The Book Becomes a Reality
An idea that started out in large part as a money-making proposition became the book Alcoholics Anonymous, the basic text that is our primary means of carrying the A.A. message to the ends of the earth.
The story of A.A. is an amazing collection of more-than-coincidences. Somehow, all the right people were in all the right places at all the right times, and what by any objective standard should have been a tale of pure chaos and utter failure was transformed into a spiritual movement that has changed millions of lives and provided a model for scores of other recovery fellowships.
The series of events that led to the publication of the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous, were among the most incredible. The founding members, with Bill W. the quintessential promoter leading the pack, had grandiose ideas about a string of hospitals, hundreds of missionaries traveling far and wide, and generally a variety of projects that would have required huge amounts of money. Providentially, there was a conservative faction in the Fellowship that, with help from some wise nonalcoholic friends, reined in the promoters and reduced the projects to one that actually worked a book that recorded the experience of the first 100 members and preserved the A.A. message intact for generations of alcoholics to come.
The Idea Is Born
Bill W. loved to spin "yarns" about A.A., and he told the story many times of the events that led to the writing and publication of the Big Book. In a talk he gave at a banquet in Forth Worth, Texas, in June 1954, he recalled how it happened.
"I suppose the book yarn really started in the living room of Doc and Annie S. On a late fall afternoon in 1937, Smithy [Dr. Bob] and I were talking together in his living room." By then, the groups in Akron and New York were firmly established, "and the thing had leaked a little over into Cleveland and it began to move south from New York. But it was still flying blind a flickering candle indeed, because it might at any minute be snuffed out. So we began counting noses. How many people had stayed dry in Akron, in New York, maybe a few in Cleveland? And when we added up that score, it was a handful, 35 to 40 maybe. But enough time had elapsed on enough really fatal cases of alcoholism that Bob and I foresaw for the first time that this thing was going to succeed.
"I can never forget the elation and ecstasy that seized us both. It had taken three years to sober up the handful, and there had been an immense amount of failure. How could this handful carry its message to all those who still didn’t know? Not all the drunks in the world could come to Akron or to New York. How could we transmit our message to them?" The two began mulling over the possibilities. Bill, always the entrepreneur, had big ideas. He wanted to create a chain of hospitals to sober up thousands of drunks, and send out missionaries (subsidized, of course) to spread the word.
"And, we reflected, we’d have to get some kind of literature. Up to this moment, not a syllable of this program was in writing. It was a kind of word-of-mouth deal, with variations according to each man's or woman's standing. In a general way, we’d say to a new prospect: ‘Well, the booze has got you down, and you’ve got an allergy and an obsession and you’re hopeless. You’d better get honest with yourself and take stock; you ought to talk this out with somebody, kind of a confessional, and you ought to make restitution for the harms you did. Then you pray as best you can, according to your likes.’ Now that was the sum of the word-of mouth program up to that time.
"How could we unify this thing? Could we, out of our experience, describe certain methods that had done the trick for us? Obviously, if this movement was to propagate, it had to have literature so its message would not be garbled, either by the drunk or by the general public.
"Even then, Dr. Bob and I knew that we were not the government of A.A., so we called a meeting of the Akron group. The group conscience consisted of 18 men, good and true, and right away, they were skeptical about it all. Almost with one voice they chorused, "Let’s keep it simple. This is going to bring money into this thing, and create a professional class. We’ll all be ruined."
But Bill was adamant: "Even within gunshot of this very house, alcoholics are dying like flies," he insisted. "And if this thing doesn’t move any faster than it has in the last three years, it may be another ten before it gets to the outskirts of Akron. We’ve got to take some kind of a chance — we can’t keep it so simple that it won’t propagate itself And we’ve got to have a lot of money to do these things." He finally got a vote, a very close one, and by a margin of maybe two or three, the meeting agreed that Bill should go back to New York and try to raise some money.
That was the word he’d been waiting for. "So I scrammed back to the city and began to approach people of means and describe this tremendous thing that had happened. It didn’t seem so tremendous to them. They said, ‘Thirty-five or forty drunks sobered up? They’ve sobered up before now, you know. Wouldn’t something for the Red Cross be better?’ And I began to get blue."
Nobody had any money — not for A.A. projects, and not to live on, either. Dr. Bob had been unable to revive his medical practice; he was a surgeon, and even though he had been sober several years, people were still afraid of being cut open by an alcoholic doctor. Bill was spending all his time on A.A., and he and his wife Lois had taken in some of the New York drunks to live with them.
