Book production during WWII

Whilst browsing the shelves of a local charity shop in Worcester, we recently came across this modest copy of Arthur Ransome’s The Picts and the Martyrs [1] printed in Oxford at the Alden Pressand bound by A. W. Bain & Co. Ltd. 

What drew us to the book was not its faded green cloth exterior, brightly coloured maps, or quaint pen and ink illustrations, but a short legend printed on the final sheet of the text-block.

Produced by the Publishers’ Association and introduced in 1942, the Book Production War Economy Agreement established strict guidelines designed to combat dwindling paper supplies through the economical use of publishers’ rations. Particularly concerned with printing, these standards governed aspects of page design such as type size and the number of words to a page, and books were slimmed down with the use of thin boards and fewer blank pages. [2] Whilst the agreement was not compulsory, those publishers who chose not to join, were subject to even greater rationing. [3]

Perhaps counterintuitively and despite these constraints, demand for books increased as the war progressed. As Darley puts it:

‘At first no one wanted books. Real life was as thrilling as fiction, so stagnation fell on printers and binders and lasted until most of the younger men had been driven away into munitions or the forces; then, as boredom followed excitement and weary armies sought relief from fear and misery, a revival began; a revival that slowly grew into prosperity never before known’ [4]


[1]Ransome, A. (1943). The Picts and the Martyrs: or, Not Welcome at All. London; Toronto: Jonathan Cape.

[2]McKitterick, D. (2004). A History of Cambridge University Press. Volume III: New Worlds for Learning 1873–1972(p. 286).Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[3]BBC (2014). A History of the World. Book: 1943 – ‘War Economy Standard’. Retrieved from

[4]Darley, L. (1959). Bookbinding Then & Now: A Survey of the First Hundred and Seventy-eight years of James Burn & Company (p. 94). London: Faber & Faber.

Emily Green, 11th November 2020