Book-of-the-Month Club: Can a middlebrow icon remake itself in an era of endless choices?
I recently learned that the venerable Book-of-the-Month Club was relaunched last fall, with a fully web-driven membership system and a considerably streamlined set of book offerings.
For those of you who don’t know about the original Book-of-the-Month Club, a brief explanation is in order. BOMC was founded in 1926, the brainchild of some New York ad agency guys who saw a commercial opportunity that tapped into America’s embrace of mail order and the reading appetite of its emerging, upwardly mobile middle class.
People typically became BOMC members by answering a magazine ad or a direct mail invitation. The Club’s marketing hook was an initial membership package that allowed you to pick several books from the club’s catalog and pay a negligible sum at the outset. However, you also had to fulfill a membership agreement, which meant buying a specified number of books at club prices within the next two years.
Every month, members would receive a packet in the mail, containing a flyer describing the editors’ main selection for that month, a short catalog describing alternate and back list selections, and a reply card. If you did nothing, the main selection would be sent to you. You could also use the reply card to indicate that you didn’t want the main selection or to order alternate and back list selections. (Folks who frequently overlooked the reply card deadlines might find themselves with a growing pile of unwanted books. Surely a steady share of BOMC sales were the result of these oversights!)
In the days before superstores like Barnes & Noble and, later, online sellers like Amazon, BOMC offered a way to bring good books into your home with minimal hassle, screened by reviewers who had discerning eyes for the reading tastes of middlebrow America. Over the years, BOMC assembled various panels of judges to evaluate and select books for its catalog, some of whom were accomplished authors in their own right. During the Club’s heyday, serving as a BOMC selection committee judge carried some prestige within mainstream publishing circles.
Commercially speaking, BOMC was a very big deal to authors seeking to broaden their readership. Main selection status equalled a stamp of approval by a trusted brand and a guarantee of higher sales. BOMC favored quality fiction and non-fiction for a general, intelligent audience, while largely avoiding books that might be considered tawdry or cheesy. Its marketing campaigns played on such appeal and the idea of building a good home library, while usually managing to avoid lapsing into higher-level snobbery.
Among some stuffier types, however, this combination of commercial advertising and middlebrow reading tastes prompted derision of the whole enterprise (and by implication, perhaps, of its customers). Nevertheless, the Book-of-the-Month Club elevated America’s literary intelligence on the whole by bringing good books to a growing swath of the American population.
Predictably, the appearance of larger, brick and mortar bookstores and the emergence of Internet booksellers would spell trouble for the Book-of-the-Month Club. I was an off-and-on member from the 1980s through the early 2000s, and I witnessed its steadily declining commercial and cultural significance in shaping reading appetites. Sometime in 2014, BOMC was folded into another commercial book club and disappeared as a brand name. Very few people took notice, perhaps marking an unsurprising end to a 20th century phenomenon.
By the time BOMC left from the scene, there were at least four big problems with its service, beyond the obvious competitive challenges in the digital marketplace: First, its prices were high compared to other mass booksellers, especially with hefty shipping & handling charges added. Second, it took forever for the books to be delivered. Third, the quality of its book production had deteriorated, to the point where a BOMC edition felt and looked like a cross between a hardcover book and a trade paperback edition. Finally, BOMC had abandoned its popular practice of using literary judges to help make its selections, which made it seem like a more crass commercial enterprise than a literary “club.”
Then last fall, BOMC quietly reappeared. Its owner, Bookspan, has relaunched the Club as a fully online enterprise, using a streamlined subscription model rather than a membership package followed by reply cards. Here’s the new approach as described on their website:
As a Book of the Month Member, you will receive an email on the 1st of each month announcing our New Selections. One of these New Selections will be pre-selected for you and placed in your “box.” You will have until the end of the 10th day of the month to review the monthly selections and decide whether you want to keep the book that was pre-selected for you, select a different book, or add additional books to your box. If you do not change your selection, the book we selected for you will be shipped to you after the 10th day of the month along with any other books you have added to your box.
Instead of paying individually set prices for the books, members are charged a flat membership fee:
Book of the Month offers three membership plan options: 1-month, 3-month, and 12-month. The cost of the 1-month plan is $16.99 per month, the 3-month plan is $38.97 ($12.99 per month), and the 12-month plan is $119.88 ($9.99 per month).
So basically, every month during the course of your membership, you get a choice of five books, with the primary selection automatically shipped unless you opt for one or more of the others.
In a world of seemingly endless consumer choices, BOMC is following what seems to be a counterintuitive business approach. It is saying, in essence: Among the thousands of books published each month, we will provide you with a curated selection of five noteworthy titles and allow you to pick one of them at a discounted price.
