The Book Club Wars

3:14 AM Amer Bekic 0 Comments

Book club wars! "What book club wars?" you may ask. Unless you were associated with book publishing or book selling in the twentieth century, chances are you are unaware of the friction and bitterness generated between book clubs on one hand and book publishers and booksellers on the other in the years immediately after book clubs were born.

Although the book publishing industry pays particular attention to the broad subject of human history, one aspect it tends to overlook is its own history. And one grossly neglected part of that history is the story of the monumental changes that were wrought in book marketing by the appearance of a new phenomenon: the subscription book club. What follows is is the largely forgotten story of those heady days.

At the end of the first quarter of the 20th century, advertising copywriter and direct-mail specialist Harry Scherman recognized that a hidden segment of the American population was not being served by the publishing industry. He had already successfully created and sold a series of small reprints of the classics bound in a soft simulated leather cover and called "The Little Leather Library." He came up with a whole new book merchandising scheme based on a simple statistic: There were more post offices in America than book stores. The tool for serving this hidden market was to be the book club. The surprising aspect of the birth and growth of American book clubs was that it took so long for the book industry to wake up to the untapped market represented by rural and suburban dwellers who lived far from a bookstore.

What Scherman created was an entirely new concept: the sale of books by mail on a subscription basis to subscribers who agree to buy a fixed number of titles in return for an introductory inducement to join, usually in the form of books or other gifts at substantial savings. Scherman's initial plan was to single out one book as "the best of all books published in the last thirty days" and to mail a copy automatically to each subscriber. The term "book club" as used by him did not include the older meaning of groups of people who purchased books for circulation and discussion within the group. Neither did it include social organizations of book lovers, nor private organizations printing books--usually fine editions--only for subscribers, although each of these groups has a distinguished history going back to the 18th century.

In the Beginning
Let us travel back in time to early in 1926. Coolidge prosperity is abroad in the land. Popular culture still has not yet become a disparaging term. Reader's Digest is four years old, Time magazine is three, andThe New Yorker is just celebrating its first birthday.

In its February 13th issue, Publishers Weekly, the bible of publishers and booksellers, takes notice of a proposed Book-of-theMonth Club and describes the features of what it calls "an entirely new basis in book distribution." Books are to be sold to readers under a system akin to a magazine subscription. The subscriber is to accept and pay for a book a month for 12 months, with postage extra. No book selected is to have a list price of more than three dollars. Each book will be accompanied by a printed note about it, and a description of some other books that please the committee of five distinguished judges, whose names would be listed. As a special inducement, subscribers will get three free books, after payment for the first twelve books has been made.

In this latter arrangement we can recognize the beginnings of the book dividend, or bonus book idea, in which unsold or returned books are given without charge to members, a practice continued in one form or another by many book clubs . Note, too, that the descriptive material about the book traveled with the book, rather than preceding it. This practice was soon to change, as we shall see.

For the record, let it be stipulated that the American book club was born in April of 1926, when the Book-of-the-Month Club distributed its first selection, Lolly Willowes, a first novel by an unknown 33-year-old British poet, Sylvia Townsend Warner, to 4,750 members. The scheme was the brainchild of Harry Scherman, and the Club's initial capital of $40,000 was put up by him, his advertising partner Maxwell Sackheim and Robert K. Haas, a vice-president of the Chemical National Bank. Of Scherman, Merle Miller has written, "By 1926, he was generally admitted to be one of the few authentic geniuses in the relatively unexplored field of selling by direct mail."

The entire book club idea grew out of Scherman's shrewd guess that the public demand for good books was far greater than the supply available through the existing limited network of bookstores. Although literacy classics and collections or sets had been successfully sold by mail, no one had ever attempted to distribute new books this way. To guarantee repeat sales, Scherman conceived the gimmick of selling books like magazines--on an annual subscription basis, with charges paid in monthly installments.

The first mailing list tested came from the toney New York Social Register, a bastion of "Old Money," and it proved astonishingly successful. Selection of the affluent New York Social Register's list in an urban area with no shortage of bookstores was an interesting but peculiar test of the appeal of a book club whose target members were envisioned as rural dwellers without easy access to bookstores.

