salacious illustrated magazines, bought up at a fraction of a cent above their wastepaper value and dumped abroad for local currencies at prices within reach of a large audience.

Although there are severe quantitative limitations on what American books can accomplish abroad in reaching a mass audience, almost the only limit to their ultimate potential contribution to the technology and the thought of other countries lies in the degree to which their content shows itself valuable to their people and is able to pass directly into their own intellectual life. The following sections attempt to suggest some of the principal elements in a program to realize that potential.

III

A first element in such a program should be to remove as far as possible the obstacles that now lie in the way of a larger purchase of American books by foreign institutions and individuals. The volume of American books exported, after allowing for price changes, is at least three or four times as large as it was before World War II. Sales to countries other than Canada and the Philippines have increased by an even larger ratio, and the increase to Asia and the Near East has been many-fold. All told, about $40,000,000 worth of American books, at wholesale prices, are exported annually, and this figure does not include British editions of American books. If to this figure are added the costs of internal distribution through bookstores and libraries, the cost of British and other foreign editions, and the cost of translations, it is probable that the people of other countries spend close to $100,000,000 annually in importing, translating, publishing and distributing American books--a sum larger than the total appropriations of the U.S.I.A. and out of all proportion to the perhaps $5,000,000 which this country spends annually on its overseas libraries and other book ventures abroad. The $100,000,000 figure is particularly impressive when we consider that nearly half of it must be paid in scarce dollars and that a higher proportion is paid by newly developing countries whose imports must be confined to objects of the most urgent need. It is itself evidence of the extraordinarily useful rôle of American books in those countries.

But the imports would be very much larger if American books were better known and more conveniently available at prices reflecting the general price structure of the country and if there were no commercial barriers or currency restrictions. The principal single obstacle to larger imports is simply the dollar shortage. Through the Informational Media Guaranty Program, the United States Government is able to deal with the currency problem in certain countries, such as Israel or the Philippines, by buying for dollars the payments in local currencies received by American publishers and exporters. In many countries, such as Burma, however, currency difficulties remain a major and almost impenetrable barrier. One has only to contrast imports of $670,000 by Israel with $20,000 by Turkey or $1,570,000 by Brazil with $30,000 by Argentina to see how dramatically a solution of currency difficulties can affect the situation. (These are Commerce Department figures, which by omitting shipments of less than $100 underestimate actual imports by 25 percent to 50 percent, but they are roughly comparable country to country.) A continuance and improvement of this program and the extension of it to other countries are essentials. It is also necessary to devise economical means of using the foreign currencies acquired in ways-- such as financing translations--that will reinforce the program without aggravating the currency problem.

A second highly desirable step would be ratification by the United States of the Florence Agreement on the Importation of Educational, Scientific and Cultural Materials. In exchange for similar concessions from this country, other adherents would thereby be obligated to remove tariff barriers on American publications and to make available the dollar exchange needed by libraries and educational institutions to purchase them.

Except in Great Britain and the Dominions, however, even in countries in which there are neither tariff nor currency barriers, the sale of American books is principally confined to ready buyers: libraries, research institutions, government agencies and individual professionals, many of whom order them directly. Except for inexpensive paperbound books there is relatively little sale to individuals at large and almost no active effort to cultivate such a market. The reason is that this would require promotional efforts out of all proportion to the recompense from increased sales for many years. The organization of the American book export trade, though it has been materially strengthened in the postwar period, is not yet adequate to undertake a major overseas sales effort. Yet the development of a wider use of American books by individuals abroad and the promotion of books through exhibits, displays and reviews are of material importance to the government and ultimately to the industry. Obviously, then, a third major need is for a joint effort by government and industry to deal with the cost of selling books by consignment (which is necessary if they are to be stocked abroad); to undertake promotional efforts that go beyond what is commercially practical (including the preparation and wide circulation of lists of current American books of foreign interest); and to invigorate the whole export effort, especially in Asia and the Middle East.