Can fewer reading choices make us happier? Consider psychologist Barry Schwartz’s “paradox of choice” theory, asserting that an overabundance of choices can lead to greater dissatisfaction and inertia. In other words, we may become overwhelmed by the options before us. Hmm, maybe there’s something to be said for being offered a choice among five books that stood atop a thoughtful screening process?
If you’ve read this far, then you may have guessed that I’m giving the new BOMC a try. Recently I signed up for a three-month membership, with my first book choice being Nick Stone’s The Verdict (2015), a smart legal thriller set in London. I didn’t know about this title beforehand, but the BOMC reviewer’s description grabbed my attention. I just started the book, and it seems like a good one!
Sometimes counterintuitive approaches work. If book lovers like me can be persuaded to sign up, then maybe BOMC has a fighting chance. I can say that with the arrival of my first selection, the main problems with the old BOMC appear to have been addressed: The books are competitively priced, books are shipped promptly on a designated date, and the hardcover volumes are of good quality. Also, BOMC is once again using literary judges (along with some book-loving celebs) to help make and tout its selections.
Can this leaner reincarnation of a middlebrow icon succeed? We shall see. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to next month’s selections.
Of possible interest
For an interesting look at America’s popular reading tastes, this Books of the Century website lists bestsellers and BOMC selections during the 20th century.
For a more detailed history of the BOMC during the pre-Internet years, check out Janice A. Radway, A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire (1997).
March 2016 addendum: I’ve enjoyed this reincarnated version of BOMC so much that I signed up for a full year’s subscription. I like what they’re doing with this and look forward to future selections.
Weather report: Dodging the big one in Boston (this time)
After last year’s multiple monster snowstorms in Boston, you might think that I’ve had my fill of them. I thought so too, as news of Winter Storm Jonas built during the past week and reminders of last winter started to re-enter my head. But I admit that I also felt a bit of weather envy as other locations received so much attention in anticipation of this huge storm, while increasingly it appeared that Boston would dodge the brunt of it.
As you can see from the Sunday morning photo above, Boston was indeed spared the worst of this giant storm. While this constituted our first significant snow of the winter, it was nothing compared to what dropped on other parts of the country and the region. In my neighborhood, we had steady snowfall from late afternoon onward, but on the scale of things it added up to comparatively mild stuff.
In any event . . . I’ve spent chunks of the last few days watching The Weather Channel, keeping up with online weather reports and Facebook postings, and talking to friends in the Washington D.C. area who have been hammered by Jonas. The weather geek in me simply couldn’t turn away from this.
I’ll add another photo, taken late yesterday afternoon from right outside the subway stop in my ‘hood. The snow was starting to come down, and there was a heavy, dull, wintry look and feel to the surroundings. Upon looking at the photo, I immediately wanted to title it “Bleak Midwinter.”
Ear worms for Gen Jonesers
Ear worms are those tunes we just can’t get out of our heads. Especially for members of Generation Jones (born 1954 through 1965), I’m guessing that the early 70s produced a lot of ear worm tunes. To test that theory, and our memories, I’ve put together 25 first lines of pop songs (all different artists) from that era. Let’s see how many you can get right:
- “Jeremiah was a bullfrog…”
- “What if birds suddenly appear…”
- “Who can take a sunrise…”
- “Goodbye to you, my trusted friend…”
- “I was born in the wagon of a traveling show…”
- “He was born in the summer of his 27th year…”
- “Hey girl, what ya doin’ down there…”
- “You and I must make a pact…”
- “Stayed in bed all morning just to pass the time…”
- “There’s a port, on a western bay…”
- “I’m sleeping, and right in the middle of good dream…”
- “We’ll be fighting in the streets…”
- “She packed my bags last night, pre-flight…”
- “Waiting for the break of day…”
- “There’s a spark of magic in your eyes…”
- “The marchin’ band came down along Main Street…”
- “Mother, mother, there’s too many of you crying…”
- “We can never know about the days to come…”
- “I can tell you’ve been hurt, by that look on your face girl…”
- “Well the South Side of Chicago…”
- “Daddy was a cop, on the east side of Chicago…”
- “She ain’t got no money…”
- “Day after day I’m more confused…”
- “Our love is like a ship on the ocean…”
- “I road my bicycle past your window last night”
Okay, have all your answers ready? Check out the answer key below, right under the album pic! If you got 15 or more right, then consider yourself a member or honorary member of Generation Jones!
