report from the front – Chris Volk

The Book Club effect on Trade Bookselling

The argument has been made that book clubs like the Book-of-the-Month club were as threatening in their day to independent booksellers as Amazon and internet sales are today, but one can also argue that the BOMC had exactly the opposite efffect.

The Book of the Month Club was undeniably both successful and influential: in the first 25 years of its existence (that is, from 1926 to 1951), it shipped over 100 million books – more than 50% of them were the “main selection” (in the early years only one or two alternates were offered). If one assumes an even distribution that gives a BOMC edition of almost 200,000 copies for every main selection (and these were in the days when a 20,000 copy first printing would have been considered “large” – not like today when a printing of 100,000 copies or more is commonplace.)

But back in 1926, when Harry Scherman (whose first venture in book publicating/promoting was the Little Leather Library with the Boni brothers) and his partner Maxwell Sackheim founded the Book of the Month Club, there were relatively few bookstores in the United States outside of large urban areas. Scherman felt that less than 10% of the books they sold would have been sold without the BOMC. So, far from threatening bookstores, one can argue that the BOMC created the habit of reading modern “literature” (vs strictly popular fiction) among Americans and thus creating an environment in which bookstores could prosper. In the years before 1926, most middle class households would buy ubiquitous “sets” of books sold by subscription, reprints of classics or more modern fiction. The other alternative back then was the lending library, often a part of the local general or department store, but those had a tendency to be heavy on mysteries and popular fiction.

By contrast, the very first selection of the BOMC was Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner, the first book of an unknown British author. Another selection of the first book by an unknown author was Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind – the BOMC edition actually shipped a few books before the book appeared in the store, and arguably was a factor in its success. Almost all of Hemingway’s books after 1940 (starting with For Whom the Bell Tolls) were BOMC selections.

The role played by the BOMC was not that dissimilar from the role played by Oprah’s book club in more recent times. One of the things to remember is that the Oprah book club has inspired groups of friends to get together and form their own book club, often using independent bookstores as meeting places or for recommendations.

Books like the Kite Runner, and the Alexander McCall books are selling a lot of copies (in trade pb) because of these local “book groups.” One constant is that people are afraid to trust their own judgment – libraries have moved away from stocking the “best” of the new books to the most popular. So just as Oprah has been good for publishers and independent bookstores, so I think was the BOMC.

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