Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Book Club Wars, 1: Growing Pains


Book club wars! "What book club wars?" you may ask. Unless you were associated with book publishing or book selling in the twentieth century, chances are you are unaware of the friction and bitterness generated between book clubs on one hand and book publishers and booksellers on the other in the years immediately after book clubs were born.

Although the book publishing industry pays particular attention to the broad subject of human history, one aspect it tends to overlook is its own history. And one grossly neglected part of that history is the story of the monumental changes that were wrought in book marketing by the appearance of a new phenomenon: the subscription book club. What follows is is the largely forgotten story of those heady days.

At the end of the first quarter of the 20th century, advertising copywriter and direct-mail specialist Harry Scherman recognized that a hidden segment of the American population was not being served by the publishing industry. He had already successfully created and sold a series of small reprints of the classics bound in a soft simulated leather cover and called "The Little Leather Library." He came up with a whole new book merchandising scheme based on a simple statistic: There were more post offices in America than book stores. The tool for serving this hidden market was to be the book club. The surprising aspect of the birth and growth of American book clubs was that it took so long for the book industry to wake up to the untapped market represented by rural and suburban dwellers who lived far from a bookstore.

What Scherman created was an entirely new concept: the sale of books by mail on a subscription basis to subscribers who agree to buy a fixed number of titles in return for an introductory inducement to join, usually in the form of books or other gifts at substantial savings. Scherman's initial plan was to single out one book as "the best of all books published in the last thirty days" and to mail a copy automatically to each subscriber. The term "book club" as used by him did not include the older meaning of groups of people who purchased books for circulation and discussion within the group. Neither did it include social organizations of book lovers, nor private organizations printing books--usually fine editions--only for subscribers, although each of these groups has a distinguished history going back to the 18th century.

In the Beginning
Let us travel back in time to early in 1926. Coolidge prosperity is abroad in the land. Popular culture still has not yet become a disparaging term. Reader's Digest is four years old, Time magazine is three, and The New Yorker is just celebrating its first birthday.

In its February 13th issue, Publishers Weekly, the bible of publishers and booksellers, takes notice of a proposed Book-of-theMonth Club and describes the features of what it calls "an entirely new basis in book distribution." Books are to be sold to readers under a system akin to a magazine subscription. The subscriber is to accept and pay for a book a month for 12 months, with postage extra. No book selected is to have a list price of more than three dollars. Each book will be accompanied by a printed note about it, and a description of some other books that please the committee of five distinguished judges, whose names would be listed. As a special inducement, subscribers will get three free books, after payment for the first twelve books has been made.

In this latter arrangement we can recognize the beginnings of the book dividend, or bonus book idea, in which unsold or returned books are given without charge to members, a practice continued in one form or another by many book clubs . Note, too, that the descriptive material about the book traveled with the book, rather than preceding it. This practice was soon to change, as we shall see.

For the record, let it be stipulated that the American book club was born in April of 1926, when the Book-of-the-Month Club distributed its first selection, Lolly Willowes, a first novel by an unknown 33-year-old British poet, Sylvia Townsend Warner, to 4,750 members. The scheme was the brainchild of Harry Scherman, and the Club's initial capital of $40,000 was put up by him, his advertising partner Maxwell Sackheim and Robert K. Haas, a vice-president of the Chemical National Bank. Of Scherman, Merle Miller has written, "By 1926, he was generally admitted to be one of the few authentic geniuses in the relatively unexplored field of selling by direct mail."

The entire book club idea grew out of Scherman's shrewd guess that the public demand for good books was far greater than the supply available through the existing limited network of bookstores. Although literacy classics and collections or sets had been successfully sold by mail, no one had ever attempted to distribute new books this way. To guarantee repeat sales, Scherman conceived the gimmick of selling books like magazines--on an annual subscription basis, with charges paid in monthly installments.

The first mailing list tested came from the toney New York Social Register, a bastion of "Old Money," and it proved astonishingly successful. Selection of the affluent New York Social Register's list in an urban area with no shortage of bookstores was an interesting but peculiar test of the appeal of a book club whose target members were envisioned as rural dwellers without easy access to bookstores.

The club also peppered magazines and weekly book reviews sections of newspapers with advertisements whose general theme was, "Handed to You by the Postman--the Best New Book Each Month."

Scherman and Sackheim had scoured the literary world for "big guns" to serve on the impressive board of judges who would review and propose selections to be offered by the BOMC, as it became known within the book industry. The chairman was Yale English professor and editor of The Saturday Review of Literature, Henry Seidel Canby. The four other members included novelist Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Kansas newspaper editor William Allen White, author Christopher Morley and newspaper columnist Heywood Broun.

Selection of books was conducted at regular sessions that also included a convivial luncheon during which drinks flowed freely, especially after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. Two well-known literary lights, William Lyon Phelps and H.L. Mencken declined Scherman and Sackheim's offer to become judges.

