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I have a confession to make: until I started researching this article, I had no idea that the Book of the Month is almost 100 years old. This tells me two things: first, it looks like I’m living under a rock; on the other hand, it speaks to the level of success of Book of the Month’s rebranding strategy. Now, does that mean it’s overall successful for everyone, authors included? That’s a whole different question.
What is the book of the month?
The short answer: Book of the Month (BOTM) is a subscription service that lets you choose from seven books (as of March 2022), then it sends you a hardcover copy of the one you picked. If you like more than one of the choices, you can choose to purchase add-ons for an additional fee.
The long answer: throughout its history, Book of the Month has been a book club, a subscription service, and a cultural phenomenon. It was launched in 1926, the brainchild of Harry Scherman, Max Sackheim and Robert Haas. Based in Camp Hill, Cumberland County, the Book of the Month Club has identified a market for a mail-order book delivery service. It became an incredible success in a relatively short time: its initial list of 4,000 subscribers grew to 60,058 by 1927. This was largely due to its two main tenets:
- On the one hand, it tapped into the middle-class American desire to, as Caitlin Gannon puts it, “stay current.” By giving them a new book approved by a panel of editorial experts, the company succeeded in making them feel that subscription was the key to achieving this goal. The panel in question consisted of Dorothy Canfield, Henry Canby, William Allen White, Heywood Broun and Christopher Norley; and over the following decades they became synonymous with the Book of the Month Club.
- On the other hand, buying books in 1926 wasn’t half as easy as it is today. Bookstores were located in urban areas, which made it difficult for many people to travel. The convenience of delivering these books right to their doorstep has been a major factor in the Book of the Month Club’s success.
Of course, these factors would eventually lose much of their power. The existence of bookstore chains, easier mobility for the general population, and ultimately the rise of the Internet and its online-only stores (yes, I mean Amazon) have caused subscribers to shed at a frightening. After several acquisitions, they were acquired by parent company Pride Tree Holdings. In 2012, new Book of the Month CEO John Lippman decided the only answer was to scrap the existing version of the club and start over. His relaunch in 2015 proved him right.
Does book of the month have an effect on book sales?
In the past, that was absolutely the case. The first Book of the Month Club selection was The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway’s debut novel. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell and The Catcher in the Ryand by JD Salinger were also selected in 1936 and 1951, respectively. In 1978, Nelson DeMille’s debut novel By the Rivers of Babylon was another Book of the Month Club pick, at the start of what has become a hugely successful career.
But what about the current iteration of Book of the Month? Does it change sales? Well, that can be a bit difficult to identify. Since the Book of the Month gets permission to print its own large number of copies of each monthly selection, this is a number of copies that might otherwise not be printed. Even when a title doesn’t sell enough books in its month as a selection, it remains available for follow-up orders. As Blake Orlandi, the company’s chief operating officer, puts it, “We ultimately sell because of the extra books.” But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re copies that wouldn’t be sold without Book of the Month’s influence.
In order to find the answer, I contacted the authors, publishers and agents. I was particularly interested to hear from bestselling author Amor Towles’ agent, Dorian Karchmar at WME, as two of his three published novels were book of the month picks. Turns out it’s not as simple as it looks. As Karchmar told me,
“Amor’s novels are so beloved, the growth of her fanbase so organic, word-of-mouth based, and deeply supported by booksellers (especially independent booksellers), librarians, and other recommenders, that I wouldn’t try not to make the case that the Book of the Month Club played a prominent role in the success of A Gentleman in Moscow or The Lincoln Highway.
She argued that book of the month makes a real difference in other cases: “I’ve absolutely seen the impact of a BOTM selection when it comes to authors and novels that are about to move on to the level, and have benefited greatly from BOTM’s curation and Instagram’s skillful deployment.
Even when exact sales figures are not available, partly for the reasons mentioned above and partly because others have told me that it is company policy not to reveal numbers, there has factors to consider: engagement on social media is huge. Kylie Lee Baker, whose first novel The night watchman was a pick last November, told me she didn’t have actual book sales numbers because she hadn’t yet received her first copyright statement. But she “definitely saw a significant increase in people tagging me on Instagram with BOTM copies in November.” The site also has over 6,000 reviews of her book, indicating that not only has her novel been picked up by a large number of subscribers, but it has garnered enough interest for those subscribers to reconnect and take worth leaving a review.
Another November pick was How to Marry Keanu Reeves in 90 Days by veteran author KM Jackson. Jackson’s testimony alludes to a continued impact of Book of the Month on book sales:
“Being chosen by BOTM was a wonderful experience and put me in front of many new readers who might not have been exposed to my book if not for BOTM’s direct email experience. Plus, I think BOTM’s online buzz has given my book a boost well beyond its first month.
Without concrete data, it is a bit difficult to say with certainty that the book of the month always has a positive impact on book sales, or the magnitude of that impact. However, the evidence strongly leans toward a positive answer: the fact that authors are noticing increased engagement on social media and review sites, and the additional inventory in warehouses of the book of the month that eventually sells out, indicate that the book of the month has a positive effect. on sales, whether direct (subscribers buying the books from each monthly catalog) or indirect (generating additional buzz for non-subscribers to buy the books from their favorite stores).
It also seems that the impact varies depending on the previous success of the author: beginning or relatively new authors will notice a much greater difference than established or repeat authors. Nevertheless, book marketing is rarely determined by a single factor. Karchmar brings up an intriguing point: she says she sees “BOTM as a coveted curator and quality fiction enhancer. While it may not be enough to “make” a book entirely alone, or to be credited as the final spark leading to explosive market growth for a novel, it can be a very powerful source of discoveries and word of mouth recommendations leading to significant career growth for a writer.
All in all, I think the balance is tilting towards the Yes side of the scale.
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