Mail-Order Clubs Revolutionize Book Sales Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Sales strategies used by the Book-of-the-Month Club and Literary Guild of America revolutionized the publishing, sales, distribution, and reading of books in the United States.

Summary of Event

The antecedents of book clubs can be traced to the subscription library that Benjamin Franklin organized in 1731. Before the Civil War, the American Tract Society introduced a “tract-of-the-month” plan, which described its publications and sold them in a monthly magazine. Book guilds established in post-World War I Germany, which sold low-priced reprints of classic works, were more immediate forerunners. Modern book clubs emerged in the United States during the 1920’s, when prosperity favored leisure activities and the businesses that supported them. The shortened workweek gave at least some segments of the population more leisure time. Even more important was the dramatic increase in the size of the reading public, which resulted from the rapid expansion of high school and college enrollments. At the same time, there were few bookstores outside large metropolitan centers. Growth in the number of titles published meant that readers needed, or at least wanted, guidance in choosing books to read. Readers who did not have ready access to bookstores became a large new market for both books and advice on selecting them. [kw]Mail-Order Clubs Revolutionize Book Sales (1926-1927)[Mail Order Clubs Revolutionize Book Sales (1926 1927)] [kw]Book Sales, Mail-Order Clubs Revolutionize (1926-1927) [kw]Sales, Mail-Order Clubs Revolutionize Book (1926-1927)[Sales, Mail Order Clubs Revolutionize Book (1926 1927)] Book clubs Book-of-the-Month Club[Book of the Month Club] Literary Guild of America [g]United States;1926-1927: Mail-Order Clubs Revolutionize Book Sales[06590] [c]Publishing and journalism;1926-1927: Mail-Order Clubs Revolutionize Book Sales[06590] [c]Organizations and institutions;1926-1927: Mail-Order Clubs Revolutionize Book Sales[06590] [c]Marketing and advertising;1926-1927: Mail-Order Clubs Revolutionize Book Sales[06590] Scherman, Harry Sackheim, Maxwell Haas, Robert K. Canby, Henry Seidel Craig, Samuel W. Guinzburg, Harold Kleinert Doubleday, Nelson

Harry Scherman is generally acknowledged as the father of the modern book club. After a stint as a newspaperman, in 1913 Scherman took a job with the newly established advertising agency Ruthrauff and Ryan, writing copy for direct-mail sales campaigns. The following year, he was hired by the direct-mail department of the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. In 1916, he joined with brothers Charles and Albert Boni in launching the Little Leather Library, Little Leather Library a series of low-priced reprints of classic books. The Bonis later sold their interest to Scherman and Maxwell Sackheim, an advertising copywriter who had worked with Scherman at J. Walter Thompson. When sales through retail stores began to fall off, Scherman and Sackheim decided to shift the focus of their sales effort to mail order. Thanks to the aggressive promotion campaign of Robert K. Haas, another alumnus of J. Walter Thompson’s mail-order department, sales of the Little Leather Library books reached forty-eight million copies by 1925.

Scherman predicted that the market for classics would become saturated. He reasoned that as millions of Americans had been persuaded to buy classics through the mail, they could be persuaded to buy current books the same way. The Book-of-the-Month Club (BOMC) tested this reasoning. It was founded in February, 1926, with an initial investment of $40,000. Haas put up half this amount and was president of the new corporation; Scherman and Sackheim each put up $10,000. The BOMC founders recognized that the key to a successful mail-order business was finding a gimmick to generate repeat sales. They applied the magazine subscription model to book sales: Subscribers would agree to buy one new book per month for a year at full retail price (plus postage). The most important innovation was the BOMC selection committee, or editorial board, composed of experts and celebrities who chose club selections. The board was promised a free hand in choosing the “book of the month” without any interference by management; the only limitation was that the price could not exceed three dollars. The first selection, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Warner, Sylvia Townsend Lolly Willowes: Or, The Loving Huntsman (1926), Lolly Willowes (Warner, S. T.) was sent out to 4,750 members in April, 1926. By the end of the year, club membership had climbed above 46,000.

The BOMC’s main source of competition was the Literary Guild of America, which began operation early in 1927. The Literary Guild was the brainchild of Samuel W. Craig, who claimed that he envisioned the plan for his club as early as 1922 but could not attract the required capital to begin it as a business. Heartened by reports of the success of German book guilds, Craig revived his plan. He joined with the cofounder of Viking Press, Harold Kleinert Guinzburg, and incorporated the Literary Guild of America late in 1926. Like Scherman, Craig arranged for a jury of experts to make selections for the club. Guild subscribers, like BOMC subscribers, would receive twelve books a year. The Literary Guild offered lower cost, at $18 per year (later raised to $21 a year, including delivery). The guild’s first selection, sent in March, 1927, was Heywood Broun Broun, Heywood and Margaret Leech’s Leech, Margaret Anthony Comstock: Roundsman of the Lord (1927), Anthony Comstock (Broun and Leech) a biography critical of the antivice crusader. The turning point in the guild’s fortunes was its June, 1927, selection of what became a runaway best-seller, Trader Horn (1927), Trader Horn (Horn) by Alfred Aloysius Horn. Horn, Alfred Aloysius The guild’s monthly sales reached nearly twenty thousand copies by September, 1927.