As it turned out, consideration of a book as a selection by the Book-of-the-Month Club's judges actually worked to keep publishers' list prices down. Thanks to the eventually huge numbers of each title purchased by the BOMC, publishers could vastly increase the size of their press runs and thus achieve economies of scale in the unit prices of books. In 1927, for example, Boni & Liveright, the publisher of Emil Ludwig's Napoleon, and George H. Doran, publisher of T.E. Lawrence's Revolt in the Desert, had planned to set a cover price of five dollars on each title, but lowered their list price by two dollars to make the books acceptable to the Club.

From the outset, the book club idea was regarded with hostility by the publishing industry. The role of the judges was scoffed at by critics and reviewers who regarded themselves as the only arbiters of what the public should be reading. In December of 1926, an editorial in Publishers Weekly referred with suspicion to the form letters being sent by the BOMC to publishers requesting copies of books for review by its board of judges. Eventually, book-size bound galleys of forthcoming books were circulated in advance of publication to book clubs and film companies and became known as BOM's, a term no longer used.

The Literary Guild
Although it had been conceived by Samuel Craig in 1921 and incorporated in April of 1922, America's second book club, the Literary Guild, did not make its appearance until almost a year after the Book-of-the-Month Club--in March of 1927, to be exact. Until the BOMC began operations, Craig had been unable to interest investors in his idea for an organization of readers in support of good books in the same way that the Theatre Guild subscribers supported good plays.

Craig had modeled his club on the German book clubs that had sprung up after World War I, when, in a time of runaway inflation, cheap editions were printed on cheap paper and distributed to readers who could no longer afford to buy regular books. When Harold K. Guinsburg and George S. Oppenheimer, both of the Viking Press begun only two years earlier, heard about Craig's project, they recognized its possibilities, and immediately invested in it.

The Literary Guild also set up a board of distinguished judges headed by author Carl Van Doren. It included such literary lights as environmentalist Joseph Wood Krutch, historian Hendrik Willem Van Loon, novelist Zona Gale, poet Elinor Wylie, and Glenn Frank, president of the University of Wisconsin and former editor of The Century Magazine. The Guild's board did not last very long, and was abandoned in the 1930s for reasons of economy and efficiency. Value in literary terms was never the quality of a book played up by the Guild.

In the beginning, Guild advertising stressed the advantages of subscription book buying. For an annual charge of $18 per year ($1.50 per book), it gave subscribers about $40 worth of books. The Guild proposed to sell books below the retail price and to deliver copies in advance of the announced publication date. If the book trade had been unhappy over the Book-of-the-Month Club, it went positively ballistic over the Literary Guild and its deep discounts and advanced delivery policy.

Publishers Weekly predicted that general trade publishers would not be likely to look with favor on the Guild's plan, which in their eyes was really the beginning of a price war. Many book dealers simply refused to handle any title that was also a Guild selection unless a customer had specifically ordered it. As we shall see, this, too, was a situation that would change,.

The Book-of-the-Month Club Prospers
Although the Book-of-the-Month Club had to make major changes in its original concept, it is a measure of the viability of Scherman's idea that its original capital of $40,000 was the only money invested in the club until it went public 21 years later. By the end of 1927, BOMC membership stood at 60,058; by the end of 1929, that number had almost doubled to 110,588. Such numbers soon gave the Club tremendous clout with publishers in purchasing books designated as selections. Publishers eventually joined their modest printings to the large quantities the Club ordered in combined press runs to achieve economies of scale in the cost of printing and binding.

Fiction predominated among selections of the Book-of-the-Month Club. The Club's first nonfiction choice in July of 1926 was Walter Noble Burns's The Saga of Billy the Kid. In January of 1927, the Club's second nonfiction selection was The Heart of Emerson's Journals, edited by Harvard professor Bliss Perry. It was not well received by the membership, and returns were heavy. "By that time we must have had about 40,000 subscribers," Scherman later recalled, "and that book just came back by the carload. The country didn't want the heart of Emerson's journals; they didn't want any part of Emerson's journals."

Unhappy with the unanticipated flood of returns, Scherman and his associates made a major decision and began a practice still followed by book clubs to this day: The club's magazine would be sent to members in advance of the selection. Maxwell Sackheim also came up with the idea that subscribers be given the right to decline to receive a book already chosen for them by the Club. A form could be supplied and returned, he suggested. This would notify the Club not to send the selection, or to substitute an alternate selection described in the form. Thus was born the principle today known as "negative option." In Europe, this method of making a mail order sale is called by the more graphic term, "inertia marketing."

Other changes came with time. Within two years of its founding, the Book-of-the- Month Club was forced to abandon its requirement of a 12-month commitment by subscribers. The large number of selections declined each month told management it had been wrong in its belief that books could be sold like magazines. Thereafter, the twelve-books-a-year requirement was scrapped and subscribers were only required to buy a minimum of four books a year--a practice that has almost become a standard in the book club industry.