"In those days, we never believed in charging anybody for anything, so Lois was earning the money, I was being the missionary, the drunks were eating the meals. This couldn’t go on!"
A.A. and the Rockefellers
At that point, Bill went to see his brother-in-law, Dr. Leonard Strong, who in turn got in touch with his friend, Willard Richardson, an associate of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Mr. Richardson, who was to become a firm friend of A. A., arranged a meeting with Rockefeller and several other prominent businessmen. Dr. Bob and a few of the A. A.'s from Akron came to New York for the occasion, Bill brought four or five of the New Yorkers, and Dr. Silkworth of Towns Hospital was present as well. "Old Doe Silkworth testified to what he had seen happen, and each of us told our stories — the drinking and the recovery.
"And these folks listened. They seemed very definitely impressed, so I could see that the moment for the big touch was coming. I gingerly brought up the subject of the drunk tanks, the subsidized missionaries, and the question of a book." But instead of responding with an offer of generous contributions, as expected, these men said, "Gentlemen, up to this point this has been a work of goodwill only no plant, no property, no paid workers. Just one person carrying the good news to the next
isn’t that true? And may it not be that that is where the great power of this society lies? If we subsidize it might it not alter the whole character? We want to do all we can, but would it be wise?"
That question marked one of those more-than-coincidental turning points in A.A.’s history. Although Bill and his promotion-minded friends remained convinced for some time of the Fellowship’s need for large amounts of cash, a roomful of nonalcoholic financiers all — were wise enough to foresee the potential for trouble if A.A. came to rely on money. These nonalcoholic friends did step in from time to time with modest amounts of money that allowed Bill and Dr. Bob to support themselves and their families and concentrate on getting the struggling movement on its feet. But even as early as this initial meeting, they began to point the founding members in the direction of one of our most vital spiritual principles:
self-support through our own contributions.
In the 1930s, our Seventh Tradition was far from the minds of the New York alcoholics. In May of 1938, they decided to form a foundation to raise money. They called it the Alcoholic Foundation, and its board of trustees was made up of four nonalcoholic friends and three alcoholics. All that summer "we solicited the rich," Bill said in the Texas talk. "Well, they were either in Florida or they preferred the Red Cross, and some of them thought we drunks were disgusting, and we didn’t get a cent in the whole summer — praise God! In the meantime, we began to hold trustee meetings, and they were commiseration sessions on getting no dough.
"So one day, I produced at a Foundation meeting a couple of chapters of a proposed book, in rough and in mimeograph. As a matter of fact, we’d been using chapters of this book to try to put the bite on the rich, and we still had it kicking around.
"So Frank Amos (one of the nonalcoholic trustees) said, "I know the religion editor at Harper. Why don’t you take these two chapters down there and show them to Gene Exman, and see what he thinks about them?’ To my great surprise, Gene looked at the chapters and said, ‘Why, Mr. Wilson, could you write a whole book like this?’
"‘Sure,’ I said. And the upshot was that Harper offered to pay me, as the budding author, fifteen hundred dollars in advance royalties, bringing enough money in to enable me to finish the book."
A.A. Takes Control of its Literature
In "A. A. Comes of Age," Bill recounted the events that led A.A. to become its own publisher. "Again in the clouds, I left Harper to break the great news to the gang. . . but on the way there my elation was disturbed by disquieting thoughts. Suppose our embryo book were someday to become the chief text for our fellowship. Our principal written asset would then be owned by an outside publisher. . . . So I wondered if our fellowship should own its own book. And I thought about the $1,500 of advance royalties. When the book was done, I would still owe Harper that sum, and a good many volumes would have to be sold just to get even. And suppose that when the book appeared there were to be heavy publicity, and thousands of cries for help from alcoholics and their families began to pour in. We would not have any money to cope with this quite possible situation.
He tried to keep these misgivings to himself, out of respect for the trustees, but in the end he did reluctantly express them at a board meeting. The non-alcoholic on the board were not impressed with his reasons, and Bill was unhappy about the necessity of disagreeing with his good friends.
This was when Bill’s friend Henry P., whom he described to the Texas A. A.'s in 1954 as "one of the most terrific power-drivers I have ever met," stepped into the picture. Henry didn’t even want to bother with the trustees; instead, he proposed forming a stock company and selling shares to the New York A. A.'s. "I told him the Trustees would never agree to our scheme, and I did not want to hurt their feelings. But Henry’s skin was thicker than mine. He was implacable; he said that it simply had to be done, and I finally agreed.
