The Death of Book and Record Clubs
By Denny Hatch
Before the Internet, a book club was a wonderful business model. When Maxwell Sackheim and Harry Scherman dreamed up Book-of-the-Month Club and launched it in 1926, it was revolutionary. They invented the negative option whereby the member would receive the monthly selection unless a rejection slip was returned saying it was not wanted. This was marketing by inertia. Customers liked it, because decisions were being made for them on how they could enrich their lives. The business model spawned a slew of book clubs, from the Literary Guild to a series of niche clubs for niche audiences.
Back then—and up into the 1990s—book clubs made sense. The monthly announcement mailings (actually 15 cycles a year) brought news of books to readers all over the country who would never have heard of them otherwise and did not have a bookstore nearby. Books became accessible and easy to buy—always at a big discount compared to retail. And books look impressive on the shelf. Dolts and non-readers could appear to be culture vultures.
Has the Internet made book clubs vestigial? Yes. If I hear of a book that interests me, I can spend three minutes at Amazon.com, and that book will show up at my door two days later. No schlepping into Center City Philadelphia, paying for parking and spending an hour in Barnes & Noble or Borders hunting down the book. No waiting weeks for a book club to process and batch my order for their convenience rather than mine.
To dip back into the book club business, I recently joined Smart Reader Rewards—a combination of the old Book-of-the-Month and Literary Guild—and started getting member mailings every three to four weeks.
When I joined, however, I forgot my little problem with their books—hardcover bindings. The traditional business model is for a book to be published in hardcover first so the publisher can cream the library and upscale consumer market, after which it may be released in paper for the hoi polloi.