THE LITERARY GUILD simply will not talk. In fact, it announces summarily, it doesn't even want an article about book clubs written. The Book-of-the-Month Club, older and more genteel, will sit still for a brief chat, but its good manners are extended in a guarded, reserved fashion. One might deduce, given this penchant for secrecy, that America's two premier book clubs have something to hide. In truth, they have plenty to worry about.
Early next year, doorbells in Dayton, Ohio, will be ringing, and Bertelsmann will be calling. The mammoth German publishing group (which owns Bantam Books) has joined forces with World Book-Childcraft International of Chicago in attempting to establish on these shores the kind of wide-ranging, heavily subscribed book clubs they operate abroad in 20 countries for an estimated 10 million members. In Germany alone their club boasts 4.5 million members, and extraordinary 8 percent of the population. The prime reason given for this unusually deep penetration is Bertelsmann's method of solicitation -- door-to-door salesmen.
If, in these time of violence and violation, it seems lunatic to enter the American market in such a personalized manner, the Bertelsmann folk reply that the life style in Europe is no more safe or assuring; they've overcome a natural resistance to opening the door there, why shouldn't they do the same here?
Far more than idle optimism fuels the American project, which is under the stewardship of Carlos Mantas, a soft-spoken, 43-year-old Portuguese, who managed the successful Bertelsmann Club in his homeland. Mantas, temporarily ensconced in a sparse cubbyhole in World Book-International Childcraft's otherwise resplendent offices, isolates the core of the concept when he explains: "We are targeted for the light reader -- the in and out reader -- as opposed to the American clubs which are targeted for heavy readers."
The Book-of-the-Month Club, launched independently in 1926 and today owned by Time-Life, takes itself very seriously as an elite and potent American literary force. "If we find a book, we want to offer it to our members regardless of economic considerations," Al Silverman, excecutive vice president says. The Literary Guild, begun in 1927 and owned by Doubleday, is considered to be more commerical and less literary than its principal rival.
There are numerous other specialty clubs -- the History Book Club, the Nostalgia Book Club -- but the BOMC and Guild are the two that count. They exist currently in an atmosphere that one insider describes as "postively Byzantine and rampant with paranoia." Because they are each owned by empires that have myriad other publishing holdings, to say nothing of the endless satellite clubs they themselves have spawned, the two behemoths face the constant fear that the Federal Trade Commission will find them monopolistic and thereby restraining trade. There is the problem of the bad pubilicity generated by the "negative option" plan for subscribers upon which their businesses are founded. In addition, economics are unstable -- production and mailing costs continue to skyrocket -- and, of course, they always have each other to worry about.
Despite these headaches, the clubs still remain awesome principals in the crapshoot that is contemporary publishing. They offer a publisher the push of extra earnings, extra advertising, and extra pyschological support in getting a book moving. Since the clubs bid early in the publishing process, their acceptance of a book is akin to the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. A salesman with 50 books will naturally push the one chosen by a club; subsidiary rights purchases will be swayed by a book already given a positive nod.
Bertelsmann's entry into the field -- Dayton, considered quintessentially middle American, is a test -- will surely be a boon to American publishers. How it will affect the BOMC and Literary Guild remains to be seen. Bertelsmann views its clubs solely as as entertainment-oriented and markets them accordingly. They are geared to the entire family, and while they primarily offer a diverse selection of books, they also make available records, cassettes, toys, games, cutlery, drinking glasses and even gilded alarm clocks.
This general thrust is eons removed from even the populist approach of the Guild and is the very factor that, some observers say, almost guarantees its success. The existing market of "readers" -- i.e. people who read 10 or more books a year -- is admittedly limited. (The Guild membership is believed to be 1.5 million, a drop in the bucket of our 220-million population.) On the other hand, the market of "potential readers" -- those who read an occasional book on a plane or a bus -- which Bertelsmann is aiming at, is limitless.