The year 1931 was the first in which the Book-of-the-Month Club offered specific dividend or bonus titles other than copies of the unsold or returned selections previously used for this purpose. It was also the year in which two selections were paired and offered as a single "joint selection," bringing the total number of titles offered monthly to more than twelve. From the start, fiction outnumbered nonfiction in the Club's offerings. A change came briefly in 1938, when 10 of the Club's 15 offered titles were nonfiction. Other early years in which nonfiction selections outnumbered fiction were 1941, 1942, 1943 and 1950--the latter also the year in which alternate selections were added to each month's mailing.

The Book Club Idea Spreads
With the example set by the two pioneering clubs, BOMC and the Literary Guild, other clubs quickly made an appearance. Despite an imposing editorial board consisting of author and Hearst editorial writer Benjamin De Casseres, novelist Fanny Hurst, humorist Irvin S. Cobb, novelist Rex Beach, and columnist and author Bob Davis, the Books to Read Society failed to last beyond the day of its organization in December of 1926. The First Editions Club, announced in April of 1927, was acquired by the Book-of-the-Month Club four months later.

By the end of summer of 1928, nine book clubs were thriving: The Book-of-the-Month Club, the Literary Guild, the Religious Book Club, the Catholic Book Club, the Free Thought Book Club, the Crime Club, the Detective Story Club, the American Booksellers Association Book Selection, and the Book League of America.

Because we tend to think of paperbacks as a later innovation, two book clubs, the Paper Book Club and the Book League of America, are worthy of attention because of their resemblance to the German book club model. The former, started by Charles Boni, emphasized economy. It sold its paperback editions at $5.00 for 12 books a year. Its advertising stressed that this was only 42 cents a copy. For members who wanted more permanent editions, it also offered a binding service. The Literary Guild absorbed the Paper Book Club in 1931.

About May of 1928, founder Samuel Craig left the Literary Guild in the hands of Guinzburg and organized the Book League of America. The Book League sold annual subscriptions at $18.00 for 12 books in magazine format. In addition, it offered subscribers twelve classics in the League's reprint editions. The Book League, like so many early clubs, followed the lead of the Book-of-the-Month Club in setting up its own board of judges: poet Edwin Arlington Robinson, critic Van Wyck Brooks, biographer Gamaliel Bradford, and chemist and writer on popular science Edwin E. Slosson.

The year 1929 saw the establishment of two specialized book clubs: the Business Book League in August, and the Scientific Book Club in October. The latter was the brainchild of Maxwell M. Geffen, who had been associated with the Religious Book Club, founded the year before. Mr. Geffen put together a truly imposing 16-person editorial board of prominent scientists, including physicists Arthur Compton and Michael Pupin, geologist Kirtley Mather, astronomers Harlow Shapley and Harlan Stetson, science writer Watson Davis, geographer Isaiah Bowman, and educational psychologist Edward Thorndike, to name only half of them. Originally operating out of editorial offices in Cambridge, Mass. (because a number of board members were on the faculty of Harvard), it eventually moved to New York City. The Science Book Club offered a main selection and a number of alternate selections each month, all at publishers' list prices.

Even with the imposing credentials of its board, however, Geffen's club never achieved a membership of more than 5,000. Nevertheless, for a book club born on the eve of the Wall Street crash, merely surviving through the Depression was probably its most amazing quality.

The year 1929 was also to prove a turbulent and eventful year in the book industry, and its story is only told here because it is a revealing picture of the relationships between publishers and book clubs. Whereas booksellers had seen the book clubs as an enemy right from their inception, the clubs soon received a grudging measure of acceptance by publishers--after all, publishers had received hundreds of thousands of dollars for the book club rights to the selections offered to members by the clubs. Publishers now began to raise questions about the clubs and their effect on sales through traditional channels.

A Bitter Fight
The quarrel between publishers and book clubs became specific and personal when John Macrae, of the old and respected firm of E.P. Dutton & Co., attacked the Book-of-the-Month Club for the questionable literary standards that permitted it to choose Joan Lowell's The Cradle of the Deep as its March 1929 selection. Macrae's complaint was that the BOMC judges had preferred the salty account of a young girl growing up on the Minnie A. Caine, a copra-trading schooner in the South Seas, over Henry Williamson's The Pathway. In Macrae's opinion Williamson's was the best novel to come from Dutton in the 75-year history of the firm. He insisted that the public was being "led by its nose," apparently forgetting that these same literary standards and this same nose-leading would not have been objectionable had the Dutton book been selected.

When pulchritudinous Joan Lowell's book was shown to be a literary fraud, Macrae became livid. In a series of broadsides mailed to thousands of editors, librarians and booksellers, he charged the BOMC with exerting pressure on its judges, and suggested that the club made "deals" with publishers. He announced that his firm would refuse to submit books to the Club for consideration as selections, but would establish the "Dutton Book of the Month," to be chosen from Dutton's list by Dutton's editors. Curiously, The Pathway, the novel that contributed to the furor, was not one of Dutton's own selections.

The BOMC management, stung by charges of ethical failings, warned Macrae. "Why should a publisher give us a more favorable discount," asked Scherman, "when he knows that the Book-of-the-Month Club would be forced to buy his book if the judges selected it?" He defended the large discount accorded to the club by publishers on the grounds of the heavy advertising and promotional expense in finding and serving subscribers. In the airing of the dirty wash that followed, Scherman was forced to admit that, contrary to its advertising claims, the judges did not choose the "best" book, but rather "one that appeals to the reading public as a whole."

At the annual convention of the American Booksellers Association (ABA) in Boston that year, the issues raised by this controversy were hotly debated. Wearing two hats--one as publisher of the Viking Press and the other as president of the Literary Guild--Harold Guinsburg, the chief defender of the book clubs, maintained that the clubs could cooperate with both publishers and booksellers in their common objective of promoting the sale of books.

Frederick A. Stokes, head of the publishing firm of the same name, added his fears to the objections of publishers and booksellers. His concern was that the book clubs were "fatal to the browsing habit." Yet he overlooked the fact that more than 150 new retail bookselling establishments had sprung up in the year just past. Stokes announced his own no-submissions policy in a strongly worded article in Publishers Weekly. Entitled "The Case Against Book Clubs," it was addressed to all sections of the book trade. In practice, however, it was an embargo without teeth. The Stokes firm, it tuned out, was willing to exempt from its non-submission policy any of its books whose authors insisted that they be shown to the clubs.

No other publishers were willing to forgo the ample royalties paid by book clubs and join an embargo, although John W. Hiltman of D. Appleton & Company said in an interview that he "believed" book clubs hurt publisher's sales, especially of best sellers. His statement completely ignored the readily available statistic that since 1926 no book had made the bestseller lists that had not also been a book club selection.

At Macrae's request, the ABA adopted a resolution that was tantamount to a declaration of war against book clubs. The Association, however, also appointed a committee that included representatives of the BOMC and the Literary Guild to try to work out a program satisfactory to all parties. Despite the committee's recommendations , the ABA never acted on them.

Discussing the situation, the magazine The Nation pointed out that since book clubs were obviously here to stay, the publishers' and booksellers' antagonism toward them were unrealistic. Managing editor Freda Kirchwey commented that pretensions to righteousness on both sides were objectionable. "Books, after all," she reminded everyone, "remain merchandise to publishers and distributors alike."

Not all publishers in those early days regarded book clubs as mortal enemies. S.A. Everitt defended the idea of cooperation, pointing out that the selection principle operated inevitably, and that publishers, librarians and others all made up and distributed lists of recommended books. Mr. Everitt could hardly be called a disinterested observer, however, since he was vice-president of Doubleday, Doran, which had an interest in the Literary Guild--but his argument was nonetheless valid.

By August of 1929, Macrae publicly retracted his charges about the Book-of-the-Month Club, acknowledging that the judges had complete control over the selections, that the club had never made any preferential deals, and that the question of discounts had never influenced the judges in making their selections. For its part, the club agreed to drop the $200,000 libel suit it had initiated against him. The first major battle of the Book Club Wars was over.

The year 1929 witnessed a veritable epidemic of new children's book clubs, even though the first book club for young readers, the Children's Book Club, had expired the year before. The Junior Book Club, the Junior Literary Guild, and Selected Books for Juniors (which was subsequently absorbed by the Junior Literary Guild) represented a type of book club that Dorothy Canfield Fisher was later to describe in a 1947 Bowker lecture as "almost uniformly unsuccessful."

In February of 1929, the Literary Guild belatedly followed the lead of the Book-of- the-Month Club and began a system of book exchanges--but not by substitutes, or "alternate selections," ordered in advance by members, but in exchange for books returned by mail within a week. In August of 1929, the BOMC initiated premiums by offering one free book to new subscribers who would agree to take the required four books during the coming year. The Guild was dilatory in catching up with the BOMC. Not until October of 1932 did it require that subscribers buy only a minimum of four books after accepting the introductory free offer.

In 1929, book publisher George Macy started his Limited Editions Club, a de luxe version of the established book clubs. It mailed its first selection, a handsomely printed edition of Gulliver's Travels, to 1,100 subscribers on what Wall Street called "Black Wednesday," Oct. 23, 1929. The cost was $10 C.O.D. ($9 to those who had paid in advance). Each selection received special treatment: The Psalms of David was printed in Palestine; Oedipus Rex in Greece. The Analects of Confucius, printed in Shanghai and boxed in carved Chinese redwood, was designed to be read from back to front.