The club also peppered magazines and weekly book reviews sections of newspapers with advertisements whose general theme was, "Handed to You by the Postman--the Best New Book Each Month."

Scherman and Sackheim had scoured the literary world for "big guns" to serve on the impressive board of judges who would review and propose selections to be offered by the BOMC, as it became known within the book industry. The chairman was Yale English professor and editor of The Saturday Review of Literature, Henry Seidel Canby. The four other members included novelist Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Kansas newspaper editor William Allen White, author Christopher Morley and newspaper columnist Heywood Broun.

Selection of books was conducted at regular sessions that also included a convivial luncheon during which drinks flowed freely, especially after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. Two well-known literary lights, William Lyon Phelps and H.L. Mencken declined Scherman and Sackheim's offer to become judges.

As it turned out, consideration of a book as a selection by the Book-of-the-Month Club's judges actually worked to keep publishers' list prices down. Thanks to the eventually huge numbers of each title purchased by the BOMC, publishers could vastly increase the size of their press runs and thus achieve economies of scale in the unit prices of books. In 1927, for example, Boni & Liveright, the publisher of Emil Ludwig's Napoleon, and George H. Doran, publisher of T.E. Lawrence's Revolt in the Desert, had planned to set a cover price of five dollars on each title, but lowered their list price by two dollars to make the books acceptable to the Club.

From the outset, the book club idea was regarded with hostility by the publishing industry. The role of the judges was scoffed at by critics and reviewers who regarded themselves as the only arbiters of what the public should be reading. In December of 1926, an editorial in Publishers Weekly referred with suspicion to the form letters being sent by the BOMC to publishers requesting copies of books for review by its board of judges. Eventually, book-size bound galleys of forthcoming books were circulated in advance of publication to book clubs and film companies and became known as BOM's, a term no longer used.

The Literary Guild
Although it had been conceived by Samuel Craig in 1921 and incorporated in April of 1922, America's second book club, the Literary Guild, did not make its appearance until almost a year after the Book-of-the-Month Club--in March of 1927, to be exact. Until the BOMC began operations, Craig had been unable to interest investors in his idea for an organization of readers in support of good books in the same way that the Theatre Guild subscribers supported good plays.

Craig had modeled his club on the German book clubs that had sprung up after World War I, when, in a time of runaway inflation, cheap editions were printed on cheap paper and distributed to readers who could no longer afford to buy regular books. When Harold K. Guinsburg and George S. Oppenheimer, both of the Viking Press begun only two years earlier, heard about Craig's project, they recognized its possibilities, and immediately invested in it.

The Literary Guild also set up a board of distinguished judges headed by author Carl Van Doren. It included such literary lights as environmentalist Joseph Wood Krutch, historian Hendrik Willem Van Loon, novelist Zona Gale, poet Elinor Wylie, and Glenn Frank, president of the University of Wisconsin and former editor of The Century Magazine. The Guild's board did not last very long, and was abandoned in the 1930s for reasons of economy and efficiency. Value in literary terms was never the quality of a book played up by the Guild.

In the beginning, Guild advertising stressed the advantages of subscription book buying. For an annual charge of $18 per year ($1.50 per book), it gave subscribers about $40 worth of books. The Guild proposed to sell books below the retail price and to deliver copies in advance of the announced publication date. If the book trade had been unhappy over the Book-of-the-Month Club, it went positively ballistic over the Literary Guild and its deep discounts and advanced delivery policy.

Publishers Weekly predicted that general trade publishers would not be likely to look with favor on the Guild's plan, which in their eyes was really the beginning of a price war. Many book dealers simply refused to handle any title that was also a Guild selection unless a customer had specifically ordered it. As we shall see, this, too, was a situation that would change,.

