Copyright The Columbia University PressThe Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. The Columbia University Press
book clubs: As a phenomenon in American cultural life, book clubs have made an impact in two periods of history. During the 18th and 19th cent. book clubs were formed for the purposes of discussion and debate. Foremost among these was the Junto, a literary society formed by Benjamin Franklin in 1726; more representative was the Cadmus Club of Galesburg, Ill., founded in 1895 for the promotion of good fellowship, good reading, and literary works of local interest. The late 20th cent. saw a revival of such book clubs, with the notable addition of on-line clubs and Oprah Winfrey's televised club.
The common 20th cent. understanding of "book club" is not a club at all but an organization that promotes the mail-order sale of books. Among the best known are the Book-of-the-Month Club, with its offshoot paperback book club, Quality Paperback Books, and the Literary Guild. There are also clubs devoted to more specialized interests and forms, such as cooking, gardening, science fiction, computers, and books in recorded audio formats. Mail-order clubs—set up as they are to ensure that the tastes and choices of their readership will be met—are models of mass production and distribution methods aimed to supply individual consumers. Although various book clubs apply different methods, the Book-of-the-Month Club licenses publishers' printing plates in order to print its selections cheaply and bind them sturdily for mailing. Members order negatively; that is, they let the club know which books they do not want by returning an order card. Although mail-order book clubs enjoy large memberships, they lost some ground to the rise of discount chain bookstores in the 1980s and on-line booksellers in the late 1990s.