It was the Spring of 1939, AA in their infancy and the future was in doubt. AA Pioneers were broke and struggling to find sufficient financial backing to publish the book Alcoholics Anonymous. By this point, it was decided that AA would publish the book themselves through their newly established Works Publishing Inc. Bill Wilson and Hank Parkhurst (“The Unbeliever” story in the First Edition) were selling stock in their new publishing company as a means to raise money for the printing of the book. The problem they ran into was that the money they were raising was being spent on daily living and office expenses. The book almost didn’t happen! It took a series of fortunate breaks through works of good faith from several different people.
A printer in Cornwall, NY, named Edward Blackwell, had been highly recommended to Bill Wilson. Blackwell was the President of Cornwall Press. So Bill and Hank went to Cornwall to see Blackwell. Once there, they were told that the book would probably be only about four hundred pages when printed. That seemed a bit skimpy.
They wanted to sell the book for $3.50 per copy. That was a very large sum in those days, probably the equivalent of about $50 today, and people might not think they were getting their money’s worth. They picked the cheapest, thickest paper the printer had, and requested that each page be printed with large margins surrounding the text. This made for an unusually large book. Thus, the book came to be nicknamed the “Big Book.” (The First Printing is bigger and thicker than the current Fourth Editions)
Blackwell agreed to print 5,000 copies of the First printing for a down payment of $500 and in good faith he trusted that Bill and Hank would pay the remainder of the costs once they made some sales of the book. Blackwell had an excess of red material for the bindings, so he offered them a special deal. Eager to save costs, Bill and Hank agreed. They also thought, according to some reports, that the color red would make the book more attractive and marketable.
The First Printing was the only one on which a red binding was primarily used. There were a very limited number of Second Printings that were red. A green cover was used on a limited number of Third Printings and on the majority of the Fourth Printings. All of the other printings of the Big Book have been in various shades of blue.
Despite all their efforts at proofreading, there was a typographical error in the First Printing on page 234, the second and third line from the bottom was printed twice. This was corrected in subsequent printings.
A New York AA member named Ray Campbell, a recognized artist was asked to design the dust jacket. His story, An Artist’s Concept, appears in the First Edition. He submitted various designs for consideration including one which is blue and in an Art Deco style. The one which was chosen was red, and yellow, with a little black, and a little white. The words Alcoholics Anonymous were printed across the top in large white script. It became known as the circus jacket because of its loud circus colors. The unused blue jacket is today in the Archives at the Stepping Stones Foundation.
You can view the art on the circus-style dust jacket here:
You can learn much more about the events that led to the publication of the First Printing of the AA Big Book in the recently released book written by Bill Schaberg, titled “Writing the Big Book”. You can also listen to presentations led by Bill Schaberg at the Recovery Speakers History Meeting in which Bill discussed his research that went into his book: