“The Joy of Reading” by Will Barnet. Photo: B.B. Richter.
Like many well-intentioned parents, mine bring stuff whenever they come to visit. A recent trip yielded a dozen prints and posters carefully sealed in cardboard tubes. All had probably seen the light of day at least once, but one print in particular probably spent three decades rolled up: an elegant, highly stylized portrait of a young boy sitting on a swing by the sea reading an oversize book to his mother, created by legendary artist and printmaker Will Barnet. (The New York Times ran a fascinating profile on him in 2010, when, at age 99 and unable to use his left hand or stand, Barnet continued to spend up to four hours a day at his easel.) Commemorating sixty years of the Book of the Month Club, my “Joy of Reading” print was issued in 1986, and simple math led to the startling conclusion that this would mark the ninetieth year that the Book of the Month Club has sent select volumes to subscribers across America. (Tempus fugit.) Truthfully, I didn’t know whether the Club still existed, and if so, I wondered how a company wholly dedicated to printed books that relied on the postal service would fare in this new era of print-on-demand and e-books.
The answer is: surprisingly well. Founded by economist-turned-publisher Harry Scherman in New York in 1926, the Club’s founding mission was to introduce readers to new and noteworthy books like Gone with the Wind and Catcher in the Rye. The last fifteen years have been something of a roller-coaster for the Club; it was purchased in 2000 by Bookspan LLC, an online and direct-mail venture created by Time Warner and Bertelsmann, which was itself swallowed up by Bertelsmann in 2008. Bookspan was then quietly sold to private-equity investor Najafi Companies, which in turn unloaded the company onto Pride Tree Holdings, a Delaware-based corporation established in 2012, the year it acquired Bookspan. Now, Book of the Month Club operates as one of over a dozen book-centric subscription entities under Bookspan’s aegis.
After a three-year hiatus, the Club was relaunched in 2015 as an e-commerce site. Here’s how it works: Subscribers create a profile and select a membership plan. A one-month subscription costs $16.99, whereas a 12-month subscription totals $144.88. Subscribers are notified on the first of each month of the Club’s five selections, curated by a panel of judges including book bloggers, journalists, authors, and monthly guest judges like Whoopi Goldberg and David Sedaris. Subscribers then have five days to make their picks, and the selections ship out by the seventh. (Caveat emptor: Other than gift plans, all memberships renew automatically, so read the fine print before diving in.) Bookspan’s Head of Development Jennifer Dwork likened the latest incarnation of the Club to “Birchbox [a makeup subscription service] for books.”
“Our judges receive the books three months in advance,” said Dwork. “The only criteria we provide is that their selections be a shining example of its form.” As in years past, the books are bound and designed to highlight their Club provenance. These days, books boast a stylish circular crest on the front boards. For authors, being selected for Book of the Month can mean the difference between feast or famine, reaching hundreds of thousands of additional readers who many not otherwise think to pick up their title.
“At relaunch, we focused on social media,” continued Dwork. “Our Instagram page is robust [boasting over eighty-six thousand followers], and we encourage community members to share images of their books.” Lucky participants are rewarded with free memberships, tote bags, and monthly book credits.
From a collecting standpoint, few serious book hunters covet book club editions, or BCEs, though some publishers are more desirable than others--read Biblio’s excellent 2010 treatise on how to spot BCEs here.
Though the company won’t release any sales figures, Dwork said that since its relaunch, the Club’s customer base has grown steadily. “We’re excited because we’re reaching a growing demographic: young women between the ages of twenty to thirty-five, and they prefer reading physical books over reading on a tablet,” Dwork explained. The Club may be onto something: a recent Pew study demonstrated that 65 percent Americans get their literary pleasure in print rather than in digital format.
This current iteration of Book of the Month Club is tapping into a growing trend of subscription-based services while reaffirming that people still read and derive joy from physical books in the modern age. “Every book isn’t going to be for everyone, but we offer a great selection of established and emerging authors,” Dwork said. “We’re like your well read friend who recommends books and stands by them.”
Monthly gifts. Image used with permission from Book of the Month Club.