The 26-year-old Macy had become a publisher even before he was graduated from Columbia. In 1926, his Macy-Masius publishing company had sold 11,000 copies of an anthology of light verse edited by Franklin Pierce Adams (F.P.A.), the Herald-Tribune columnist. Surprisingly, his Limited Editions Club survived the Great Depression. By 1938, a total of 109 Limited Editions Club selections had been published, an enviable record.

By 1930, the Religious Book Club had grown to such ample proportions that it could absorb the Christian Century Book Service and celebrate its third anniversary by offering free books to members. What no one saw was the deepening economic gloom of the Great Depression that lay just ahead.

Editor's Note: Look for the concluding article, "The Book Club Wars 2: Depreasion, War and Peace," that follows immediately.

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The Book Club Wars, 2: Depression, War and Peace


As we learned in Part One, the Book-of-the-Month Club had lost money during its first year of operation, largely because of the volume of returned selections. The Literary Guild prospered almost immediately but soon found itself in financial difficulty as the "Roaring Twenties" bubble burst, and the worldwide economic picture deteriorated . In 1929, Nelson Doubleday, son of the founder of the publishing firm of the same name, bought 49 percent of the Guild's stock.

The Depression Hits
As the Depression deepened in the early 1930s, the picture with respect to book clubs was about as follows: The clubs still worked on a subscription basis; most clubs favored editorial boards to choose book selections; subscribers received their books by mail. These were the general points of similarity pointed out by Selma Robinson in a perceptive article in The Century Magazine. The differences between the clubs, however, are equally vital to this account and significant, as well.

The Book-of-the-Month Club purchased books from publishers after publication, originally receiving up to a 55 percent discount from publishers. This mounted rapidly to 70 percent as club membership grew. BOMC members paid full list price and agreed to accept selections or the substitutes described in the BOMC News.

The Literary Guild, on the other hand, bought its selections directly from manuscripts, then rented publishers plates at fixed rates and manufactured copies to its own specifications and requirements. Later, this would mean printing beyond immediate needs to have books for distribution as free premiums. The Guild sold its selections to members at prices below publishers' list prices.

Ever jockeying, the two book club behemoths vied with one another in a search for new gimmicks or innovative offers to bring in new members. The Guild, for example, solicited librarians for subscriptions, offering three Guild selections with each two-year subscription to magazines such as Redbook. As a conciliatory gesture to booksellers, it toned down its advertisements that had needled booksellers by stressing the disadvantages of bookstore browsing. Instead, at least for a time, the Literary Guild, like the Book-of-the-Month Club, emphasized the delights of home reading.

Usually way ahead of the Guild in initiative and inspiration, in at least one respect the BOMC took four years and three months to catch up with its principal competitor. Not until July of 1930 did the BOMC get around to manufacturing its own editions or joining the publishers' press runs, thus achieving even greater profit than the 70-percent publishers' discount had previously yielded.

By the end of 1931, the Guild had established a fixed rate of two dollars per book. Early in 1932, the book trade witnessed a surprising partnership--surprising because of all the brickbats that had been hurled back and forth in years past. Bookstores began to handle Literary Guild subscriptions. The Guild sent its monthly selections in quantity to booksellers who then mailed them out on approval to individuals who had signed up as Guild subscribers through the store. Books could be returned to stores within a week of receipt and to the Guild by the 15th of the following month. Of the customer's $2.00 payment, only $1.20 went to the Guild; the dealer kept the balance.

Now it was publishers' turn to worry about this new merchandising gimmick, especially when it was revealed that the regular trade edition as well as the special Literary Guild edition were both to be sold through the same retail outlets. The ABA continued to protest against some of the activities of book clubs, particularly the offering of free books, which they felt would inevitably reduce bookstore sales of the same title. Not to be outdone, the Book-of-the-Month Club would add its own bookseller plan in 1934. Whereas the Guild had allowed the retailer to deal with the customer throughout the transaction, the BOMC insisted on handling its own fulfillment. Eventually, it would change its working arrangement with booksellers in 1939 to the arrangement being followed by the Guild.

The year 1932 witnessed the birth of some new clubs and the demise of old clubs, including the Free Thought Book Club and the Business Book League. There wasn't much to laugh about in the depths of the depression, yet humor books sold well. Publisher Robert McBride started the Laugh Book Club to distribute six books of humor during the year, all of which members were obliged to take. The Dollar Book Club was also formed that year for the specific purpose of remaindering Literary Guild selections.

By 1934, many changes had taken place in the book trade. The subject of book-club competition with retail outlets usually figures in most publishers' decisions to release a book for book club use, so the Book-of-the-Month Club agency plan's experience is worth examining. In spite of excellent promotional efforts, the number of BOMC subscribers through bookstores was never very high. This suggested that book club members did indeed come largely from areas not served well, if at all, by bookstores.