"Still much disturbed about the whole business, I went back to Gene Exman and frankly explained to him what was about to happen. To my utter amazement, he agreed, quite contrary to his own interest, that a society like ours ought to control and publish its own literature. ... [This gavel Henry and me the kind of encouragement we so much needed.
"Henry wasted no time but started selling the (stock company) proposition to our New York members at once. He buttonholed them one by one, persuading, browbeating, hypnotizing. I trailed around in his wake, smoothing ruffled feelings and trying to dispel some of the suspicions that had been created about our motives." After a couple of weeks, the New York members consented somewhat reluctantly, as did Dr. Bob.
Bill and Henry visited Cornwall Press, one of the largest printers in the country, and discovered that the book could be printed for only about 35 cents a copy. "If we were to price our new book at $3.50 . . . this would be practically all net profit. . . ." Henry had it all figured out. We would form a stock company with stock of $25 par value, and he had prepared a prospectus that showed profits on estimated sales of anywhere from 100,000 to a million books.
"Our enterprise still lacked two essentials. It was not incorporated and it did not have a name. Henry took care of these matters. Since the forthcoming volume would be only the first of many such ‘works,’ he thought our publishing company should be called, ‘Works Publishing, Inc.’ This was all right with me, but I protested that we had no incorporation on which to base shares and that incorporation would take money. Next day I found that Henry had bought a pad of blank stock certificates in a stationery store, and across the top of each certificate was typed this legend: ‘Works Publishing, Inc., par value $25.00.’ At the bottom there was a signature:
‘Henry P.———, President.’ When I protested these irregularities, Henry said there was no time to waste; why be concerned with small details?"
A Visit to the Reader’s Digest
Quite understandably, though, none of the New York alcoholics wanted to buy stock in a book that hadn’t yet been written. That didn’t faze Henry, either. He and Bill were convinced the book would sell, and he figured that if the others shared that conviction, they would go ahead and buy the stock. So he proposed going up to see the editors of the Reader’s Digest to see if they might be interested in running an article about Alcoholics Anonymous and its forthcoming book.
"Two days later... we sat in the office of Mr. Kenneth Payne, then managing editor of the Digest. We drew a glowing picture of our fellowship and its book-to-be. We mentioned the high interest of Mr. Rockefeller and some of his friends. Mr. Payne was interested. After a while he said, "I am almost sure the Digest would like to handle this story, though of course I’ll have to check it up with the other editors. Personally I think it is just the sort of thing we are looking for. When your book is ready next spring, let me know and I think we can put a feature writer to work. This should be a great story. But of course I must check it up with the staff first. That’s understood, isn’t it?’
"Henry and I reached for our hats and sped for New York. Now we had real ammunition." The shares began to sell. Nobody had any money, so they offered an installment plan: five dollars a month for five months for each share. The Trustees pitched in, too, as did other friends. "Soon we had a subscription of 200 shares which amounted to $5,000, and a little actual money began to come in." Feeling much more secure, Bill began work in earnest on the manuscript of the book.
Once the manuscript was completed, they went up to Cornwall Press, presented it to Edward Blackwell, president of the company, and told him they were ready to go. He asked how many copies they wanted, and though Bill and Henry were thinking in terms of carloads, the more experienced printer suggested 5,000. Then he inquired about payment. Bill wrote: "We cautiously let it be known that our cash was temporarily low. Pointing out what the Reader’s Digest article would do for us, Henry mentioned a figure of $500 for our first down pay........ Mr. Blackwell, having already caught the A.A. spirit, said with a twinkle in his eye, ‘Well, I guess that will do. I’m glad to give you a hand.’ So the presses were set to roll and Alcoholics Anonymous had found another wonderful friend."
The next hurdle was setting a retail price. Some of the members wanted to make it very low, but after several lively debates they settled on $3.50, an amount that would enable them to make something on the deal, pay off the shareholders, and even set up an office. Then, "as a consolation to the contestants, we directed Mr. Blackwell to do the job on the thickest paper in his shop. The original volume proved to be so bulky that it became known as the ‘Big Book.’ Of course the idea was to convince the alcoholic purchaser that he was indeed getting his money’s worth!"
The Book Enterprise Hits Bottom
By then, the money supply was down to rock bottom, but they were optimistic. Soon "the presses would roll, and 5,000 books would be ready when the Reader’s Digest piece broke. Henry and Ruth [Hock, Bill’s nonalcoholic secretary] and I divided the last hundred dollars among us... prosperity was just around the corner.
