The History of the Book of the Month Club
When you think of book subscriptions, you may think of Book of the Month, a U.S. service that has seen a resurgence recently. Started in 1926 by an advertising copywriter, it is the longest running book subscription service in the U.S. Members pay $15.99 monthly (after a $9.99 introductory month) to choose a hardback from among five to seven selections. Members can also choose ‘add-on’ books (at $9.99 per title). Their choice(s) then ship directly to their address. If the offerings do not entice them in a particular month, they can skip that time.
The Original Model
Originally, the company was called Book of the Month Club (BOMC). It convened a panel of judges to make book selections to send out to all its members. It started with a subscription model that required members to purchase a certain number of books a year. However, it eventually allowed members to decline a current selection and choose from a list of alternatives. Its first offerings even featured an openly queer author, Sylvia Townsend Warner.
As you can imagine, a lot has changed since the BOMC’s early beginnings. Radical changes have taken place in book distribution models and how the public selects and consumes content. Over the decades, BOMC morphed into a revised version. It eventually disbanded its editorial board and introduced a website that allowed members to make their selections online. However, unsurprisingly, BOMC’s membership began to dwindle over time. It was eventually acquired by John Lippmann for an undisclosed sum in 2012. Lippmann’s idea was to remake it into a subscription box service offering well-curated titles to Millennial women in particular.
Book of the Month Reinvented
In order to do this, the company shut down completely for a time. It rebranded and relaunched in late 2015 as the Book of the Month (BOTM) many know today, and the efforts seem to have been successful. As of 2017, Lippmann reported BOTM had 100,000 active members. More recent estimates have listed 250,000 subscribers (although it can be expected that these numbers will fluctuate). In terms of social media, Book of the Month has 1.2 million followers on Instagram and over 67,000 on TikTok.
To select titles, BOTM uses input from several sources. It has judges, a ‘readers committee’ of BOTM members, and an editorial team. Beginning in 2015, BOTM asked judges to write essays to accompany their title selections, a practice that was temporarily removed when BOTM made some changes in 2018. After BOTM removed the judges’ essays feature, they found that members requested a return to this practice. For a little more detail on how BOTM weighs title selection input, you can read how they chooses their selections on their blog.
As they continue to grow, BOTM also offers members “BFF” status once their membership is a year old. This status means that a subscriber receives some rewards for being a subscriber. In addition, BOTM has introduced a new Book Club feature. Groups can select a book and have copies shipped to individual members or to one address, depending on the needs of the group.
Some Deserved Criticism
While the BOTM rebranding has been successful, the company’s recent moves have not been without controversy. In February 2020, BOTM featured Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt as one of its book selections. Cummins was widely criticized for having written about communities and experiences she does not share, to put it mildly. Author Myriam Gurba called it “trauma porn.” For a more detailed explanation you can read about the controversy over American Dirt. However, you cannot buy BOTM branded copies from the company as they have sold out of them. If you want to read more about Mexican and Mexican American experiences, you can read some alternatives like The Devil’s Highway or Boy Kings of Texas instead.
BOTM also received pushback after deleting comments that were critical of the company’s response to Black Lives Matter on their Instagram. They also silenced and blocked Traci Thomas, host of The Stacks Podcast, to whom they later apologized. For a more detailed examination, read a little more on BOTM and their deleted comments or their company response at the time.
Promoting BIPOC and LGBTQ Authors
BOTM has also been criticized for not featuring BIPOC authors more, and more prominently. Critics have noted that authors of color were relegated to the “add-on” category in the past, rather than being main selections. According to a New York Times Wirecutter piece in 2020, BOTM reported its selections were only 20% authors of color and that the company aimed to increase this to 40%. According to Blake Orlandi, the company achieved more than 40% authors of color by 2021.
If all of this has made you even more interested in BOTM, you should really read fellow Rioter Carolina Ciucci’s piece on how BOTM affects book sales. It’s fascinating!
And if you feel like you want to join, then you should note a few things that may be helpful in your decision. First, if you care about supporting authors of color or LGBTQ writers, you may need to do some careful selecting since at present the website only includes a “bookmoji” for LGBTQ themes. Second, some subscribers report that the quality of the books is not as high as other print runs, and of course each book comes with the BOTM logo on the front. And lastly, some have found it inconvenient to cancel (with the website recommending that subscribers call to cancel). This Reddit thread dedicated to pausing or canceling your BOTM membership may be helpful.
However, maybe you like the idea of a book subscription, but aren’t sure if BOTM is right for you. In that case, read about other book subscription services first. You might just find one that is perfect for you or someone you love.