The Germans do have one trait in common with the Americans; they too seem to enjoy striking a philanthropic stance by extolling their ultimate aim -- to develop readers and instill in them the joy of reading. Carlos Mantas extends this motive to charitable zenith. "We will be developing a new market for the American clubs," he says. "People who join our clubs may eventually become members of theirs." h
"Anybody who'll come in and develop more book readers in this country is welcome," Al Silverman says curtly. "But we're not concerned about them. They are 180 degrees from us. We essentially go after the person who wants to read books. They go after the person they want to make into a book reader."
To achieve this, Bertelsmann has evolved what is, at least for Europeans, a sugar-coated modus operandi. The representative systematically ringing doorbell after doorbell is not selling anything per se; rather he explains the concept of membership enrollment, which includes a "contract," a psychological device geared to making the inductee feel a sense of obligation. The fee for joining the club varies from 50 cents to $3 in Europe.
"It's a commitment," Mantas explains readily. "With the signed piece of paper, you agree to stay in the club and buy one book per quarter or four books a year."
Each member receives a quarterly publication which Mantas is quick to define as a magazine and not a catalogue. In England, the magazine is called The Leisure Circle, and it is a vivid, often garish offering, differing dramatically from the staid, pint-sized Book-of-the-Month Club news. In its standard magazine format, The Leisure Class is shamelessly agressive: appropriate selections are illustrated in a fashion worthy of skin magazines; others are more subtly marketed -- a book on the kings and queens of England and Scotland is photographed on the proverbial lush red velvet; romantic novels receive high-gloss treatment, replete with fanciful drawings.
The Bertelsmann clubs work on what they call "the positive option." Every quarter each club member is invited to make a selection from the club's magazine/catalogue. If he orders nothing, then the main selection is sent. Under the socalled "negative option" employed by the Guild and BOMC, unless a member returns his monthly card, he automatically receives the main selection. Although the difference between these two approaches is minimal, the American clubs' methods are said to play on human frailties; they also account for a large number of returns and some resentful customers.
All the clubs discount books. Bertelsmann offers a 15 to 40 percent saving. The European book clubs rarely list a book at the time it is initially published, which means they may offer a bestseller a year or more after its publication date.
Mantas cites the discount, the pre-selection, the reliability and the quality of the products as being of equal attraction to the customers. Dr. Ulrich Wechsler, president of Bertelsmann, explains the service element more specifically. "By tradition in Germany, bookstores were very literary, very highbrow, and many people had difficulty just going into them. This explains the over-representation of the middle classes in our clubs. It is an easy way for them to buy books." o
While Silverman refuses to entertain any speculations about the future and Bertelsmann's part in it, he does comment on the present, admitting that "at this time, in the teeth of the recession, our members are being more selective. The economy is having an effect, but not to a serious extent. Our overall membership is higher than it's ever been."
Silverman believes that better books -- recession or no recession -- will solve all the BOMC's ills. "We just don't have enough good ones," he complains. "But this fall will see a turn-around." The executive is particularly keen on some big, upcoming BOMC titles from William Manchester, Carl Sagan, E. L. Doctorow, Ken Follett, Robert Elegant, Eudora Welty and Avery Corman.
In a recent development that stunned the publishing community, the 54-year-old club lost one of its hardiest and most popular authors, James Michener, to the Guild, which reportedly paid $1.75 million for the rights to The Covenant, a novel to be published late this fall. The figure is considered the highest ever paid by a book club, and the consensus among insiders is that the Guild, passionate disclaims to the contrary, will never earn back its money.
The incident was yet another bizarre example of the ferocious animosity between the two clubs. "Unlike the friendly competition in book publishing," one editor in chief says, "the competition among the clubs is plain means." A source at one of them explains, "In the last few years there has been a considerable blurring of distinction between the BOMC and the Guild. Sometimes they find themselves with a book they're surprised to get. To their horror they find out that they own it but cannot market it successfully. And it's been bought just so that the other one won't get it."
Embroiled though they may be, two is company. It will be interesting to watch whether Bertlesmann's intrusion will make a crowd.