Answers: 1. Joy to the World, Three Dog Night; 2. Close to You, Carpenters; 3. The Candy Man, Sammy Davis, Jr.; 4. Seasons in the Sun, Terry Jacks; 5. Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves, Cher; 6.Rocky Mountain High, John Denver; 7. Knock Three Times, Tony Orlando and the Dawn; 8. I’ll Be There, Michael Jackson; 9. It’s Too Late, Carole King; 10. Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl), Looking Glass; 11. I Think I Love You, The Partridge Family; 12. Won’t Get Fooled Again, The Who; 13. Rocket Man, Elton John; 14. 25 or 6 to 4, Chicago; 15. Betcha By Golly Wow, The Stylistics; 16. Billy Don’t Be a Hero, Bo Donaldson and The Heywoods; 17. What’s Going On, Marvin Gaye; 18. Anticipation, Carly Simon; 19. One Bad Apple, The Osmond Brothers; 20. Bad, Bad Leroy Brown, Jim Croce; 21. The Night Chicago Died, Paper Lace; 22. Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes), Edison Lighthouse; 23. Drift Away, Dobie Gray; 24. Rock the Boat, Hues Corporation; Brand New Key, Melanie.
Time travel: Boston by streetcar, early 1900s
If you have eight minutes to spare for a fun little historical video, go to this New England Historical Society page to view a streetcar ride in the heart of Boston during the early 1900s.
Those familiar with Boston will recognize a fair number of buildings that remain intact (more or less) today, including the Central Branch of the Boston Public Library, pictured above. With some unfortunate exceptions, mainly parts of the city where a myriad of “urban renewal” projects and other monstrosities (like the unsightly City Hall) supplanted fine old buildings, a lot of Boston’s vintage structures are still with us. Some happen to be of great historical significance.
As you watch the video, notice how the people are dressed. Perhaps reinforced by the grainy quality of the black & white video, they look very much the same. I was tempted to attribute this to Boston’s historic lack of fashion variety. But I think it has more to do with the fact that some 110 years ago, a lot fewer people expressed their individuality through choice of clothing, at least to the point where it would be noticeable on old film footage.
I love old films like this. They are typically raw, soundless, and absent any sense of story, but they’re the next best thing to being able to jump into a time machine for a quick walk through a city over a century ago.
Hat tip to Rosina-Maria Lucibello for this video.
First-time sojourn across the pond
Thirty-five years ago, I joined a group of fellow Valparaiso University students at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, where we would board a TWA flight to London. We were to be the 27th group of VU students to spend a semester at the University’s overseas study centre in Cambridge, England, and the long flight was the first big step of our journey.
We landed in London the next morning and boarded a coach for Cambridge. Later that evening, bleary-eyed but hungry, we would gather for the first of many group dinners, this one featuring American-style pizza at a place called Sweeney Todd’s.
I was embarking on the most formative educational experience of my life. The semester would create enduring memories, new perspectives, and lifelong friendships. The seeds it planted permeate my life today, ranging from the way I live, to my choice of vocation, to how I spend my typical day.
As I have written here before, despite my penchant for nostalgia, there aren’t many times of my life that I’d actually like to relive. But if I could enter a time machine to relive this one, I’d jump in right away and fasten my seatbelt.
Among study abroad offerings, a semester in England spent largely in the company of fellow American students ranks with the gentlest invitations to get beyond one’s comfort zone. Nevertheless, for a young man born and raised in northwest Indiana and not particularly adventurous by nature, those five months away were life changing and world expanding.
Our academic fare was pretty basic, a cluster of survey-type courses in British history, British drama, European geography, and art appreciation designed largely to introduce us to our new surroundings. Group trips, extended weekends, spring break, and the weeks following the end of the semester allowed for travel and exploration. I did a spring break trip through Scotland and Ireland, as well as a brisk three-week, post-semester jaunt through Western Europe (France, Switzerland, Austria, and Germany), traveling alternately with fellow VU students and on my own.
However, I was not a frequent weekend sojourner; I enjoyed the old university city of Cambridge and tended to stay there. When I did travel, London was by far my favorite destination. I felt very much in my element in those two places.
I loved going to movies, plays, bookstores, and lectures in Cambridge. I joined the Cambridge Union Society, a famous debating and cultural activities club run by ambitious University undergraduates, some of whom already had set their sights on election to Parliament! The day I joined, I attended a formal debate on British economic policy. Among the speakers was economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who would become one of my intellectual heroes.
During visits to London, museums and plays were my main focus. Our theatre course required that we write a series of play reviews. It is only fitting, given my parochial outlook, that my first review was of a West End production of “Oklahoma!,” the classic American musical.
Given the personal significance of this experience, one might guess that I had planned to participate in a study abroad program from the time I first stepped on campus. Not so! I signed up mainly because good friends with whom I worked on the campus newspaper were going, and I wanted a change of scenery.