"I will never know why, in all the time during which the book was in preparation, none of us had thought of getting in touch with the Reader’s Digest. Somehow the question of timing their article with the appearance of our book had not occurred to us But why worry; it was just a question of time, anyhow."
When the two men appeared at the door of managing editor Payne’s office, he did not quite remember who they were. So they brought him up to date, and he was very apologetic. Unfortunately, he explained, when he took the idea to the other editors, they had not liked the project. They didn’t think readers would be interested in a society of alcoholics, and were also afraid that the subject would be too controversial. In short, no article was planned.
"This was shattering. Even the buoyant Henry was sunk. We protested, but it was no use. This was it. The book enterprise had collapsed." They had no idea what to do.
But when they got back to New York, "nearly everybody else took a sporting attitude and asked what had become of our faith." The trustees suggested holding weekly meetings to talk about getting the book into circulation, and Mr. Blackwell said he would see us through on printing costs until things got better.
"It was obvious that we had to get some publicity in order to move those books. We tried magazine after magazine with no result." The book was ready in April 1939, but that was the only good news. Henry was completely broke and looking for work. Ruth [Hock] ... was given meaningless stock certificates in the defunct Works Publishing as pay. She cheerfully accepted these and never slackened her efforts. All of us were going into debt just for living expenses." And in the beginning of May, Bill and Lois were evicted from their house. The future did not look promising, but friends came to the rescue, lending Bill and Lois a place to live temporarily, and meanwhile the book was beginning to attract some positive attention.
A.A. Goes on the Radio
In April, Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick had reviewed the book very favorably, chiefly for religious publications, as had the New York Times, but still no orders were coming in. Then Morgan, "our Irishman," announced that he knew Gabriel Heatter, and proceeded to set up an interview on his national radio program "We The People." Mr. Heatter was going to interview Morgan about his drinking and recovery, then ask him about A.A. and put in a plug for the book. This sounded like a wonderful plan. The program was just a week away, but there was one important question: Could Morgan stay sober? Experience told the New York A.A.'s that he might not — so they decided to lock him up for the duration, and assigned members to stay with him around the clock. A week later, a sober Morgan went on the air, and did a superb interview.
In the interim, Henry had managed to scare up enough money for a mass mailing of postcards to about 20,000 physicians in the eastern U.S., asking them to listen to the broadcast and informing them about the book, "a sure cure for alcoholism." The A.A.'s managed to wait three days after the broadcast, then headed for the post office to collect the shower of replies that would come flooding in. Eagerly, they looked in the box, and found a grand total of twelve replies — only two of them orders for the book.
Finally, in July, events took a turn for the better. Charles Towns (of Towns Hospital, where many of the alcoholics had gone to sober up) "had been raising heaven and earth to get publicity for us and had succeeded." He had talked to a feature writer, Morris Markey, who approached Fulton Oursler, then editor of Liberty magazine, with the idea of an article on Alcoholics Anonymous. Oursler had commissioned him to do a piece, and the article "Alcoholics and God" appeared in the September issue. "This time we really hoped and believed that we had turned the corner, and indeed we had."
By October, book orders began to come in. "Liberty magazine received 800 urgent pleas for help, which were promptly turned over to Ruth and me. She wrote fine personal letters to every one of them, enclosing a leaflet which described the A.A. book. The response was wonderful. Several hundred books sold at once at full retail price of $3.50. Even more importantly, we struck up a correspondence with alcoholics, their friends, and their families all over the country."
About this time, they received another substantial book order, which Bill described to his Texas audience in 1954: "Right after the dinner, Mr. Rockefeller then approached the rather defunct Works Publishing Company and said he’d like to buy four hundred books, to send to all the bankers who had come to the dinner, and all who had not. Well, seeing that this was for a good purpose, we let him have the books cheap. He bought them cheaper than anybody has since — for one buck apiece, to send to his banker friends.
"Shortly after the Liberty article came out," Bill went on in A.A. Comes of Age, "Cleveland’s Plain Dealer ran its great series of pieces This brought in new book orders and new problems by scores. Alcoholics Anonymous was on the march, out of its infirmary into adolescence.
"Our expansion had been immensely accelerated by the Liberty piece and the frantic growth at Cleveland. Tiny beginnings had been made in many other towns and cities, which we denoted by placing pins in our office wall map. By early 1940 we could estimate that about 800 recoveries had been made. This number was a big jump from the figure of 100 at the time the book was published in April of the year before. The book had expressed the hope that someday A.A. travelers would find a group at every destination. That hope had begun to turn into reality."
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