The Book-of-the-Month Club Prospers
Although the Book-of-the-Month Club had to make major changes in its original concept, it is a measure of the viability of Scherman's idea that its original capital of $40,000 was the only money invested in the club until it went public 21 years later. By the end of 1927, BOMC membership stood at 60,058; by the end of 1929, that number had almost doubled to 110,588. Such numbers soon gave the Club tremendous clout with publishers in purchasing books designated as selections. Publishers eventually joined their modest printings to the large quantities the Club ordered in combined press runs to achieve economies of scale in the cost of printing and binding.

Fiction predominated among selections of the Book-of-the-Month Club. The Club's first nonfiction choice in July of 1926 was Walter Noble Burns's The Saga of Billy the Kid. In January of 1927, the Club's second nonfiction selection was The Heart of Emerson's Journals, edited by Harvard professor Bliss Perry. It was not well received by the membership, and returns were heavy. "By that time we must have had about 40,000 subscribers," Scherman later recalled, "and that book just came back by the carload. The country didn't want the heart of Emerson's journals; they didn't want any part of Emerson's journals."

Unhappy with the unanticipated flood of returns, Scherman and his associates made a major decision and began a practice still followed by book clubs to this day: The club's magazine would be sent to members in advance of the selection. Maxwell Sackheim also came up with the idea that subscribers be given the right to decline to receive a book already chosen for them by the Club. A form could be supplied and returned, he suggested. This would notify the Club not to send the selection, or to substitute an alternate selection described in the form. Thus was born the principle today known as "negative option." In Europe, this method of making a mail order sale is called by the more graphic term, "inertia marketing."

Other changes came with time. Within two years of its founding, the Book-of-the- Month Club was forced to abandon its requirement of a 12-month commitment by subscribers. The large number of selections declined each month told management it had been wrong in its belief that books could be sold like magazines. Thereafter, the twelve-books-a-year requirement was scrapped and subscribers were only required to buy a minimum of four books a year--a practice that has almost become a standard in the book club industry.

The year 1931 was the first in which the Book-of-the-Month Club offered specific dividend or bonus titles other than copies of the unsold or returned selections previously used for this purpose. It was also the year in which two selections were paired and offered as a single "joint selection," bringing the total number of titles offered monthly to more than twelve. From the start, fiction outnumbered nonfiction in the Club's offerings. A change came briefly in 1938, when 10 of the Club's 15 offered titles were nonfiction. Other early years in which nonfiction selections outnumbered fiction were 1941, 1942, 1943 and 1950--the latter also the year in which alternate selections were added to each month's mailing.

The Book Club Idea Spreads
With the example set by the two pioneering clubs, BOMC and the Literary Guild, other clubs quickly made an appearance. Despite an imposing editorial board consisting of author and Hearst editorial writer Benjamin De Casseres, novelist Fanny Hurst, humorist Irvin S. Cobb, novelist Rex Beach, and columnist and author Bob Davis, the Books to Read Society failed to last beyond the day of its organization in December of 1926. The First Editions Club, announced in April of 1927, was acquired by the Book-of-the-Month Club four months later.

By the end of summer of 1928, nine book clubs were thriving: The Book-of-the-Month Club, the Literary Guild, the Religious Book Club, the Catholic Book Club, the Free Thought Book Club, the Crime Club, the Detective Story Club, the American Booksellers Association Book Selection, and the Book League of America.

Because we tend to think of paperbacks as a later innovation, two book clubs, the Paper Book Club and the Book League of America, are worthy of attention because of their resemblance to the German book club model. The former, started by Charles Boni, emphasized economy. It sold its paperback editions at $5.00 for 12 books a year. Its advertising stressed that this was only 42 cents a copy. For members who wanted more permanent editions, it also offered a binding service. The Literary Guild absorbed the Paper Book Club in 1931.

About May of 1928, founder Samuel Craig left the Literary Guild in the hands of Guinzburg and organized the Book League of America. The Book League sold annual subscriptions at $18.00 for 12 books in magazine format. In addition, it offered subscribers twelve classics in the League's reprint editions. The Book League, like so many early clubs, followed the lead of the Book-of-the-Month Club in setting up its own board of judges: poet Edwin Arlington Robinson, critic Van Wyck Brooks, biographer Gamaliel Bradford, and chemist and writer on popular science Edwin E. Slosson.

