Book Clubs Reinvent the Digital World
If the term ‘book club’ evokes a muddled mélange (if not somewhat terrifying dream) of Oprah covering Tolstoy in gold stickers, growing legions of like-minded enthusiasts discussing scrapbooks or maybe even booksellers in Kabul, classes filled with Scholastic catalogs offering Shrek 2 tie-ins, while exclamation-point-laden mailers emblazoned with “6 books for a dollar!” fall from the sky, well, join the club.
This increasingly bloated term now refers to a variety of disparate categories – from reading groups to the recommendations of the Today Show and Oprah. Exacerbating the confusion, book clubs’ individual identities became obscured in the 2000 joint venture between Bertelsmann and AOL Time Warner that formed Bookspan, the 40-club-strong Goliath of the industry. The new name constantly provokes misunderstandings, either because it is confused with VNU’s Bookscan, or because the corporate entity acts as a stand-in for its discrete parts (Bookspan as Book-of-the-Month Club, or the Literary Guild, Bookspan as all of the Doubleday clubs combined).
With such disheveled semantics, it is difficult to pin down, what exactly people are rallying against when they vow (as a particularly vehement blogger did recently) never to join a book club, “short of being in prison, living in some remote country, or being socially isolated in the extreme.” In a recent survey of middle-aged readers, it was clear that the surveyees didn’t distinguish between discussing books in a group or paying for monthly shipments — but they didn’t want either.
Reading groups, however are going gangbusters (to use a favorite phrase of Bookspan honcho Markus Wilhelm) and layoffs and “reorganizations” to the contrary, book clubs may yet have some life left in them. What is dying is the definition of just what that is.
The New Clubs on the Block
Throughout decades of expansion and proliferation, book clubs remained anchored in their “value propositions” as Ruth Stevens, president of e-marketing strategies and veteran of BOMC and Time Life, described them: editorial selection, the bribe (X number of books for $1 when you join), and the convenience of direct shipments. By the late ‘90s the first and third value propositions had been hijacked, and only the bribe was left to seduce an increasingly savvy and wary public.
But once again, the equation is shifting, as publishers become online retailers, on-line booksellers begin to offer memberships (Amazon Prime), as well as on-line reading groups (B&N’s ) and everyone gets into the continuity biz. Audible has been the most obviously successful (investor lawsuits to the contrary) by offering some 400,000 users a flat fee membership that buys them audio books at an average of $10 a pop.
Bookspan’s latest endeavor is Zooba, which, though still beta testing, dramatically differs from the original club’s model, and offers the venture a real shot at a sustainable model. Similar to Time-Life continuities, Zooba members pay $9.95 a month to receive the hardcover book of their choice, until they cancel their subscription. Exclusively on-line, the snazzy site — replete with bestsellers, and a virtual host that welcomes you and then follows your cursor with her eyes — advertises its affiliation with Bookspan, by splaying “Brought to you by Book-of-the-Month Club” across the top of the screen, even while asserting independence. Another Net-Flix style venture, also developed in 2000, is Booksfree, the on-line, membership-based book rental site. “We bring the library to your home,” says Doug Ross, president and CEO of the company. Although comparatively small in size, Booksfree’s membership base is double what it was just two years ago. Supplied by distributors Ingram and Baker & Taylor, Booksfree also rents out audio books via snail mail (like Audio Queue, Recorded Books, Simply Audiobooks, and ZDag), but is the only company that currently has such a concept with books. “One of the benefits of our service…is the ability of members to try new authors without losing any money as they would if buying the books,” Ross said. The resurfacing of rentals as a way of saving money by erasing commitment is akin to the used book market where readers are in possession of books for a certain amount of time before earning their money back through reselling.
In the virtual world of the spoken word (where Audible has rapidly expanded since becoming Apple iTunes‘ audiobook partner) Media Bay, a company similar to Audible that got its start when Book-of-the Month sold off its Audio Book Club, is just now segueing from selling hard goods primarily via mail order to “digital distribution via wireless and internet downloads.” On March 1 the company announced that it will offer downloads of S&S Audio titles through its partnership with the MSN Music service. Meanwhile, a new generation of legal P2P file-sharing networks are also becoming vehicles for audiobooks, such as LimeWire (where users pay a flat rate for an unlimited lifetime membership) and Wurld Media‘s “Peer Impact” beta site, where members pay for individual songs, and soon other media, but then receive credit for file sharing.
What remains to be seen is whether, as media converges into a few sturdy subscription models, where paper and ether are interchangeable and credit card billing is the standard, the arcane distinctions between royalty deals and retail discounts, between exclusive and nonexclusive deals, and between retailers, clubs, publishers and file-sharing networks will persist. “I’ve been saying forever, if the book clubs become like an on-line bookseller, why should they be getting things any cheaper?” asked Michael Cader, founder of Publishers Marketplace. For now, precedence presides, and until the publishers pull the plug, or online retailers begin to demand similar deals, precedence rules, even as the clubs break away from the models that came to define them