Talkies! Radios! Credit cards!
The 1920s roared with jazzy ideas, though perhaps none as novel as the Book of the Month Club, which debuted in 1926. It was the brainchild of Harry Scherman, an ad man who had found success earlier by selling Shakespeare plays with Whitman’s chocolates.
A growing middle class with limited access to bookstores and even less idea of what to read rushed to sign up for Scherman’s new club. Among the selections that first year was a debut novel by a young man named Ernest Hemingway. Coincidentally, “The Sun Also Rises” is also a fitting epithet for the Book of the Month Club, which rose to become a major force in American publishing with millions of members and all manner of attendant clubs for cookbooks, history books, records and even art reproductions.
Alas, Ecclesiastes got it right: “The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down.” After getting manhandled by various corporate owners and withering under the shadow of Amazon, the lights flickered out at Book of the Month in 2015.
That should be the end of the story. But a funny thing happened on the way to obsolescence. A man named John Lippman, 43, with a background in music and private equity, bought a controlling interest in the company that owned Book of the Month. He had a plan to make the old club jazzy once again.
A streamlined BOTM launched in late 2015. Now, each month, members choose one of five hardcover books for $14.99 . Period. No paper catalogues to page through, no order cards to return, no shipping charges to pay.
That may sound ho-hum. But this is not your grandpa's mail-order book club; it's your college-age daughter's subscription box service. It's webby. It's social. And it's aimed at readers who love opening cosmetics from PopSugar Must Have. In keeping with that demographic, Instagram is central to BOTM's marketing plan. More than 300,000 followers engage with the company's cozy photos of new titles. A recent post shows Alice Hoffman's "The Rules of Magic" next to a pygmy hedgehog in a coffee mug because who can resist that?
Lippman describes his approach as the opposite of Amazon’s. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.) Instead of trying to be the everything store for every possible customer, the new BOTM goes narrow and delineates a specific demographic: millennial women. Admittedly, this is not a radical idea in bookselling. As far back as 1900, an editor at Harper and Brothers noted that “feminine readers . . . control the destinies of so many novels.”
What is radical, though, is BOTM’s willingness to publicly define itself for “feminine readers.” The club’s first television ad, released last month, shows several women who seem to be talking about their periods. In the final shot, a young woman standing in front of her apartment leans toward her date and whispers, “I’d invite you up, but I just got . . . my book of the month.”
“We have a particular audience,” Lippman says, “women in their 20s and 30s. We spend a lot of time and effort looking for great finds that they’ll love.”
So far, the results are encouraging. With about 40 full-time employees, BOTM has more than 100,000 members and expects to bring in more than $10 million in revenue this year.
“A lot of it has to do with our team of people,” Lippman says, “many of whom are younger than me, and many of them are women.” The BOTM editorial group works with publishers to identify potential offerings months before publication. The selections are about 80 percent fiction; the rest are memoirs, narrative nonfiction, some true-crime. Most of the books are written by women. Bloggers, journalists and celebrity guest judges, such as Gabrielle Union and Roxane Gay, sometimes make selections. And the club constantly gathers feedback from existing members. Human judgment seems in no danger of being ruled out by algorithms — yet.
“There are some books in the literary tradition that are very harsh and angry, and they have an important role in the culture,” Lippman says. “But the tone that our members like is emotional, warmhearted. Our members are looking for uplifting stories, inspirational stories. They love stories about people who persevere against challenges in their lives, versus books that offer harsh comments on the state of the world.”
But despite that Oprahesque melody, BOTM has featured many novels that no one would shelve under “Warmhearted.” In September, for instance, the club offered Jesmyn Ward’s “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” a devastating story about racism, addiction and the modern legacy of slavery. In October, members could choose Naomi Alderman’s “The Power,” a ferocious novel that imagines women can electrocute people with their hands. Both books went on to win wide critical acclaim.
Lippman also isn’t interested in pushing only bestsellers, even though they have a more predictable audience. “We put a particular focus on debut and emerging authors,” he says, noting that three quarters of their titles fall into the category of “lesser-known” writers. “I felt that was what was missing in today’s bookselling ecosystem. What I think Book of the Month has done for 90-plus years — and is as important as it’s ever been — is to support great and highly talented books and authors that people love and help them connect. It’s not about having a small impact on a huge number of books. It’s about having a huge impact on the limited number of books we sell.”
That idealistic devotion to new voices has its limits, though. A recent email solicitation from BOTM promising "The best books you've never heard of" featured books by Hollywood celebrities Tom Hanks and Krysten Ritter, bestsellers Alice Hoffman and Andy Weir, and the National Book Award-winning novelist Louise Erdrich. Not exactly discoveries from some dark hamlet deep in the literary forest.
But Lippman cites BOTM’s recent success with “Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance,” by an unknown debut novelist named Ruth Emmie Lang. “We identified it early on as a warm, whimsical book that we thought would work well with our members,” Lippman says. The official publication date was Nov. 14, but BOTM made arrangements with St. Martin’s to sell the novel in October. That decision paid off: BOTM sold 15,000 copies of “Beasts,” more than were sold by all other booksellers in the country combined.
When you consider the usual terms of this business, Lippman’s strategy looks even riskier: BOTM isn’t offering books that can be returned to publishers if they don’t sell. The company prints its own proprietary editions with subtly branded covers. The text is the same, of course, but a BOTM copy of Jennifer Egan’s “Manhattan Beach” or Celeste Ng’s “Little Fires Everywhere” looks just a little classier than the one you can buy from Amazon or your local indie. (For one thing, there are no blurbs screaming on the dust jackets.) Lippman says customers appreciate those special editions, but if his staff misjudges demand for a certain title, he could be stuck with thousands of paper doorstops.
Whether BOTM can keep rising will depend on how successfully it anticipates young women’s tastes and continues to attract more members in the crowded field of subscription-box book clubs. More than 100 currently compete for readers in every imaginable genre — from mysteries and inspiration to history and witchcraft. (Taking a page from Harry Scherman’s original scheme, some of these services offer books with chocolates.) And many indie bookstores across the country provide their own monthly selections specifically tailored to each customer’s interests.
Still, BOTM has found a devoted group of intensely literate consumers. Even if the company never attains its former glory in the realm of American publishing, the old bookseller has learned how to dance to a new tune.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World and host of TotallyHipVideoBookReview.