Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A book every month, delivered to your door

The Book of the Month Club is still around. I just checked. It has merged, it looks like, with the Literary Guild, a former low-rent competitor, and both are, let us say, not as ostentatious a they once were.

My wife and/or I had belonged to BOMC and to Literary Guild a few times in the now-distant past. We would take advantage of the special invitation, pick out five books (or however many it was they were offering) (histories for me, novels for her), try to remember to send back the card saying no thanks to 10 or 11 of the next 12 offerings and eventually either get dismissed from the club for lack of participation or leave voluntarily. Then we'd see another enticing offer and pick out a few books for a measly dollar, and we'd be back in it again.

We still have some of those books on our shelves, but we probably have ten times as many books that we had purchased in book stores. As intriguing as the book club summaries were, they were never as enticing as finding a book in a book store, where you can hold it, smell, flip through it, and get pulled into the excitement. Of course, now we live in a town that does not have a book store. (What kind of self-respecting town is that?) But we're still not tempted to join another book club.

In its day, Book of the Month Club was a literary status symbol, proof that you were a bibliophile, a book lover, a reader, a supporter of great writing and great authors — or even of so-so writers who struck it rich when their novels were picked as a BOMC monthly selection. The Literary Guild was founded as lower-class BOMC. Same procedure, same strategy, just not quite as many big-name authors, and the book club editions were not as substantial as the publisher's main run. Big ads featuring great books kept the excitement going. We subscribed to magazines that included long reads, and the book clubs ran their ads there, keeping the membership afloat.

There must have been huge "churn," in membership. Churn is the term used in the newspaper business to describe folks who subscribe for the special 90-day cut rate but then drop the paper. Six months later, they might sign up again, but they never stay for the long haul. Newspapers spent fortunes trying to reduce churn and keep readers. Book club memberships were like that. We were among the churn. We'd join, leave and join again.

Now my wife reads books on her Kindle and we order books from Amazon occasionally when we see one that sounds intriguing, but it's not in the public library. All that expense of mailing monthly newsletters and selection forms and then mailing the books made for a huge overhead in the book clubs. It's a wonder to me that they are still in business — barely. Most of the big chain bookstores, which had run the small-town book shops out of business 20 years ago, are gone now, too. They just couldn't compete with the unending selection and the overnight delivery of the online stores.

And what has replaced the prestige and savoir-faire of Book of the Month Club? Maybe a library card? A Friends of the Library membership? An e-reader? A Netflix subscription?

None of the above.

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