The Rise and Fall of Time Life Books (2,310 words)
By Denny Hatch
Oct. 4, 1957, is etched in my memory almost as clearly as the day Kennedy was shot. That October day, the Russians launched sputnik, leaving the U.S. space program at the starting gate.
I stood on Columbia University's main campus talking with fellow students while this satellite whizzed over our heads, all of us fully expecting Armageddon. During a speech in Poland the previous year, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev said to the West, "We will be at your burial."
During this period, American school children practiced regular air raid drills. Survivalists spent small fortunes outfitting backyard air raid shelters. In 1960, Khrushchev took off his shoe in the United Nations General Assembly and beat the desk in protest.
That same year, an amazing mailing arrived in America's mailboxes. It proclaimed in huge type: RUSSIA. As I recall, the envelope had a picture of the Kremlin and a montage of other photos including a Cossack and a Russian soldier. The mailing startled American consumers to their shoes. With all the scare-mongering by the media, no one to that point had created a consumer-oriented, geographical review on our feared enemy in sane, authoritative, readable English with spectacular full-color illustrations.
This was the very first mailing from Time-Life Books, the brainchild of Jerome Hardy, an authentic publishing genius who came to Time Inc. from Doubleday where he was vice president of advertising for the book clubs. Started as a department of the old LIFE magazine, Time-Life Books soon took on a life of its own. In its heyday, it was the most profitable division of the entire corporation. Since the operation was mail order and under the radar of the retail trade, its titanic successes were never recorded in the nation's best-seller lists.
The idea behind the project was to exploit the massive Time Inc. archives. When Hardy first arrived in 1959, he helped Time dip its toe into the book publishing waters with a tacky paperback series called "Time Capsules," excerpts from Time magazine on a year-by-year basis and illustrated with cruddy black-and-white reproductions. The covers were muddy green and brown and totally uninviting; the series did not last.
Hardy had a choice. He could direct the cutting and pasting of old stories as was done for the "Time Capsule" series, or he could create brand new, timely books with illustrations drawn from one of the world's largest and most exciting photographic archives. He wisely chose the latter model. Hardy would retreat to the Stonehenge Inn, Ridgefield, CT, with editor Norman Ross, where they would have day-long talks about what they were going to do. The result was the Life World Library—a series devoted to the countries of the world—with Russia as the lead book.
The project took off like sputnik. These 81⁄2˝ x 11˝ hardcover books of 128 pages and magnificent full-color illustrations sold as a continuity series for $2.95 plus shipping and handling. The retention rate was a publisher's dream, with customers taking an average of 10 to 12 books in the series, which ultimately consisted of more than 30 titles.
The late guru Dick Benson wrote in "Secrets of Successful Direct Mail" (Benson Organization Inc., 1987):
During the five years I worked with Time-Life Books, the division was fabulously successful. Even with my famous arrogance, I can't claim that the success was the result of anything I did; the excellence of the product was fantastic. The publisher, Jerry Hardy, declared early on, even before there was a product, "Our policy will be to give the customer more than he has any right to expect." I think it is an absolutely wonderful statement of purpose. But far more important: Time-Life carried through and delivered.
In 1963, Hardy left to become publisher of LIFE in a futile attempt to revive the moribund publication, which was being eclipsed by television after it had electrified the world with its action photos of the Depression and World War II. He was at Time Inc. for 10 years before migrating to Dreyfus to put that giant mutual fund company into the mail.
Time Inc. went to the group publishing concept and split off the book division, bringing in Rhett Austell as publisher and, later, Walter Rohrer. The division produced a torrent of series that included: Great Ages of Man, Life Nature Library, Life Science Library, Time-Life Library of Art, Time-Life Library of America, International Book Society, and The Life History of the United States.
In 1970, Walter Rohrer left to put Psychology Today magazine into the book business, and Joan Manley became Time-Life's publisher.
Manley, who had been Hardy's assistant at Doubleday, joined him in 1960 at Time-Life as circulation director. Hardy died in January 1993, but Manley graciously gave me a couple of long phone interviews from her active retirement. According to Manley, part of the reason for the huge success was that only subscription lists of Time and LIFE were used, so everyone who received an offer was predisposed to read it. "We were not chumming in poor waters. We were selling to family," she says.
Manley herself was a creature of direct marketing. Periodically she went to the Chicago fulfillment operation to get her hands on raw orders. "It gave me a big belt at the time," she says, "and it would now. Direct marketing distances you from your customer, so for many reasons it is desirable to read the raw mail, as well as letters—good and bad—from readers." She also loved to go to the printer and stand under the great presses as they churned out the giant bed sheet circulars, the hallmark of the mailings.
Under Manley's guidance, the company introduced The Old West, Foods of the World, Home Repair and Improvement, World War II, The Civil War, American Wilderness, Emergence of Man and The World's Wild Places. In addition, she expanded the franchise internationally, setting up a London operation to market U.S. titles abroad, as well as to create series that were occasionally marketed in the United States.
By 1977, the overhead of a New York headquarters was crippling Time-Life Books. "We had a huge editorial operation," Manley says. "These books were not written by one person starving in a garret. We figured our editorial investment in a new series was $400,000, so we had to cut costs." The entire division was moved to Alexandria, VA, which enabled it to stay in business for many more years.
That same year, Manley negotiated the acquisition of Book-of-the-Month for Time and was responsible for overseeing Little, Brown and the New York Graphic Society. Manley retired in 1984 after 30 years in book publishing.
In the early years, Time-Life Books relied on the mail. You always could spot a Time-Life mailing—oversized, blazing headlines and gripping photographs. Freelancers weren't used; everything was done in-house by one of the two or three staff copywriters. According to Manley, two of the best were Charlie Hollis and Bill Boal, with LIFE artist Bob Yahn doing the layouts. Martin Tarratt arrived in 1973 and was there for 27 years and wrote a slew of controls.