If there is to be an expansion of sales beyond the established institutional market some reduction in price will often be necessary. A true mass market cannot be reached except by the radical price reductions possible only in the case of large paperbound editions. For many books, obviously, there will be only a limited institutional market whatever the price. But in the case of some titles a reduction of 20 to 40 percent may offer the opportunity of expanding distribution from a single copy in a university library to a dozen among individual scholars and leaders. Various possibilities exist of arranging lower prices for export copies to this limited group. Reduction of the overseas postal rate on books to the levels authorized by the Brussels Postal Convention, a step taken by almost every other major publishing country, would itself permit price reductions of from 5 to 10 percent.

A relatively simple coordinated effort of this sort to remove barriers, increase promotion and enlarge the opportunities to buy would probably enable other countries to increase their imports of American books by at least 20 percent, representing an investment on their part of an additional $8,000,000 to $10,000,000. The rate of increase in the crucial Asian and Near Eastern countries would probably be much larger. Such an increase would be particularly important in view of the fact that every copy would be selected and paid for by a reader or institution abroad; this would assure that it had a direct relationship to their interests and needs.

IV

But even if the possibilities of exporting American books by these methods were exploited to the full, the potential rôle of American books abroad would be only partially fulfilled. In most countries they would still be available to only an élite of education and means. Further measures are necessary to make a relatively limited number of books of wide interest available in languages and at prices that can reach the literate public generally.

Several hundred American books are now translated annually into the major languages of Western Europe, but these naturally are titles, usually of fiction, which seem likely to command a wide sale. There is almost no opportunity for the translation of a serious work of history, biography or public affairs which is of interest outside the audience able to read English but which does not seem likely to attract the thousands of readers needed to justify commercial publication. Such books, basically important for international cultural and intellectual relations, can usually be published abroad in translation only with a subsidy. However, such a subsidy need not be large and can be granted by paying for the rights and the translation or by buying a specified number of copies for free distribution, or both.

The United States Information Agency has a very efficient program for giving this sort of assistance and annually aids in the translation of 600 or more titles. Though general cultural works have not been omitted, there has been an understandable emphasis on books of specific political relevance. An important and useful field of activity by foundations would be to give similar assistance for works of broad and lasting value in fields outside the Government's special range of interests.

Translation into the Asian tongues presents a different problem altogether. The university professor or student, the physician or the engineer has been compelled to learn a Western language in order to master his field, and is more likely to read English easily than his European colleague. But if there is less need to translate works for such persons, there is an appallingly vast need to do so for others. The everyday needs of Europeans for educational materials, for technical knowledge and for general information can normally be met in abundance from books of their own countries. Not so in Asia, where one who has not learned a Western language is barred from access to most of the whole body of Western knowledge and professional skills. There is an urgent need to produce and distribute translations of many hundreds of works covering the basic fields of knowledge.

But in the face of this great need the capacity for producing and publishing translations is very small. In most of Asia there are better facilities for printing than one would expect, yet these are barely adequate for current output and would be completely swamped by any publishing program of the needed size. There has been no regularly and adequately paid employment which would attract and develop a body of competent translators. But an even greater obstacle in most of Asia is the absence of a publishing industry capable of organizing and carrying out a large-scale program of translating material and distributing it. Marginal assistance to an already efficient publishing industry such as exists in Europe is therefore not the answer. Any program aimed at making American books, or any books, really useful in many Asian countries must begin with building up the machinery to produce and distribute them.

The principal American effort in this direction has been Franklin Publications, a non-profit publishing house with offices in Cairo, Tehran, Lahore, Dacca and Djakarta; it produces works in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Urdu, Bengali and Indonesian. All of its books are issued in collaboration with local publishers, who are given an opportunity to learn modern methods of book production and distribution. The Ford Foundation has recently made a grant of $500,000 to a South India book trust to foster the development of an adequate publishing industry in the Dravidian language group. Such moves deal realistically with the basic problem of making books useful in most of Asia, but they are comparatively limited in size and range. It would be especially desirable for technical assistance funds to be used to enlarge the work of Franklin Publications in technology and economics, and for grants like that of the Ford Foundation to be made in other countries.