The year 1929 saw the establishment of two specialized book clubs: the Business Book League in August, and the Scientific Book Club in October. The latter was the brainchild of Maxwell M. Geffen, who had been associated with the Religious Book Club, founded the year before. Mr. Geffen put together a truly imposing 16-person editorial board of prominent scientists, including physicists Arthur Compton and Michael Pupin, geologist Kirtley Mather, astronomers Harlow Shapley and Harlan Stetson, science writer Watson Davis, geographer Isaiah Bowman, and educational psychologist Edward Thorndike, to name only half of them. Originally operating out of editorial offices in Cambridge, Mass. (because a number of board members were on the faculty of Harvard), it eventually moved to New York City. The Science Book Club offered a main selection and a number of alternate selections each month, all at publishers' list prices.

Even with the imposing credentials of its board, however, Geffen's club never achieved a membership of more than 5,000. Nevertheless, for a book club born on the eve of the Wall Street crash, merely surviving through the Depression was probably its most amazing quality.

The year 1929 was also to prove a turbulent and eventful year in the book industry, and its story is only told here because it is a revealing picture of the relationships between publishers and book clubs. Whereas booksellers had seen the book clubs as an enemy right from their inception, the clubs soon received a grudging measure of acceptance by publishers--after all, publishers had received hundreds of thousands of dollars for the book club rights to the selections offered to members by the clubs. Publishers now began to raise questions about the clubs and their effect on sales through traditional channels.

A Bitter Fight
The quarrel between publishers and book clubs became specific and personal when John Macrae, of the old and respected firm of E.P. Dutton & Co., attacked the Book-of-the-Month Club for the questionable literary standards that permitted it to choose Joan Lowell's The Cradle of the Deep as its March 1929 selection. Macrae's complaint was that the BOMC judges had preferred the salty account of a young girl growing up on the Minnie A. Caine, a copra-trading schooner in the South Seas, over Henry Williamson's The Pathway. In Macrae's opinion Williamson's was the best novel to come from Dutton in the 75-year history of the firm. He insisted that the public was being "led by its nose," apparently forgetting that these same literary standards and this same nose-leading would not have been objectionable had the Dutton book been selected.

When pulchritudinous Joan Lowell's book was shown to be a literary fraud, Macrae became livid. In a series of broadsides mailed to thousands of editors, librarians and booksellers, he charged the BOMC with exerting pressure on its judges, and suggested that the club made "deals" with publishers. He announced that his firm would refuse to submit books to the Club for consideration as selections, but would establish the "Dutton Book of the Month," to be chosen from Dutton's list by Dutton's editors. Curiously, The Pathway, the novel that contributed to the furor, was not one of Dutton's own selections.

The BOMC management, stung by charges of ethical failings, warned Macrae. "Why should a publisher give us a more favorable discount," asked Scherman, "when he knows that the Book-of-the-Month Club would be forced to buy his book if the judges selected it?" He defended the large discount accorded to the club by publishers on the grounds of the heavy advertising and promotional expense in finding and serving subscribers. In the airing of the dirty wash that followed, Scherman was forced to admit that, contrary to its advertising claims, the judges did not choose the "best" book, but rather "one that appeals to the reading public as a whole."

At the annual convention of the American Booksellers Association (ABA) in Boston that year, the issues raised by this controversy were hotly debated. Wearing two hats--one as publisher of the Viking Press and the other as president of the Literary Guild--Harold Guinsburg, the chief defender of the book clubs, maintained that the clubs could cooperate with both publishers and booksellers in their common objective of promoting the sale of books.

Frederick A. Stokes, head of the publishing firm of the same name, added his fears to the objections of publishers and booksellers. His concern was that the book clubs were "fatal to the browsing habit." Yet he overlooked the fact that more than 150 new retail bookselling establishments had sprung up in the year just past. Stokes announced his own no-submissions policy in a strongly worded article in PublishersWeekly. Entitled "The Case Against Book Clubs," it was addressed to all sections of the book trade. In practice, however, it was an embargo without teeth. The Stokes firm, it tuned out, was willing to exempt from its non-submission policy any of its books whose authors insisted that they be shown to the clubs.

