Vintage book clubs delivered romance, fiction, fantasy & more to millions of readers each month

Vintage book clubs delivered romance, fiction, fantasy

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Join a book club? What to consider, how to pick. (1953)

From Kiplinger’s Personal Finance – June 1953

No matter what your taste in books, you can find a book club that will try to satisfy it. There are now roughly 80 of them; it is hard to give an exact count, though, because new ones crop up so frequently.

Such clubs as the Book-of-the-Month and the Literary Guild are well-known and highly successful. But among the others, there is an amazing diversity. For example, there are a Garden Science Book Club, a Yachtsman’s Book Club, the Seven Arts Book Society, the Labor Library, the Pulpit Book Club and the Laugh Book Club.

At least seven book clubs specialize in reading matter for youngsters, another half-dozen are sponsored by religious groups, several make a specialty of fine editions of the classics, others deal in biography, history and economics.

Book of the Month club from 1976
Book of the Month club from 1976

Just how many volumes are sold every year through the book clubs no one knows for sure, for the book club business is highly competitive, and its statistics are hard to obtain. But it is estimated that approximately 50 million of the annual output of 190 million general, or “trade,” books are sold — or given away — by the book clubs. Membership lists, too, are carefully guarded secrets.

The Book-of-the-Month Club, which publishes an annual report, has more than half a million members. All in all, roughly 4 to 5 million people belong to one club or another. And at the rate at which new members join and old members drop out, it is conceivable that practically all of the book-reading families in the United States are either former members, current members or about-to-be members.

Small wonder! The fine art of selling by mail has been pushed to its limits by the book clubs. Their direct-mail advertising is sent out by the ton. Most of them also advertise heavily in magazines and newspapers. And several clubs use their members to recruit new members — offering extra book dividends for the favor.

Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck both offer their customers membership in hook clubs, so they can buy their reading matter as well as their baby clothes and bath mats right out of the catalog. Such a successful scheme as this was bound to spill over into other lines. The something-a-month-by-mail plan has been adapted to flowers, fruit, candy, records, magazines and gifts.

1942 Dollar Book Club membership

How the clubs got started

Book clubs were first organized in the United States in the mid-’20s. The Book-of-the-Month Club was the first, followed closely by the Literary Guild. In its first year, Book-of-the-Month found 46,000 willing members. And at the end of four years, the club had a list of 110,000 subscribers, to whom it was selling almost a million books a year. This was before the “book dividend” (a free book for every two or three bought) had been introduced, so the members were buying every one of those 1 million books.

During the depression, the book club business suffered along with everything else. It was then that the book dividend scheme was born. Most clubs quickly adopted the idea, and membership again began to climb.

The war years brought a tremendous boons in books, and the clubs shared handsomely in that boom. By the end of 1949, Book-of-the-Month could report that it had sold its hundred-millionth book.

Harry Scherman, the originator of the book club idea, who was then president, stated that less than one-tenth of those 100 million books would have been bought through the regular channels of book distribution, the bookstores.

Book clubs for children from 1967

In fact, it was the lack of good bookstores in the United States that created the opportunity which the book clubs seized. Even today there are about 60 million people living in areas well out of range of a decent bookstore. And of those, probably half are also without a passable public library.

By using the 42,000 U. S. post offices, the clubs provided themselves with a system for mass distribution of books. Book club sales are by no means confined to areas where there are no bookstores. To be sure, the clubs do sell a higher proportion of books in sparsely populated areas than the bookstores do, but they have healthy membership rolls in the big cities, too. So it isn’t only the lack of bookstores that accounts for the clubs’ success.

Book clubs for children from 1974

Through the economies of large printings and some other savings that are possible, the book clubs are able to offer their own editions of books at 25% to 50% below the retail or bookstore price if the free books are averaged into the cost. The bookstore people have regularly and angrily let go with some blasts against the book clubs because of their price advantage.

And at the moment, they are participants in proceedings before the Federal Trade Commission against some of the clubs for “unfair competition.” Book clubs usually publish no books of their own, their editors read the books of all the publishing houses and choose their selections from the current crop.

If the publisher agrees (and it’s profitable to do so), the club generally leases the printing plates from him and runs off its own edition of the book, paying a royalty to both the author and the publisher.

1948 Romance book club

Who joins the clubs?

If there’s any one answer to that question, it is “Women.”