The results of an experiment conducted by the Literary Guild in 1935 are interesting. In that year, the Guild made a mailing to the charge account list of Boston's Jordan Marsh department store, and obtained 1,500 new subscribers. An analysis by the store revealed two remarkable statistics: Only 2 percent of those who enrolled in the Guild had been book buyers in the store's own book department. Six months later, 15 percent of the new Guild subscribers had begun to charge the purchase of books at the store's own book counters--at regular retail prices.

In 1935, a left-wing book club was formed. Calling itself the Book Union, it was "a nonprofit organization devoting its efforts to consolidating an audience for proletarian literature." This group rather capitalistically charged a membership fee of one dollar a year, and enjoyed a modest success until 1939.

More book clubs appealing to Catholic readers made their appearance. Sheed & Ward, a Catholic publisher, announced the birth of their own book society intended to feature the company's publications. A club calling itself Spiritual Book Associates proposed to supplement the Catholic Book Club's literary selections of Catholic interest with books of purely religious and spiritual value.

New developments in the activities of the major book clubs signaled their growing wealth and power. For example, in 1936, the Book-of-the-Month Club announced annual fellowship awards for writers who gave clear indication of more than ordinary talent but who had not received adequate recognition. The following year, the Literary Guild made arrangements for department store book departments to sell subscriptions for it. As before, the customer dealt directly with the store, but now it was the Literary Guild that handled the mailing. What was unusual about this plan was that it allowed for the purchase of any four books in the store, not necessarily book club selections. The Guild was challenged immediately and charged under the recently passed Miller-Tydings Act with engaging in conspicuous price cutting.

Congress Steps In
The rules of the game for business everywhere were changed in 1937 by a law passed by Congress--the Miller-Tydings Act, which tried to eliminate price cutting by legalizing contracts for the maintenance of prices on certain standardized or trademarked items. Consequently, in their contracts with booksellers in 1937 and 1938, publishers included clauses protecting the selling prices of their new books and often of old titles as well.

A New York City department store, R.H. Macy & Company, took advantage of a loophole in the enabling legislation that exempted book clubs from such restrictions. Macy's circumvented the law by starting its own "book club." With its regular book department prevented from discounting books or using books as loss leaders, Macy's Red Star Book Club (a red five-pointed star was Macy's emblem) to take advantage of the law that had exempted book clubs from pricing restrictions.

By purchasing four books at list price from a selected list of titles stocked by the store, "members" could accumulate credit slips entitling them to a 25-percent discount on a fifth book chosen from among all the books in the store. There were no dues in this club, but the time limit within which the four purchases had to be made was set at one year.

A host of department stores followed Macy's lead with book clubs of their own, raising the discount to 30 percent and causing Macy's to match the higher figure. New independent booksellers and even the established book clubs became apprehensive over this new threat. The Book-of-the-Month Club responded to it by giving members a dividend book for every two books purchased, instead of the previous dividend book for every four books purchased.

For their part, publishers began to drop the book-club exemption clause from their contracts. Now they had two possible courses of action: (1) they could refuse to submit books to the clubs, or (2) they could exclude from price protection the books selected by the clubs for distribution. Most publishers adopted the latter course, but not without trepidation as they weighed its effect on marketing, particularly of potential best sellers.

Two questions remained: Would the clubs be less interested in books open to general price warsthat is to say, books on which booksellers could also engage in price cutting? On the other hand, would booksellers shy away from ordering titles that were not price-protected because they were book club selections? The Book-of-the-Month Club offered something of an olive branch by agreeing to eliminate from its advertisements any reference to the list price of books used as premiums. Again, the excitement abated.

The Book-of-the-Month Club also worked out its own Bookshop Cooperation Plan, which was proposed and debated in the pages of Publishers Weekly. Under the plan, "the bookseller would sell a BOMC subscription at a profit to themselves, just as they would with any series of books and would wholly control the accounts of those customers who had become book club subscribers."

Books of the Month were to be purchased by book dealers from the Club at a 30-percent discount off the Club's regular retail price. Dealers also would sell from their own stock any of the books recommended by the Club. Premiums earned by subscribers were to be delivered to the dealer by the Club, with delivery charges the only cost.

In 1937, book publisher George Macy started the Heritage Book Club, a subsidiary of his Limited Editions club, for mass-produced imitation limited editions selling for $2.50 a copy. It was, in other respects, a less-expensive version of the Limited Editions club. Four years later, he organized the Reader's Club--not to be confused with a club later launched in 1950 under the same name by Sears, Roebuck & Company to offer books more sophisticated than those offered by their Peoples Book Club. Its aim was to choose books published in recent years that deserved a wider audience than they had received. Subscribers agreed to buy six books a year at $1.00 each.