At the beginning, the BOMC sent out its monthly selection to each subscriber along with a report on the book written by one of the editorial board members. The BOMC adopted a variant of the return guarantee that had been adopted by big mail-order firms to deal with customers who were unhappy with a selection. Subscribers could return an unwanted book in a carton provided for that purpose and choose another from a list of supplementary books in the monthly newsletter. In 1929, the Literary Guild adopted a similar exchange policy: Selections could be returned and the charge canceled or used as a credit against any book in print. Subscribers paid the difference between $1.75 (one-twelfth of the $21 yearly subscription) and the price of the new book. As returns began to mount up, the BOMC replaced the exchange policy with the practice of allowing subscribers to refuse a selection or order an alternate selection in advance of the shipping date. The monthly selection was sent to members who did not reply by a deadline. This prenotification or automatic shipment plan became the standard method of operation for book clubs.

The BOMC began by purchasing regular edition copies of its selections from publishers at a discount. The Literary Guild similarly had the publisher do the manufacturing, but with special binding and title page. The pressure of competition—first from the Literary Guild, then from new low-priced publishers’ lines spawned by the Great Depression—led the BOMC to make policy changes in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s that became standard for book clubs. The subscription contract was modified to require the purchase of only four books a year. A free book was given as an introductory offer to attract new members. At first occasionally, then more regularly, the prices of selections were reduced below list. To cut its costs, in 1930 the BOMC instituted the practice of giving publishers flat payments for the printing plates to run off its own editions of books. The savings from large print runs were so great that the BOMC in 1931 started a book dividend plan for distribution of special editions of books free to members as a reward for making purchases. As of 1945, the BOMC was giving away seventy-five cents in free books for every dollar taken in but still made a handsome profit.

Although the lures of free introductory books, book dividends, and discounted prices contributed to the BOMC’s success, BOMC advertising placed its heaviest emphasis on the expertise of its board of judges in culling out the best titles from the hundreds that were published. As a contemporary reporter perceptively observed, the BOMC’s board “carried the stamp of culture without being too frighteningly high brow.” Its first chairman, the most influential member until his retirement in 1955, was the founder-editor of the Saturday Review of Literature, Henry Seidel Canby. Second to Canby in influence on selection decisions was popular novelist Dorothy Canfield Fisher, who served until 1950. The others making up the board were novelist Christopher Morley Morley, Christopher (who would become best known for his 1939 novel Kitty Foyle: The Natural History of a Woman) and two of the most famous journalists in the United States, Heywood Broun and William Allen White. White, William Allen The BOMC’s target audience was the relatively well-off college-educated segment of the population, or at least members of that segment living in smaller cities and towns having few or no retail bookstores.The BOMC promised to deliver conveniently the important current books that a knowledgeable person would choose. Its advertising simultaneously underlined the social benefits that members would gain by staying up to date with the latest in the world of culture.

In 1928, Sackheim sold his quarter interest in the BOMC to Scherman for $150,000 and left publishing to become vice president of a wire and fence company that sold directly to farmers through mail order. He later returned to advertising in New York and was responsible for the Literary Guild’s advertising from 1944 to 1960, during its period of most rapid growth. In 1931, Haas left the BOMC to study economics at Columbia University; he would later return to publishing as a partner in Random House. Scherman took over as BOMC president, retaining that position until he became chairman of the board in 1950. He was succeeded as president by his longtime associate Meredith Wood. The BOMC went public with its stock in 1946, but Scherman and members of his family continued to hold a majority of the shares. This continuity in top management was matched by continuity in the membership of the board of judges. Broun died in 1939 but was not immediately replaced. Only after White died in 1944 were novelist John P. Marquand and literary critic and anthologizer Clifton Fadiman named to fill the two openings. Later replacements included drama critic John Mason Brown, Columbia University classics professor Gilbert Highet, and Basil Davenport.

The Literary Guild made its major selling point the financial savings received by members. Craig left the guild shortly after its founding because of a dispute over policy, leaving Guinzburg in full charge. Seeing that its members were attracted more by the low price of its books than by the jury method of selection, in 1929, the guild began to deemphasize the jury selection feature in its advertising. That same year, Nelson Doubleday, the president of Doubleday, Doran, and Company, bought a 49 percent interest in the Literary Guild with the idea of taking advantage of its mailing list for the Doubleday firm’s mail-sales subsidiary. In 1934, he bought the rest of the stock and began to screen publishers’ submissions for the jury. Three years later, the guild abandoned the jury method of selection. Under Doubleday’s control, the guild specialized in the mass marketing of light, escapist fiction.

