The History of Book Clubs

In 1916, one Harry Sherman of Philadelphia – an advertising copywriter with expertise on mail-order promotion and a lover of books and reading – founded a mail-order book firm called the Little Leather Library with a couple of his colleagues. The outfit did reasonably well for a few years, but then petered out. Still, Sherman and his partners were convinced that the idea of selling books to readers directly through the mail was a great one: rural America, they knew, had been underestimated and under-served by publishers and booksellers. These were days before retail chains, mall superstores (let alone websites), and customers depended on the big city stores and mail-order catalogues. There was a big window of opportunity there and Harry was determined to exploit it: in 1926 he assembled an Editorial Board of Judges which would be responsible for recommending and promoting only the most noteworthy books in any category, and the new company called Book-of-the-Month Club was born.


In spring of that year the club's very first selection was sent out to 4,750 original members. By December 1926 the membership body expanded nearly tenfold, and the net sales exceeded half a million dollars. They seemed to be on the right track. The expanding middle class, people who knew they wanted to be reading but weren't confident about knowing the right books, embraced the concept with elation. In 1928 the membership count approached 100,000; the club struggled during the big crisis, but survived and began growing again in the second half of the 1930s.


In these early years, the main advantage the club could offer to its members was convenience. The books were sold at full price, and the postage cost was added. However, soon Book-of-the-Month was ordering books in quantities plentiful enough to convince many a publisher to grant the company a price break, and the discounts were then passed on to members.


Almost from the very beginning, Book-of-the-Month Club was facing some serious competition. In 1927, another savvy marketer, Samuel W. Craig, developed a concept similar to European guilds and named the new company The Literary Guild. In 1930, The Doubleday One Dollar Book Club entered the scene; in 1934 its parent company Doubleday & Co acquired The Literary Guild and positioned itself as a strong alternative to BOMC: they offered their readers somewhat lighter reading, as opposed to Book-of-the-Month whose selections were deemed more literary.


During World War II, with other commodities in short supply and cash in abundance, Americans bought more books than ever before. In six years BOMC's membership body nearly tripled to reach a respectable figure of 889,000. During this time the company started experimenting with additional services. Non-Fiction Book Club, Traveler's Book Club, Practical and Educational books, Christmas card service, these were all added to the company's core business. Some proved to be successful, some not.


In 1949 Book-of-the-Month Club shipped its 100 millionth book. The company continued trying out new services, such as the classical music club for adults. The Young Readers of America, BOMC's first book club specifically designed for children, was established in 1952 and was an instant success: the very first mailing generated over 70,000 subscribers. In 1956, The New York Times marked BOMC's 30th birthday by publishing a 40-page booklet outlining the company's history.


The first half of 1960s brought the company some hard times. Although its membership continued to grow, the sales were down, mainly due to increased number of retail book stores – many of which sold bestsellers at discounted prices – but also due to competition by rival clubs. BOMC rallied in 1966. The membership count passed the one million mark for the first time and a healthy profit was made. Many contribute considerable merit for this revival to Axel Rosin, Harry Sherman's son-in-law – at the time already president of BOMC – who did not flinch from taking some risky moves which included spending extravagant amounts of money to secure the rights to the most promising up-and-coming titles.


Harry Sherman died in 1969, leaving his son-in-law in charge of the company. The 1970s were good for business. Both membership and sales grew steadily; by mid of the decade, the club, along with its subsidiaries, had over 1.5 million members. They continued adding new additions, such as the Cookbook Club and the Dolphin Book Club (which covered boating and other nautical subjects). One of the most successful clubs introduced at that time was the Quality Paperback Book Service (QPB), which featured high quality, mainly paperback volumes from a wide range of genres.


In 1977 Book-of-the-Month Club was acquired by publishing company Time Inc, which later became Time Warner Inc, and later still AOL Time Warner, as a result of yet another merger; BOMC continued operating by and large independently under the new patronage.


In the 1980s the club system found itself under some duress. National book store chains made books more widely available, alleviating the need for mail-order services. Searching for new sources of revenue, BOMC's management determined there was money to be made by publishing books on their own rather than only buying the rights to sell BOMC editions from publishers. In 1982 BOMC's original publishing division was established. Its first publishing projects were reprints of popular classics; afterwards they moved on to anthologies and multi-volume sets. In 1987 the History Book Club became a new addition to the company.


The difficulties continued in the 1990s. Large bookstore chains such as Barns & Noble were able to consistently undercut BOMC on price. The online retailers arrived on the scene and additionally aggravated the situation. A handful of perennial blockbuster authors came to dominate the bestseller list and the club's management was forced to begin paying multimillion-dollar contracts for the rights to several of an author's future books at once. As a result, there was less room for the opinion of the panel of judges, a group that included respected authors and other literary figures, and which was responsible for selecting the featured book each month since the club's inception. Furthermore, there was a gradual shift in reading tastes of the members toward easily identifiable, brand name books, so the judges were just validating a predictable choice. Even the idea of a single “book of the month” had become obsolete, as computerized databases enabled the clubs to tailor the “featured selection” each month to the previous buying habits of individual members. As a result, in 1994 the panel of judges was disbanded.


In 2000, AOL Time Warner, the club's parent company, merged operations with its main rival, Bertelsmann's Literary Guild, to form a single book club firm called Bookspan. The merger was intended to pool their resources to expand online, capitalizing on the club's traditional appeal to customers looking for advice. The new company's management stopped looking at the Internet as a threat; instead, they regarded it as a big opportunity. Through e-mail solicitations and online advertisement, Bookspan had been able to attract tens of thousands of new members each month, with a higher retention rate. The clubs' websites make it easier for members to reject the “main selection” or choose another, addressing one of the most common complaints about unwanted books arriving if members failed to respond fast enough.


To better compete with online bookstores, Bookspan turned new attention to creating niche clubs such as Crossings, the Christian book club; Black Expressions, the African-American themed club; and many others, from erotica to gardening. Another new feature, BookSearchPLUS, was introduced to allow members to shop for books outside the regular club offerings.


In 2001, BOMC's institution, a somewhat reconfigured panel of judges was brought back to life. It was now aimed to promote less well-known books, on the premise that people were interested in buying books that went beyond what they could buy everywhere else, provided that the books were presented with the right authority and the right encouragement.


In 2007, AOL Time Warner sold its interest in Bookspan to the co-owner Bertelsmann AG and in 2008 Bertelsmann sold Bookspan to Najafi Comapnies. Today, the company continues to successfully operate over 20 book clubs in the USA with millions of members.


Resources: / The New York Times / TIME

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