No other publishers were willing to forgo the ample royalties paid by book clubs and join an embargo, although John W. Hiltman of D. Appleton & Company said in an interview that he "believed" book clubs hurt publisher's sales, especially of best sellers. His statement completely ignored the readily available statistic that since 1926 no book had made the bestseller lists that had not also been a book club selection.

At Macrae's request, the ABA adopted a resolution that was tantamount to a declaration of war against book clubs. The Association, however, also appointed a committee that included representatives of the BOMC and the Literary Guild to try to work out a program satisfactory to all parties. Despite the committee's recommendations , the ABA never acted on them.

Discussing the situation, the magazine The Nation pointed out that since book clubs were obviously here to stay, the publishers' and booksellers' antagonism toward them were unrealistic. Managing editor Freda Kirchwey commented that pretensions to righteousness on both sides were objectionable. "Books, after all," she reminded everyone, "remain merchandise to publishers and distributors alike."

Not all publishers in those early days regarded book clubs as mortal enemies. S.A. Everitt defended the idea of cooperation, pointing out that the selection principle operated inevitably, and that publishers, librarians and others all made up and distributed lists of recommended books. Mr. Everitt could hardly be called a disinterested observer, however, since he was vice-president of Doubleday, Doran, which had an interest in the Literary Guild--but his argument was nonetheless valid.

By August of 1929, Macrae publicly retracted his charges about the Book-of-the-Month Club, acknowledging that the judges had complete control over the selections, that the club had never made any preferential deals, and that the question of discounts had never influenced the judges in making their selections. For its part, the club agreed to drop the $200,000 libel suit it had initiated against him. The first major battle of the Book Club Wars was over.

The year 1929 witnessed a veritable epidemic of new children's book clubs, even though the first book club for young readers, the Children's Book Club, had expired the year before. The Junior Book Club, the Junior Literary Guild, and Selected Books for Juniors (which was subsequently absorbed by the Junior Literary Guild) represented a type of book club that Dorothy Canfield Fisher was later to describe in a 1947 Bowker lecture as "almost uniformly unsuccessful."

In February of 1929, the Literary Guild belatedly followed the lead of the Book-of- the-Month Club and began a system of book exchanges--but not by substitutes, or "alternate selections," ordered in advance by members, but in exchange for books returned by mail within a week. In August of 1929, the BOMC initiated premiums by offering one free book to new subscribers who would agree to take the required four books during the coming year. The Guild was dilatory in catching up with the BOMC. Not until October of 1932 did it require that subscribers buy only a minimum of four books after accepting the introductory free offer.

In 1929, book publisher George Macy started his Limited Editions Club, a de luxe version of the established book clubs. It mailed its first selection, a handsomely printed edition of Gulliver's Travels, to 1,100 subscribers on what Wall Street called "Black Wednesday," Oct. 23, 1929. The cost was $10 C.O.D. ($9 to those who had paid in advance). Each selection received special treatment: The Psalms of David was printed in Palestine; Oedipus Rex in Greece. The Analects of Confucius, printed in Shanghai and boxed in carved Chinese redwood, was designed to be read from back to front.

The 26-year-old Macy had become a publisher even before he was graduated from Columbia. In 1926, his Macy-Masius publishing company had sold 11,000 copies of an anthology of light verse edited by Franklin Pierce Adams (F.P.A.), the Herald-Tribune columnist. Surprisingly, his Limited Editions Club survived the Great Depression. By 1938, a total of 109 Limited Editions Club selections had been published, an enviable record.

By 1930, the Religious Book Club had grown to such ample proportions that it could absorb the Christian Century Book Service and celebrate its third anniversary by offering free books to members. What no one saw was the deepening economic gloom of the Great Depression that lay just ahead.