Inexpensive books capable of wide popular sale are needed, however, in English as well as in translation. In India, indeed, a serious book can probably be read more widely in English than in any of the Indian tongues. The rapid expansion of inexpensive paperbound publishing in the United States has already done much to meet this need. But books can be sent abroad in the 25 to 50 cent price range only if they are part of an edition printed for the American market in quantities of at least 100,000 or more. In other words, the availability of really inexpensive American books for users overseas is now merely a by-product of meeting the often quite different demands of the American market. A carefully planned program of government aid is needed to make possible the publication and sale abroad in English of especially important books at mass-market prices. This aid should be scaled so that it covers only the gap between the actual domestic sale and that normally required for a mass edition.

A special need is for materials simple in language and in their assumptions of a knowledge of Western life, but adult in interest and conception, for the use of those newly literate in English. In many Asian countries, such as Indonesia, there is an intense effort, almost a national movement, to learn English as a means of self-improvement and a key to Western knowledge; but there is little for those who acquire the skill to practise it on, and it may soon be lost in discouragement. Russia has responded more quickly than we in sending English-language materials to Indonesia, where--by our default--it finds a large and eager audience. We have much experience in the United States in the production of materials of this general character; at not too great an outlay of funds we could produce a very superior series of short adult books, adapted for the proper level of ability in English and the appropriate areas of interests, and published for wide sale at very low prices.

V

It is well to remember, however, that the rôle of John Locke's "Treatises on Civil Government" in helping to shape the political philosophy of the American Revolution was achieved not by a mass edition but through the few copies read by men like Jefferson, Adams, Mason and Madison and popularized in the brilliant political pamphlets that came from their pens. The important influence which Thoreau's "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience" is said to have had on the history of India came not from any wide distribution in that country, where it is indeed little known, but from the fact that a single copy seems to have come into the hands of Mohandas Gandhi when he was a young lawyer in Africa.

This is not to exaggerate the influence of Thoreau and Locke. On the contrary, it is to suggest that the restive colonists in America and the masses in India could be moved only by men of their own time and place and situation and that Locke and Thoreau attained meaning for them only as their ideas found a place, transmuted to the immediate need, in the proposals of contemporary leaders. And equally now it would be a naïve illusion to suppose that any American book, however widely translated or how cheaply sold, will itself significantly determine the responses or shape the thinking of another people. It is in India and by Indian thinkers that the economic and social and political problems of that country will be met and its future shaped, and it is Indian books written in that country that will make those solutions known and win support for them. And this is true for every other country as well.

Of all the things we attempt to do with American books abroad, the most important will be to see that through them whatever contributions we have to offer of knowledge, theory, method or insight are readily available to the leaders and scholars of other countries as they may need them in trying to work out the solutions to their own problems. This does not call for wide circulation of any single book, but it does call for extensive resources for putting just the right book in the hands of the leader or thinker who needs it.

The most useful machinery for this purpose we have now is the 160 United States Information Service libraries abroad. These are collections of 5,000 to 20,000 books and 100 to 500 current periodicals, well organized and usually administered with high professional skill. The value of the books as individual volumes is multiplied by their being brought together in organized and currently maintained collections and supplemented by a competent reference service. Their usefulness abroad, though for a time seriously damaged by the timorous retreat by the State Department before Senator McCarthy's assaults in 1953, is enormous; indeed, it literally cannot be measured, since it finds expression through so many thousands of indigenous channels. It is important that these libraries be maintained and strengthened and that their real rôle should never be sacrificed either to short-run propaganda considerations or in a quixotic attempt to reach mass audiences directly at the expense of the quality of the expert services rendered to productive writers, thinkers and leaders.