George Macy was no stranger to the book-club world; in 1929, the 26-year-old Macy had organized the Limited Editions Club, a cross between the old-fashioned book club of a bygone era and a modern book club. Subscribers, limited to 1,500 in number, paid a whopping $120 a year for ten books ($108 if they paid in advance). An unusual feature of the Heritage Book Club: It did not require members to purchase every selection. Individual volumes could be bought separately at a cost of from $3.00 to $5.00. These clubs were continued in operation by Macy's son, Jonathan.

The War Years
During 1942 the Book-of-the-Month Club expanded its publicity operations to include a syndicated weekly book column for newspapers. Edwin Seaver, publicity director of the club, and Mrs. Robin McKown wrote the column as well as scripts for radio programs either put on by the club or supplied to organizations and schools that requested them. By September of that year, the BOMC set up a separate Educational Department under Charles S. Steinberg to coordinate outside activities of this kind. In November, the BOMC began syndicating daily illustrated action strips based on the current selections of the Club. It also supplied newspapers with separate panels of illustrations drawn from striking incidents in the books.

In spite of restrictions on materials and manufacturing imposed during the war years, a surprising number of new book clubs got started. Among these was Walter J. Black's Detective Book Club, the second such club in this specialized area. Its forerunner, the Detective Story Club, was one of the very oldest of all book clubs. For $1.89, Black's club offered one volume containing three full-length mystery stories; members were required to buy four or more such volumes during the year. The Club's special editions were only available to members.

With limited funds. George Braziller started the Book Find Club in 1942. According to its prospectus, the Club aimed "to find a good book, a book which has meaning in these critical times." Such a book might be a first novel, a book on the bestseller list, or a book by an established writer "who had never reached as wide an audience as we felt he deserved." The Book Find Club operated no dividend program and maintained no editorial board. Four books in the first year at $1.35 per volume were the minimum purchase requirements.

In their Fall 1943 catalog, the mail-order merchandising firm of Sears, Roebuck & Company announced a new venture: a book club of their own in cooperation with Simon & Schuster and the Consolidated Book Publishing Company. Subscriptions could be bought through the mail or through local Sears catalog centers and Sears retail outlets then just beginning to spring up. Members were entitled to a gift book with every four selections purchased at $1.65 each. This club intended to concentrate on printing cheap editions of bestsellers that had been on the market for six months or more. Called the People's Book Club, it differed from other book clubs in a number of significant respects.

It did not advertise, except in Sears catalogs. It picked its selections after monthly polls to determine the reading tastes of members. Finally, it hoped to cause less of a stir in publishing and book selling circles by bringing books to people in rural areas where libraries and bookstores were few and far between. To test the correctness of these assumptions, one year after its inception the People's Book Club sent a postcard questionnaire to members. The results showed that they were indeed rural dwellers with a preponderance of high school graduates.

Not to be outdone by Sears, Montgomery Ward announced in its Spring 1946 catalog that it would sell subscriptions to the Literary Guild and the Dollar Book Club by mail. Subscriptions would also be handled at its local catalog stores. By now, the Literary Guild, calling itself in its advertising "the world's largest book club," began to sponsor its own radio program, an idea that was dropped shortly thereafter.

With the ending of the war, 1946 witnessed a vast upsurge in the number of new book clubs: The Executive Book Club "formed by and for businessmen," the Non-Fiction Book Club (essentially the old Scientific Book Club in a new guise after it was taken over by Henry Holt's Science Book Club), the Family Reading Club, the Progressive Book Club, the History Book Club, and the Jewish Book League all date from this period.

A 1946 study by Henry Link and Harry Hopf for the Book Industry Committee of the Book Manufacturers Institute told the management of the various book clubs one fact they already knew only too well--namely, book clubs were plagued by a high rate of turnover in membership. This study undoubtedly had an effect on changes introduced by the Book-of-the-Month Club the following year. Monthly selections offered were increased to seven in number--one new title and six established titles. Next, annual mailings were increased from 12 to 13, a move they claimed would make it easier for subscribers to fulfill their membership obligations. The BOMC believed the increase would overcome objections that too much emphasis was placed on too few books. This figure was later raised to 14 by the Book-of-the-Month Club and other clubs, and at least one club, the Playboy Book Club, raised the number of mailings it made each year to 16. Today, annual mailings of clubs can number up to a staggering 19 per year.

New book clubs that entered the field in 1947 included the Thomas More Book Club and the Fiction Book Club. This was far from the picture envisioned by Selma Robinson in 1930 when she predicted that the number of clubs would be reduced to three or four giants, comparable to other mail order operations. During 1948, the Book-of-the-Month Club purchased Holt's Non-Fiction Book Club and absorbed its 11,000 members. It also formed a short-lived Travelers Book Club to cooperate in a plan to supply railroad passengers with good reading matter on long trips. The year 1947 also saw a close cooperation between the Literary Guild and Macy's Red Star Book Club. This allowed a Macy's customer who subscribed to the Guild through the store to apply dividend certificates toward the purchase of any book in the store.

