Book-of-the-Month Club: Can a middlebrow icon remake itself in an era of endless choices?

photo-318

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.”

photo-319

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.

2 responses

  1. Thanks to the all-knowing Facebook, the Book of the Month Club showed up in my news feed today. It took all I had not to sign up immediately! What did you think? Did you sign on for additional months? I think I may do the same to try it out.

    1. Jennifer, I went ahead and put in for a full year subscription. I like what they’re doing with this. Their approach to touting and selling books feels more personal, less mass retail, with a bit of fun. When I sent them a link to this blog post via Facebook, they responded the same day with a very friendly and appreciative response. To me this seems like a business approach worth supporting.

      Thanks for your note, and if you try it out, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: