Marketing to Middlebrows

April 16: On this day in 1926, the Book-of-the-Month Club mailed out its first monthly selection—the novel Lolly Willowes, by British author Sylvia Townsend Warner. The BOMC was the bright idea of Harry Scherman, an advertising copywriter who had already mail-order marketed his Little Leather Library—"30 Great Books For $2.98" + a box of chocolates. Capitalizing on the middlebrow reader's guilt and aspirations, the new venture was an instant and influential success: from 5,000 to 50,000 subscribers in the first year, half-a-million subscribers twenty years later.

 

Still, the BOMC had a shaky start. While Lolly Willowes was a bestseller in Britain, many subscribers sent it back, and by early 1927, the company with 40,000 subscribers now, the monthly selection sometimes came back as fast as it went out. "The country didn't want The Heart of Emerson's Journals," Scherman recalled, "they didn't want any part of Emerson's Journals." This caused a cash flow crisis, and inspired the famous "negative option" that gave subscribers a right of refusal based upon the timely return of their reply card.

 

Predicting subscriber interest was risky business for a variety of reasons, not all of them literary. In A Feeling for Books: The Book-Of-The-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle Class Desire, Janice Radway quotes from the advice given to all reader-decorators in a 1920s article in House Beautiful magazine, this titled "Books for the Home: A Selection for Both Merit and Color":

Blue pottery vases and bowls for flowers are most attractive, and certain blue books, placed not too far away, will repeat and emphasize color. Among the lighter blues are Beebe's Jungle Peace and W. H. Judson's Away and Long Ago…. With the darker blues are two of the most famous and desirable books in the world, Shakespeare in the Cambridge edition, and the Oxford Book of Verse. …If you would have a tranquil bedside bookstand in your guestroom, put there David Grayson's Adventures in Contentment, those neutral-tinted volumes, The Amenities of Book-Collecting and Messr Marco Polo and the little tan poetry of Christopher Morley, topping these off with a mottled pink and blue in the form of The Monk and the Dancer and The Turquoise Cup, by Arthur Cosslett Smith.

Radway says that a similar aesthetic "was installed at the heart of the Book-of-the-Month Club operation."


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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