In some book clubs, the proportion of women members is as high as 80%. Whether they buy them for themselves or for the entire family isn’t known. Nor is it clear whether they pay for them out of the grocery money or just present their husbands with the bills.

At any rate, it is the housewives who join in greatest numbers. Most likely they are doing what they can to bring a little extra stimulation into their comic-book- and sports-page-bedeviled households.

For their effort, and for the book clubs’ part in this effort, both the women and the clubs deserve thanks. There are other motives, less commendable but certainly evident in some cases, for their joining. For one thing, a handsome book is an impressive prop in any household.


Then, too, there is the problem of the bookshelf. How to fill it? How better to do it at a low cost than by joining a book club? To the despair of the book clubs, they often drop their memberships when the shelves are full.

This became such a problem that at least one book club offered to ship its members a good roomy bookcase at cost. At the rate of a year and a half to fill each shelf, every sale of a bookcase held the promise that the member would stay with the club at least another five years.

Just recently the Book-of-the-Month Club released the results of a survey of its members. They are young — a third are under 30, and nearly two-thirds are under 39. And fully 78% have attended college, compared with only 15% of the population at large.

1946 Book Club Associates

How books are selected

Most book clubs list a board of editors who are responsible for culling through the month’s output to select their current offering to members. A few, like Doubleday’s Literary Guild and the nine other Doubleday clubs, don’t use a board, but rely on the judgment of one man and a staff of readers for every choice.

Book-of-the-Month has an elaborate and careful screening process, using a board that has been in existence with only two changes, both because of death, since the club began in 1926.

Critics of the book clubs have charged them with several literary misdemeanors, but principally with standardizing the public taste in books by ignoring any books that are out of the ordinary, take an unpopular viewpoint, or are just plain hard to read. In short, they charge that the clubs pick not the best books, but the books that will sell best.

Join the Capitol Record Club & get 7 stereo albums! (1966)

The argument comes to a draw, however, when the book club people point out that (1) they cannot stay in business unless they pick satisfactory books; (2 ) no member is forced to buy any one book; ( 3) at worst, the member can buy four books as he agrees to do on joining and then drop out and get his books at a book-store.

Furthermore, no club maintains that its selections represent the “best” books of the month. One club makes it plain that it picks merely “a good story,” another that it chooses the “book that our editors enjoyed most,” and a few make no claims at all.

Literary Guild book club ad from 1977

How to pick a book club

Because book clubs vary widely in the kind and quality of material they send to members, you should be careful about picking a club to join.

If you are what one of the book club executives calls “an intending book buyer,” you should consider joining a book club. Certainly for the reasons stated, it is a cheap way to carry out your intention. But before you join any club, here are a few tips.

  • Scout the market. If you have a special interest, such as history or light fiction, find a club that specializes in that type of book.
  • When you look over the mail advertising, notice which selections are offered as alternates. For the most part, these are books which have been selected in previous months, and their titles will give you a clue to the type of book the club usually selects.
  • Read the offer carefully to see exactly how many books you are obligated to buy each year, and under what conditions.
  • Note the prices of the books to see whether they are really a bargain.
  • Beware of offers from newly established clubs. The introductory offer is likely to be a lot better than the monthly selections.
  • If you want a diet of general reading matter, with plenty of variety, stay away from the clubs that offer little or no nonfiction and tend to pick a historical romance nearly every time.
  • Try different clubs, or arrange with friends to subscribe to several clubs and exchange books. Once you have joined, don’t hesitate to be selective about your choices.
  • If a book doesn’t live up to its billing, return it. The book clubs aren’t particularly happy to have you do this, but you are certainly within your rights to do so.

1929 Junior Literary Guild book club

You can find the names and addresses of all the book clubs in just one place, a directory titled The Literary Market Place, which is available in most libraries. If this isn’t available to you, the next best things to do are to watch your mailbox and to look through the book review sections of your newspapers for book club advertising.

The answer to the question “Should you join a book club?” is yours to give. If you are near a good bookstore and like to do your own browsing, better not join. But if you find a club that satisfies your reading tastes, you can’t lose much by joining, and you stand to gain both in savings and in reading enjoyment.