Although the BOMC continued to grow even through the Depression, its most rapid expansion occurred during and after World War II. The Literary Guild, which appealed to what appeared to be a less sophisticated audience, surpassed the BOMC in membership. By 1946, the two boasted a combined membership of 3.5 million. That year, they distributed approximately 75 million books, paid copies, dividends, and bonuses, or one book for every two Americans. In 1948, the Federal Trade Commission charged that the book clubs’ use of the word “free” in their advertising was “false, misleading, and deceptive.” The BOMC challenged the ruling in federal court, but no final decision was handed down before the FTC reversed itself in 1953 and dropped its complaint.

The success of the BOMC and the Literary Guild stimulated imitation. By mid-1928, there were nine active clubs, including such long-lived survivors as the Religious Book Club, the Catholic Book Club, and the Crime Club. The most successful of the new entrants were those directed to specialized niches in the market. In response, the general-audience book clubs—the largest of which remained the BOMC and Literary Guild—were driven to multiply the number of their alternate selections to appeal to broader ranges of interests and tastes.

At first, most booksellers and some publishers were hostile to the clubs and accused them of unfair competition. Publishers could not, however, resist the financial rewards of selection by a club. Booksellers came to accept that selection by a major book club boosted a title’s sales through retail stores. By the early 1970’s, book clubs had an estimated membership of 7 million and accounted for approximately 8.5 percent of total book sales in the United States. The general-audience clubs faced difficulties because of the paperback revolution, the expansion of retail book outlets, rising postal rates, and the heavy expense of the advertising required to attract new members. Member turnover remained high. With the rise of Internet technology, online book clubs started forming in the 1990’s, and they gave members the opportunity to enter into discussions with others of similar reading tastes from all over the globe.

The formula pioneered by the book clubs was eventually extended to the sale of many other kinds of goods. The most successful extension was to phonograph records. In 1955, the Columbia Records Division of the Columbia Broadcasting System launched the Columbia Record Club, and the success of that venture forced RCA Victor to follow with its own club. Other “of the month” undertakings included Barton’s Sweet-of-the-Month Club; Beer-of-the-Month Club, Inc.; Cheese-of-the-Month; Dessert-of-the-Month; Fad-of-the-Month Club; Flowers-of-the-Month; Plant-of-the-Month Club; Toy-of-the-Month; and even Kosher Salami-of-the-Month Club. Book clubs Book-of-the-Month Club[Book of the Month Club] Literary Guild of America

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Epstein, Jason. Book Business: Publishing Past, Present, and Future. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001. Epstein, a giant in the publishing industry, gives a lively account of publishing’s recent history and discusses the trend toward corporatization, which in many respects began with the BOMC.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lee, Charles. The Hidden Public: The Story of the Book-of-the-Month Club. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1958. A gushingly admiring account written in cooperation with BOMC officials. Indispensable because of its information about the inner operations of the BOMC.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lupoff, Richard A. The Great American Paperback: An Illustrated Tribute to the Legends of the Book. Portland, Oreg.: Collectors Press, 2001. A more general history of paperback books that focuses more on their seamy side. Valuable for understanding the degree to which Penguin broadened the notion of the paperback book and its readership.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Madison, Charles A. Book Publishing in America. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966. A handy brief survey that deals only sketchily with the book clubs but that shows the larger context of the commercialization of literature.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Radway, Janice. “The Scandal of the Middlebrow: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Class Fracture, and Cultural Authority.” South Atlantic Quarterly 89 (Fall, 1990): 707-736. An illuminating examination of the attacks on the BOMC by intellectuals for its supposed pandering to “common” tastes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rubin, Joan Shelley. The Making of Middlebrow Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992. Includes an examination of the role played by the BOMC in the emergence of what has been termed American “middlebrow” culture. Features analyses of the themes emphasized by BOMC advertising and the standards and values influencing book selection by BOMC judges.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sackheim, Maxwell. My First Sixty Years in Advertising. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970. Autobiographical recollections combined with suggestions about techniques of mail-order advertising by one of the founders of the BOMC.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tebbel, John. A History of Book Publishing in the United States. 4 vols. New York: R. R. Bowker, 1972-1981. Intended as the authoritative history, these volumes have much information not readily available in other accounts. Unfortunately, the work is also a nearly unreadable mass of ill-digested facts. Treatment of the founding and later history of the book clubs is found in volume 3 (covering 1920-1940) and volume 4 (covering 1940 to 1980).

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