The fifteen years following World War II world appear to be an ideal world to which sentimentalists from our President on down seem to wish they could get back. It was certainly a good time for book publishers. “In 1948, average US publishers ‘beg[a]n to make profit on a book when sales approach[ed] 10,000′” Corinna Norrick-Rühl informs us, relying on J. W. Kappel: “Book Clubs and Evaluations of Books” from Public Opinion Quarterly, 1948. This assertion comes from her Cambridge Elements digital booklet Book Clubs and Book Commerce, from which most of what follows is quoted.

One might wish one’s book historians would take a little more care with their words before they leap to sweeping conclusions. Who knows what exactly the average publisher might have been in Mr Kappel’s mind? I would however be amazed if any publisher describable as anything other than “large” was seeing total sales per title of anything like 10,000 copies. Although times were good, and libraries world-wide scurrying to refill their shelves, I’d be readier to settle for a fifth of that or even less as an average — and as most of the publishers active then managed to stay in business I have to assume they were making at least some profit. Professor Norrick-Rühl, who is one of the editors of the series, is no doubt, along with Mr Kappel, thinking of trade publishers only — which ones, how many, how are we to know? This carefree collapsing of “publishing” into “trade publishing” is what we expect from the social media commentariat not from academics. Just because books like the Cambridge Elements volumes are short surely doesn’t justify shortage of care and attention.

Professor Norrick-Rühl continues “The BOMC, [Book of the Month Club] by comparison, at that point guaranteed ‘a publisher whose book is selected a minimum sale of 333,333 books . . . and the Literary Guild guarantee[d] a minimum sale of . . . 500,000 to 600,000 copies’.”

To the eye of a current book publisher, these numbers are quite extraordinary. In those days book clubs were the way many, maybe most people, acquired books. The most common format was a monthly mailing to all members of the club offering a main selection which would be sent to you unless you responded saying “no” and requested another of the books on offer. Lots of people would just let the main selection come: your deal with the book club would commit you to buying a number of books per year, so you could opt out for a few months each year. My copy of Robert Penn Warren’s Flood (published by Random House) contains the original book club response card:

No doubt the punched holes identify Ms McCormack in The Literary Guild’s system.

Even though royalties from the Book Club would usually, per contract, be shared between publisher and author, they could represent a significant earnings boost for both. “In 1989, the New York Times published revealing numbers about the additional income generated by book club editions, specifically by book club deals with the BOMC. Traditionally, the article stated, authors received half of the licensing fee, which ran ‘from the low four figures for an alternate [selection] to the mid-five figures for a distinguished but not wildly commercial main selection.’ The other half remained with the publisher. In addition to the licensing fee, the authors could hope for royalties (10 percent) if the advance earned out. Apparently, Stephen King withheld a novel from the clubs in the 1980s. According to the press, King was ‘convinced’ that book club sales were reducing his retail sales. Tellingly, the following four King books were bought by the BOMC for approximately $1 million each. Industry insiders disclosed that the deal courted King with a share as high as 80 percent instead of the usual 50.”

“In 1946, John K. Hutchens wrote, ‘[e]ven those to whom the clubs are approximately anathema don’t question the far-reaching effectiveness of the distribution system.’ He went on to share impressive distribution statistics: ‘of the 75,000 book packages mailed daily by the four Doubleday clubs, and the 15,000 by the Book-of-the-Month Club, [most] go to people in towns of less than 100,000 population.’ Furthermore, for the People’s Book Club, ’66 percent [we]re estimated to live in towns of less than 10,000, ten miles or more from the nearest book store. Thousands dwell in far places, on farms remote even from a village’.” If you didn’t have a bookstore in your town, and you were eager to keep up with “culture”, the book club was the way to go. (The fact that “book club” now tends to mean book discussion group, not a negative-option monthly book buying program, indicates how far we’ve come, and how we forget.)

From Publishing Perspectives comes this piece by Richard Charkin discussing the way the book club concept could be stretched into the world of academic publishing, obviously at a slightly smaller scale. Even in the eighties and nineties we’d get the occasional book club deal, usually from specialized clubs. Because the numbers were smaller, these were usually manufactured together with the publisher’s own edition, and would be sold to the bookclub at run-on cost, marked up as much as you could get away with. (The bigger book clubs would usually print their own editions.) This unit cost assistance (the more you print the cheaper each copy is) would also boost the publisher’s margin. The concern skeptical publishers (like Stephen King, above) often had was that the book club sale would cannibalize the regular sale, with the result that most of your customers would simply end up buying the book they’d have bought anyway, but at a discounted price. This concern never really had any validity; and it is anyway impossible to “prove”. We now, I think, accept that any sale is a good sale, and don’t waste too much time wondering whether we might have been able to wrest a couple more dollars from our customers.

I guess the final withering away of the book club business has to be seen as another consequence of Amazon’s success. Amazon may also have had an important role in making us worry less about discounted pricing!

See also Book clubs, and Subscription publishing.