During my interview for admission to the Cambridge semester program, I managed to sling some mildly articulate fertilizer about expanding my intellectual horizons, but truthfully I had no idea what I was talking about. This thin level of cultural depth, matched by a healthy dose of post-adolescent callowness, followed me overseas, where I made most of my plans at the last minute and often tagged along with others who were more informed about what to see and do….
…As in tagged along, went along, or sometimes practically dragged along! On group tours to places like Warwick Castle, York, and Stonehenge, I went because they were on the schedule. During spring break stops in Edinburgh, Loch Lomond, Loch Ness, and other parts of Scotland, I went because five of us rented a car and drove north. (My own choices led to questionable decisions, such as heading over to Belfast, Northern Ireland, during a tumultuous and violent time there.)
I was hardly more intentional during my post-semester trip to the European continent. I explored the Left Bank of Paris, hiked in the Swiss Alps, and went on “The Sound of Music” guided bus tour in Salzburg mostly because that’s what my friends wanted to do. (I did take a memorable solo trip to Berlin, with the Wall still intact.)
But it all stuck and left deep impressions. I will give my young self credit for understanding this as the semester went on. I knew that I was very, very fortunate to be having that experience.
Of course, I realize that in waxing nostalgic about my semester abroad, I am something of a cliché. The world is full of American collegians who hopped on a plane bound for Europe and returned with a boatload of breathless stories about visits to “amazing,” “incredible,” and “fascinating” sites that, umm, countless millions of others have seen as well.
But I can’t help it. That semester had a fundamental impact on me, and I cannot imagine what my life would be like had the opportunity passed me by. I know that others in our cohort feel the same way, though perhaps with a bit less intensity.
Which leads me to a final, very important point: I had no idea that I would stay in touch with so many people from this group, yet lifetime friendships emerged from our semester together. In fact, every five years we gather for a group reunion, which typically includes sharing many of the same old stories, accompanied by lots of laughter. We’re now planning our next reunion for this summer.
And so, I plead guilty to being among those who look back at such times with great fondness and gratitude. Amazing, incredible, and fascinating, indeed.
Are used bookstores making a comeback?
Are used bookstores on the comeback trail? Michael Rosenwald reports for the Washington Post that this may be the case. He starts his piece with a tale of an entrepreneurial book lover who is opening a new store:
Early next month, Pablo Sierra is opening a used bookstore in Northwest Washington — an unlikely bet in the digital age made even more inconceivable, given that his only experience with books is reading them.
“I guess it is pretty crazy,” Sierra said, echoing an observation shared by some of his friends.
Or maybe not. Sierra, like other book lovers, has read articles about slowing e-book sales and watched as independent bookstores such as Politics and Prose thrive, catering to readers who value bookish places as cultural hubs and still think the best reading device is paper.
He adds that “(w)hile there are no industry statistics on used-book sales, many stores that survived the initial digital carnage say their sales are rising.”
We can only hope that this is true. The vitality of used bookstores is a leading indicator of whether we live in a literate, reading, thinking society. They offer a chance to obtain new treasures that may be out of print today, not to mention provide an opportunity to recycle books that have outlived their usefulness to their original owner. When you walk into a used bookstore, you never know what discoveries await you.
Singing in the New Year
In looking back at 2015, one of the highlights for me was doing more singing. Previously I’ve written about the weekly singing classes I’ve been taking for years at an adult education center in Boston (e.g., here and here). From those classes has emerged a cohort of folks who have moved their singing up a notch to participate in cabaret-style open mic nights at a nearby club. It means that during some weeks, we’re standing up to sing in front of others on multiple occasions!
Most of us are not experienced performers; many among our group haven’t done any real singing since school days. We have all felt the butterflies in facing an audience to sing alone. Yet we are drawn to this activity because it brings us great satisfaction and enjoyment. For me, it’s a chance to revel in the old standards that I’ve been drawn to for years. Give me the Great American Songbook stuff from the 20s through 50s any day, and I’ll be happy.
There is a therapeutic component as well. Singing is a form of mindfulness practice for me. It’s an invitation to be in the moment, doing something enjoyable. In both singing class and open mic nights, enthusiastic, supportive applause is the norm, with not a boo to be heard. Both settings provide safe, positive environments, shared with a wonderful group of people.
With these experiences at the core, I’ve noticed that singing has manifested itself in other venues of my life as well, including karaoke nights with (of all people) law professors and lawyers, an annual workshop on human dignity, and even a traditional Thanksgiving feast with family and friends. It’s good for the soul, and I look forward to doing more of it during the year to come.