In "Secrets of Successful Direct Mail," Benson notes:
In the five years I worked with Time-Life Books, the company did very little testing of its promotion mailings. The control was a package with a bed-sheet (25˝ x 34˝) brochure that succeeded so well they just never saw any need to change packages. The same format was used in each succeeding series Time-Life published throughout the years I was their consultant. I thought they should test much more and urged them to test new packages, but you can imagine how difficult it was to argue with the enormous success the book division was enjoying.
In later years, off-the-page advertising was added to the mix. "I talked Jerry into a Reader's Digest insert for $135,000," Manley says, "and Lester Wunderman was the first guy we called. It was our first agency relationship. Those were big years for the Wunderman agency."
Later, TV and package inserts were incorporated into the media schedule, but mail was always the workhorse. Direct mail guru Axel Andersson has amassed 178 different Time-Life mailings of which 14, or 8 percent, were controls in the mail for three or more consecutive years.
In his book, Benson notes that in those early years, the mailings had no "front-end" incentive—no premiums, no freebies—and did not use the "load-up" technique whereby once the customer had proven to be a good credit risk, all the books in the series were shipped in a big box. Time-Life Books were shipped one at a time.
During the years, premiums were introduced until all Time-Life mailings offered at least one premium. These incentives included: a Stanley tape measure for Home Repair/Improvement; a calculator-alarm watch for Understanding Computers; two papyrus paintings with the lead book for Lost Civilizations; an LCD digital thermometer if you accepted the lead book in the series Mind and Body. Late in the game it tried a "Nifty Fifty" with a time frame:
If you are among the first 50 people to reply, we will send you two lapis scarabs, two eyes of Horus and a bronze Ankh. Made in Egypt between 2040 and 525 BC, a Certificate of Authenticity is included. Representations vary, but amulets of comparable antiquity and quality commonly auction for $400 and up!
Time-Life Books closed its doors this past January. In a brilliant obituary, Hank Steuver of The Washington Post wrote:
Time-Life Books was an early triumph of direct marketing, selling 30 million books a year at its zenith. That's a lot of Middle American coffee tables. Adults bought the books with every good intention of filling in perceived vacancies in their smarts and lifestyles. Yes, I would like to know more about galaxies. Yes, that's a splendid thought, I would like to redecorate the kitchen and save money by doing it myself … and I cannot get enough of World War II.
But it was children who benefited most from Time-Life's presence in the house. These were the children who had too many questions, the kind of children who would get into trouble for spending all day inside reading the Guinness Book of World Records.
What happened? Why did so splendid an enterprise crash and burn? Those close to the operation said they could see the beginnings of the slide around 1995. Freelance copywriters said their other clients were getting much higher responses than Time-Life.
The Time-Life marketing people were convinced to make more aggressive offers, so they tested giving the first book free, or selling it at $1.99 and $4.99. The up-front response was higher, but it is axiomatic: the softer the offer, the worse the customer. In the words of one former staffer, "You need a 'take' of five books to make money, and the average was only 21⁄2 or three."
In addition, focus groups indicated the products were wonderful, but consumers did not want to commit to a book series at $16.99 each, plus shipping and handling. Time-Life Music had become hugely profitable and product development money was sunk into CDs, leaving the book folks to try and sell retreads.
I have a personal opinion as to another contributing factor. Time-Life Books was started in the glory days of continuity series. John Stevenson's Greystone Press, with its series on gardening, automobile repairs and world history, was riding high. In the 1970s, Bill Houghton and the late Ed Bacal started selling the old Harvard Classics in green "fibrated leather" bindings with gold stamping on a continuity basis. The ABCs of the encyclopedia business were doing well; Americana, Britannica and Compton's had a home sales force that laid guilt on parents with such precision that they ponied up hundreds of dollars for these series.
But there was a catch: All these books were sold by stroking the intellectual egos of consumers, but they were bought as furniture—something warm and impressive to fill empty bookshelves in order to achieve respect and affirmation. By the end of the century, many Americans' discretionary purchases of choice had become gadgets—computers, stereos, big-screen TVs, DVD players, cell phones and Palm Pilots—rather than old-fashioned books. Even the Encyclopedia Britannica opted out of the book business in favor of electronic presentations. One other problem for book publishers today: Who needs a houseful of cumbersome reference books when much of the information is free on the Internet?
In its heyday, Time-Life Books was a glorious place to work. Fabulous benefits, wonderfully creative people who lavished praise, and everyone had input into product development. In the words of one former staffer, "At National Geographic, everybody wanted to apply to Time-Life Books. That was the premier place to be; they paid New York salaries and had wonderful products."
Following the Time-Warner merger with AOL, 2,000 jobs were slashed in January, and Time-Life Books was shut down. I asked one insider what happened to all that intellectual property—the inventory of books, film and back-up files.
The reply: "What happened to Dresden in World War II? Most of the stuff was lost or destroyed in the move to new warehouses."
Hank Steuver's masterful obit in The Washington Post said it all:
There seemed to be no subject Time-Life could not tackle from its august, meticulous-minded, frequently understaffed offices in Alexandria. It drank in the world with the overactive spirit of a child who needs to know everything about anything, and needs to turn in an illustrated report about it. ... Operators won't be standing by.
Denny Hatch, consultant and freelance copywriter, founder of Who's Mailing What! (now Inside Direct Mail) and former editor of Target Marketing, is the author of "Method Marketing" and "2,239 Tested Secrets for Direct Marketing Success." He can be reached at www.methodmarketing.com or email@example.com.