The Rise and Fall of Time Life Books (2,310 words)
By Denny Hatch
Oct. 4, 1957, is etched in my memory almost as clearly as the day Kennedy was shot. That October day, the Russians launched sputnik, leaving the U.S. space program at the starting gate.
I stood on Columbia University's main campus talking with fellow students while this satellite whizzed over our heads, all of us fully expecting Armageddon. During a speech in Poland the previous year, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev said to the West, "We will be at your burial."
During this period, American school children practiced regular air raid drills. Survivalists spent small fortunes outfitting backyard air raid shelters. In 1960, Khrushchev took off his shoe in the United Nations General Assembly and beat the desk in protest.
That same year, an amazing mailing arrived in America's mailboxes. It proclaimed in huge type: RUSSIA. As I recall, the envelope had a picture of the Kremlin and a montage of other photos including a Cossack and a Russian soldier. The mailing startled American consumers to their shoes. With all the scare-mongering by the media, no one to that point had created a consumer-oriented, geographical review on our feared enemy in sane, authoritative, readable English with spectacular full-color illustrations.
This was the very first mailing from Time-Life Books, the brainchild of Jerome Hardy, an authentic publishing genius who came to Time Inc. from Doubleday where he was vice president of advertising for the book clubs. Started as a department of the old LIFE magazine, Time-Life Books soon took on a life of its own. In its heyday, it was the most profitable division of the entire corporation. Since the operation was mail order and under the radar of the retail trade, its titanic successes were never recorded in the nation's best-seller lists.
The idea behind the project was to exploit the massive Time Inc. archives. When Hardy first arrived in 1959, he helped Time dip its toe into the book publishing waters with a tacky paperback series called "Time Capsules," excerpts from Time magazine on a year-by-year basis and illustrated with cruddy black-and-white reproductions. The covers were muddy green and brown and totally uninviting; the series did not last.