New ventures presented the book trade with problems. A new type of organization appeared that bore the name "book club" but had none of the characteristics of a book club. These organizations did not make selections at all, but merely bought from publishers at standard retailers' discounts. They promised a 25-percent dividend or bonus on all book purchases. Subscribers received such bonuses in the form of a credit toward additional purchases.

Confronted with high overhead costs, these new clubs limited their advertising to small space ads designed to build up their mailing lists. The oldest and most active of the general clubs in this area, the Bonus Book Club, was organized in February of 1947 and began operation in May. The Dividend Book Club, started in September of 1948, required that the first book be purchased at list price. Then 25 percent of the total purchase was applied toward the cost of a fifth book. Started in March of 1949, the Art Book Club permitted members to deposit money in advance against which purchases could be charged.

Another Book Club War
In 1948, booksellers declared open warfare on book clubs. At the 1947 American Booksellers Association convention at the Hotel Astor in New York, the first to include a trade show for booksellers, the ABA had adopted the Give-a-Book-Certificate Plan, with which booksellers could cooperate on a voluntary basis. Using the Association's offices as a central clearing house, booksellers could redeem a certificate issued to a customer anywhere in the country. A free service to customers, the certificate was intended to encourage the giving of books as gifts.

Another venture was the American Booksellers Association's Leased-Books Project. For years, booksellers had complained that publishers granted extraordinary rights to book clubs. Now they decided to demand them for themselves. The ABA maintained that legally they had the same right to special terms as did book clubs. Under the Association's project, a committee was formed to request that three separate publishers (Doubleday, Harper and Houghton Mifflin) lease plates to the ABA so that it could print books of its choice. The publishers denied the ABA request, even though the three titles designated by the ABA later appeared as selections of one or another of the major clubs.

At its 1948 in Chicago convention the ABA passed a resolution "looking toward a coordinated approach to legal aspects of the book club problem." Howard B. Klein of Burrows Bookstore in Cleveland was appointed to investigate the possibility of filing suits alleging that agreement between publishers and book clubs represented unfair trade practices. He reported in an open letter to the book trade that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Anti-Trust division of the Justice Department had been asked to settle the rights and wrongs of the licensing of book club rights. In 1949, the booksellers association joined with the Cleveland bookseller in a formal complaint to the FTC about publishers' book club practices. Even usually sympathetic Publishers Weekly bluntly described it as "sicking the FTC on the publishers in an effort to stop book-club bargains."

Peace at Last
Four long years later, the FTC made a decision in the ABA-sponsored case in 1953 and settled the book club question once and for all. Trial Examiner Frank Hier affirmed the legal propriety of the publishers' practice of granting exclusive rights to book clubs. Exclusivity is the essence of copyright, he declared, and the licensee (the publisher) had the right to arbitrarily sublicense one and to refuse to sublicense another. The presence of two publishers in the field, each using different distribution methods, resulted in a duality of price whose impact might be felt by the retail bookseller. However, the mere existence of a duality in price was not a violation of the law.

At last, publishers, booksellers and book clubs could settle down to harmonious relationships in the making and selling of books. For all practical purposes, the series of Abitter guerrilla engagements between the warring parties was over. Curiously, when the participants calculated the time the bitterness had endured, it turned out to have lasted almost as long as the devastating Thirty Years War that engulfed most of Europe and brought episodes of famine and pestilence for centuries thereafter.

O.H. Cheney, in his monumental Economic Survey of the Book Industry, conducted for the National Association of Book Publishers in 1931 at the nadir of the Depression, perhaps said it best: "The book clubs became a menace because the book industry always needs a menace." He pointed out that the gaps left by the industry's inadequate distribution system had to be filled by some method, and the book club was just as logical as any other method--and more logical in theory than the bookstore was in practice.

What of the Future?As a calling, booksellers have always seen themselves as perpetually doomed. From the end of the Civil War until near the turn of the century, they complained about discounting and price cutting. They were equally bitter about publishers selling directly by mail and their use of commercial travelers in competition with retailers. In 1896, booksellers saw the bicycle craze as "demoralizing the equilibrium of the book trade." Not many years later, it was trolley cars, telephones and baseball games. These were followed by the movies, Sunday newspapers, magazine reading, radio, and finally television. Next it became the turn of computers or cell phones to play the villain as competitive diversions from books.

The growth of chain bookstores also meant formidable competition for independent booksellers. Independents and chains, as well as bookclubs, have been mortally wounded by discounters, such as Wal-Mart, Costco, Sam's Club and It remains to be seen what handheld electronic readers and downloaded books will do to the printed book.

There will always be a coterie of readers for whom no greater pleasure exists than the proverbial "curling up with a good book." Book clubs, if they survive at all, will probably be limited to those clubs serving partisan political tastes and specialized professional groups.

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