When advertising copywriter Harry Scherman founded the Book-of-the-Month Club in 1926, he could hardly have predicted the lasting impact his company would have on the literary and cultural tastes of future generations. The Book-of-the-Month Club (BOMC) developed over time into a cultural artifact of the twentieth century, considered by many to be a formative element of "middlebrow" culture. With the monthly arrival of a book endorsed by a panel of experts, aspirants to middle-class learnedness could be kept abreast of literary trends through the convenience of mail order. The success of this unique approach to book marketing is evidenced by the fact that membership had grown to over one million by the end of the twentieth century.
Born in Montreal, Canada, in 1887, Harry Scherman was a highly resourceful marketer and a devout reader. He believed that the love of reading and of owning books could be effectively marketed to the "general reader," an audience often neglected in the book publishing industry of that period. Scherman's first book marketing scheme involved a partnership with Whitman Candy, in which a box of candy and a small leatherbound book were wedded into one package. These classic works, which he called the Little Leather Library, eventually sold over thirty million copies.
Scherman's ultimate goal was to create an effective means of large-scale book distribution through mail order. The success of direct-mail marketing had already been proven in other industries by the 1920s, but no one had figured out how to successfully market books in this fashion. The difficulty was in applying a blanket marketing approach to a group of unique titles with different topics and different audiences. Scherman's solution was to promote the idea of the "new book" as a commodity that was worthy of ownership solely because of its newness. His approach focused attention on consumers owning and benefiting from these new objects, rather than on the unique qualities of the objects themselves. In 1926, Scherman's idea came to fruition, and with an initial investment of forty thousand dollars by Scherman and his two partners, the Book-of-the-Month Club was born.
Two elements in his design of the early Book-of-the-Month Club were key to its lasting success. First, an editorial panel would carefully select each new book that would be presented to the club's members. Scherman selected five editors to serve on the first panel: Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Harry Canby (editor of The Saturday Review), William Allen White, Heywood Broun, and Christopher Morley. Each was known and respected as a writer or journalist, which helped reinforce the recognition of BOMC as a brand name. These literary authorities would save the reader time by recommending which new book to buy. Readers were assured that their selections were "the best new books published each month" and that they would stand the test of time and eventually become classics.
The second vital element to the success of BOMC was the institution of the subscription model, by which subscribers would commit to purchasing a number of books over a period of time. Each month, subscribers to the club would receive BOMC's newest selection in the mail. Later, BOMC modified this approach so that subscribers could exercise their "negative option" and decline the selection of the month in favor of a title from a list of alternates. The automatic approach to purchasing new books allowed BOMC to rely on future book sales before the titles themselves were even announced. Scherman targeted the desire of the club's middle-class subscribers to stay current and was able to successfully convince the public that owning the newest and best objects of cultural production was the most expedient way to accomplish this goal.
BOMC posed an immediate challenge to the insularity of bourgeois culture by presenting a shortcut method for achieving literary knowledge. Janice Radway remarked that the club's critics "traditionally suggested that it either inspired consumers to purchase the mere signs of taste or prompted them to buy a specious imitation of true culture." Skeptics were wary of the transformation of books into a commodity that would be purchased for the sake of its novelty. They were not wrongly suspicious; as Radway explained, BOMC "promised not simply to treat cultural objects as commodities, but even more significantly, it promised to foster a more widespread ability among the population to treat culture itself as a recognizable, highly liquid currency." The market forces that drive the publishing world were laid bare in the direct mail model, and it posed a clear threat to the idea that literature should be published because it is good, not because it appeals to the tastes of the "general public."
Behind that very real concern, however, was a discomfort with the populist approach taken by BOMC. The company's mission was to popularize and sell the book, an object which had previously been considered the domain of society's elite. Middlebrow culture, as it came to be known, developed in opposition to the exclusive academic realm of literary criticism, and it threatened the dominant cultural position of that group. At the other end of the spectrum, middlebrow taste also excluded anything avant-garde or experimental. This centrist orientation continued to make producers of culture uneasy throughout the twentieth century, because it reinforced the exclusion of alternative movements from the mainstream. This mainstream readership, however timid and predictable its taste might be, was a formidable economic group with great influence in the book marketplace.
The club's membership continued to grow past the one million mark by the end of the twentieth century as BOMC's strength in the book marketplace endured. BOMC selection has the power to skyrocket little-known authors to instant fame and lucrative book deals, so the competition for a spot in the catalog has been fierce. Books are carefully chosen based on criteria that weigh a book's literary merit as well as its likelihood of appealing to a cross-section of the membership. For example, even books successful in the traditional marketplace might not succeed with BOMC if their content cannot be clearly conveyed in the tight space of a catalog description. BOMC's selection process embodies the larger conflict in the publishing world between quality and marketability. The club's focus on the desires of its subscribers forces an exclusion of both overly commercial titles and the specialized, academic or literary material that would not appeal to the general reader. This customer-focused approach has also fueled a move at BOMC toward the industrywide trend of niche marketing. By the late 1990s, there were ten specialty book clubs that fell under the larger BOMC umbrella, in interest areas including spirituality, cooking, money, and history.
Time, Inc. purchased BOMC in 1977, and as the era of mergers and acquisitions in the 1980s and 1990s progressed, it brought major changes to Harry Scherman's original conception of a book distribution service featuring books selected by an elite group of literary professionals. In 1994, under the ownership of media conglomerate Time-Warner, the BOMC's editorial board was dismantled altogether in favor of a more market-driven approach to acquiring new titles. This decision reflected the trend in the 1990s toward a "bestseller mentality" in the publishing industry, under which editorial judiciousness appeared to be almost a luxury.
With so much attention focused on the bottom line, it is not surprising that the company ventured onto the internet to increase sales, an unusual and risky move for a direct-mail marketer. Customers could begin going to the company's website (www.bomc.com) to decline the month's selection online, and, the company presumed, order additional titles at the same time. While the paper catalogs mailed 17 times per year contain only about 200 selections each, on the website customers may choose from over 3,200 selections.
The proliferation of online marketing, including many booksellers that offer discounted books via the internet, is certain to have an impact on BOMC's trademark approach to book distribution. In the end, the internet may be the final step in the process begun by Harry Scherman to promote widespread book distribution; customers can choose from thousands of books from dozens of companies at the click of a mouse. Regardless of the direction that the Book-of-the-Month Club takes in the future, it will always be known as a significant architect of twentieth-century literary taste.
—Caitlin L. Gannon
Lee, Charles. The Hidden Public: The Story of the Book-of-the-Month Club. Garden City, New York, Doubleday, 1958.
Machlis, Sharon. "Web Page Beats Paper for Book Club."Computerworld. February 23, 1998, 41-44.
Radway, Janice A. A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
Rubin, Joan. The Making of Middlebrow Culture. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1992.