History of Reader's Digest Magazine Part 3

About the major reference guide the Reader's Digest magazine, history and growth of the publishing giant.

The Story behind READER'S DIGEST

In the 1940s Wallace first began to collect his Digest "stable" of roving editors, salaried to travel about in search of material, and writers who were paid a retainer to submit their work to the Digest first. Digest readers became reporters themselves when the feature "Life in These United States" was started in 1943. During W.W. II the Digest operated under the theory that its readers wanted to forget about the war as much as they wanted to hear about it. When it was covered, it was usually in very personal--if possible inspirational--terms, as in accounts titled "They Walk without Legs," "Navy Heroes in Diving Suits," "Our Wounded Come Home," and "Surgery in a Submarine."

It was in the 1940s, too, that the Digest became international. A British edition had been inaugurated in 1938, and in 1940, as a counteraction to Axis infiltration into South America, Wallace agreed to try a Spanish-language edition. The psychological effect of Selecciones del Reader's Digest can be gauged only by its financial success, which was immediate. With the termination of W.W. II, the Digest branched out further, and today it is published in 13 languages in 30 different editions. There are, for example, separate French editions for France, Belgium, Switzerland, and Canada. Besides its English, French, and Spanish editions, the Digest appears in Portuguese, Swedish, Finnish, Danish, Norwegian, German, Italian, Dutch, Japanese, and Chinese, and will soon reappear in Arabic.

The personal-experience story--an extension of the Digest policy of reader participation for which a hefty $2,500 is paid--arrived in the 1950s. So did the Reader's Digest Condensed Book Club, through which members receive four volumes a year, each containing four or five condensations of current books. The pay for Condensed Book reprint rights is also unusually handsome, ranging from $10,000 to $100,000; its authors run the gamut from Nobel Prize winners (Faulkner, Steinbeck, Pearl Buck) to popular historians (Churchill, Gunther) to writers of light fiction.

The 1960s and 1970s have been more a period of expansion than of innovation. The inclusion of advertising has considerably affected the format of the Digest. Editors have come and gone, and as of a few years ago, the Wallaces (both well into their 80s) retired. They remain on the board of directors, however, and still own all the voting stock between them.

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