Join the Young Model Builders Club (1967)

Literary Guild book club ad from 1927

The Only Club that Brings You Best-Sellers for just $1 (from 1950)

THE Dollar Book Club offers to send you both The Queen Bee and Pride’s Castle for just a 3-cent stamp — as a generous sample to new members of the wonderful reading entertainment and equally wonderful savings that nearly a million families enjoy through the Club.

The Dollar Book Club is the only club that brings you popular current novels for only $1.00 each. Yes, the very same titles sold in the publisher’s retail editions for $2.75 to $3.00 come to members for only $1.00…

Take as Few as Six Books a Year! Membership in the Dollar Book Club requires no dues of any kind. You do not even have to take a book every month; the purchase of as few as six books a year fulfills your membership requirement.

Start Enjoying Membership Now: Upon receipt of the coupon with just a 3-cent stamp, you will be sent BOTH The Queen Bee and Pride’s Castle. You will also receive the current selection for only $1.00.

Thereafter, every month, you will receive the Club’s Bulletin, which describes the forthcoming Club selections, also other popular books offered at only $1.00 each to members. You have the privilege of taking only the books you want. 

The Queen Bee: FLATTER her, be a willing slave to her seductive beauty and wanton charm, and she’s yours. But arouse her jealousy, thwart her desires, and see what happens. In that magnificent house on the hill where Eva ruled like a queen bee in a sinister hive, plenty happened.

To her husband, for instance, one of the handsomest and richest men in Atlanta, who tried to drown his despair in drinking . . . to her sister-in-law, who was finally goaded to suicide . . . to her lovely young niece, whose innocent passion for a man was the first real challenge Eva had ever known. Never have you met a heroine like Eva Avery — so bewitching and so evil — so hateful and so hard to hate!

Pride’s Castle: IN New York’s gilded robber-baron society, you could I buy anything for money — even a lover. And although blond Esther Stillworth was so beautiful that she could have almost any man in town, she could not have the man of her choice except at a cash price — $40,000,000!

Pride’s Castle is Frank Yerby’s best, with the roaring, colorful, sinful New York of the 1870s as its background. And you may have it, together with The Queen Bee, for just a 3-cent stamp with this amazing offer of membership in the Dollar Book Club!

Book Club from 1950 - Romance novels

The old Doubleday Book Club: Make your fantasies affordable (1978)

At 6 for 99c, you can indulge in more than one fantasy this month – Start with any 6 bestsellers for just 99c when you join the Doubleday Book Club.

Help unravel the clues; it was murder, not Coma. Share gypsy passion in Three Best Loved Barbara Cartlands. Ride the Australian outback with Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds, the top-selling romantic saga. Shiver through Closing Time, the true story of a singles’ bar murder.

Here’s how our club plan works. You’ll get your 6 books for only 99c plus shipping and handling along with your FREE Tote Bag when accepted as a member. If not satisfied, return them within 10 days to cancel your membership and owe nothing.

About every 4 weeks (14 times a year) you’ll receive our magazine describing our two Club Selections and at least 100 Alternates. The Extra-Value Selection is always just $2.98 (up to 60% off publishers’ edition prices). The Featured Selection and Alternates save you an average of 50% off publishers’ edition prices. A charge is added for shipping and handling.

If you want both Club Selections, do nothing — they will be shipped automatically. If you’d prefer only one Selection, an Alternate or no book at all, indicate this on the order form and return it before the date specified. You’ll have at least 10 days. If you do not have 10 days and receive books you don’t want, return them at our expense.

Once you’ve purchased just 6 books during your first year of membership, you may resign or continue with no further purchase obligation. The Doubleday Book Club offers its own complete hard-bound editions, sometimes altered in size to fit special presses and save members even more.

The Doubleday Book Club – Makes your fantasies affordable

Doubleday Book Club - Fantasy romance books from 1978 (1)

Doubleday Book Club - Fantasy romance books from 1978 (2)

The Literary guild answers your questions before you join (1978)

Vintage book clubs - Literary Guild from 1978 (1)

Vintage book clubs - Literary Guild from 1978 (2)

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Candlelight Ecstasy book club - 1985

Vintage Candlelight Esctasy book club 1983

Doubleday Book Club (1994)

Books you’ve been dreaming of… Danielle Steel, John Grisham, Michael Crichton, Victoria Holt, Robin Cook…

1994 Doubleday Book Club 1994 Doubleday Book Club offer

Future classic: See what people said about the original 'Wonderful Wizard of Oz' book's first edition when it was published in 1900

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