But in the long run an even more important resource will be in the universities abroad, and particularly in Asia and the Middle East. Here are the centers of research and teaching where gather the economists, political and social scientists, engineers and researchers in medicine and the sciences on whom will rest the principal responsibility of applying the generality of Western knowledge to the particular problems of their own countries. Here are indeed the natural centers for the reception and dissemination of ideas from abroad. And the students as well form a group of special interest--intelligent and intense, displaced from traditional patterns, anxiously seeking new integrating principles, likely to pass quickly to positions of power and leadership--but prone also, if not integrated into their societies, to turn in their frustration to Communism. The intense sense of nationalism and the drive for economic development also find a focus in many Asian universities.

Books are badly needed in these rapidly growing institutions, the slender resources of which are already strained to the utmost. A high proportion of the remarkable increase in foreign expenditure for American books has been devoted to building up their holdings, but even so only a beginning has been made. The fact that English is read in almost all universities and is, indeed, the principal language of instruction in many Asian universities provides us with a special opportunity. Hitherto the United States has done little to meet this need. Some foundation grants in the postwar years were devoted to replacing damaged or destroyed collections; American libraries have sent duplicates abroad through the United States Book Exchange or directly; and the United States Information Agency has made token gifts of books to foreign universities, usually as good will gestures. But the only consistent efforts to help in building up foreign university collections have come under the Finnish War Debt Program, the India Wheat Loan Program and the program of technical assistance through university contracts recently enlarged by I.C.A.

The Finnish and Indian programs provide that payments on the Finnish war debt and a part of India's interest payments on the wheat loan shall be applied to cultural exchanges. These have resulted in an annual allotment of funds up to $65,000 in the case of Finland and from $250,000 to $400,000 in the case of India for the purchase of books for university collections. The technical assistance contracts administered by American universities sometimes include provisions for building up the library holdings of the beneficiary foreign institution in agreed fields. The allocation of an additional one to two million dollars a year to more general programs for assisting foreign university libraries to develop their collections of materials from this country would be perhaps the most effective single project that could be undertaken.

Even well-developed library collections, however, do not provide a fully satisfactory answer to the need of the individual scholar to own and use materials in his special field. An enormously useful foundation or government project would be to make it possible for American learned societies, particularly in the social sciences, to elect a considerable number of distinguished foreign scholars to honorary life membership, this to include receipt at no charge of the society's journal. This alone would permit a familiarity with contemporary trends in professional thought in economics, political science, sociology and international relations and would lead to a much greater and more effective use of books reviewed in the journals, particularly if the honorary membership also included a modest annual allowance to cover the purchase of a few individual books of special importance.

VI

As this discussion suggests, the proper use of books is not as instruments of propaganda in the meaner sense of the word. If it were the function of our information program merely to persuade other people to adopt a predetermined set of American views, books could play only a limited rôle. For by its very nature, a book becomes primarily the tool of its reader to serve his own ends rather than of its author or publisher or distributor to achieve theirs.

But the character of our foreign policy objectives is such that in the long run it is probably less important that the thought of another country should accord with ours--granted common ultimate values--than that it should be successful in meeting that country's own political and economic needs. Hence in forming policy with respect to the total flow of information abroad, we can rightly be more concerned with its utility in meeting those needs than with its persuasiveness in winning adherents to an immediate point of view, desirable as this may be. In a program so conceived, books obviously play a central rôle as a vehicle for the extensive and diverse range of knowledge and ideas that must be conveyed.

But the machinery of the book program should clearly reflect these distinctions of function. It will do more harm than good if, in effect, it says: "These are the ideas we want to get over. Find or write some books that say them convincingly and then buy or print up some big editions and see that everybody can get a copy in his own language cheap." An effective book program abroad--like a successful publishing or library program at home --must begin with the books that the potential users need and will read, and from there it must aim to consider how they can best be provided at places, in languages, at prices and under circumstances that make them most useful for our common purposes. This requires a broad, flexible and varied effort, but if it is undertaken with wisdom and skill, it can achieve an influence out of all proportion to the cost.

[i] Mr. Rockefeller's statement was made originally in a message to a conference on "American Books Abroad" sponsored by the National Book Committee last fall.

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  • DAN LACY, Managing Director of the American Book Publishers Council; formerly Assistant Administrator of the International Information Administration
  • More By Dan Lacy