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