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Book Clubs & direct mail | Inside Publishing


Book clubs and direct mail

Chris Holifield 2017

The way in which books are sold through book clubs and direct mail has a direct impact on authors’ income from these sources. Fierce competition for sales and heavy discounting in the book trade in general has undermined the clubs’ core low-price selling proposition and they are no longer the force they once were.

How the clubs operate

Book club sales used to be quite carefully regulated in the UK as part of the Net Book Agreement and in many countries this is still the case. In particular, clubs are often not allowed to offer books to their members until several months after publication, giving the bookshops a clear run at full price sales. The big German and French book clubs have found this such a problem that they have successfully developed their own programme of special titles which are published first in the club. The success of some of these books shows just how much selling muscle the clubs have, if they choose to use it. But they would much rather benefit from the publishers’ publication promotions and capitalise on the sales opportunities as early as possible.

Specialist clubs

The specialist clubs have a very much lower profile and many of them do a good job at keeping a particular interest group or set of enthusiasts up to date with all the latest books on their subject. It is easy to see the value of this, both to the book-buyer and the publisher (and therefore also to the author) in passing along information about new books and stimulating sales.

The introductory offer

But it is the use of books as an introductory offer which has in the past caused the most irritation in the book trade. Most book clubs internationally have developed lists of books which ‘work’ in recruitment, bringing in the new members, and these are not necessarily newly published. But the big general book clubs need the latest bestsellers for this purpose, especially the blockbusting fiction from big-name authors. So there is always tension relating to when these books can go into the clubs’ recruitment. You can’t altogether blame the bookshops for resenting the idea that the big new book of the season is being widely ‘sold’ for 25p or 25 cents as a means of persuading people to join the club.

Free promotion?

The clubs argue that the books used in their recruitment drives are getting free promotion, in that they are widely advertised to a large audience, only a tiny proportion of which will actually take up the club offer. The implication is that everyone else will go and buy them in a bookstore. There is some truth in this, but the low prices do also have an impact on the perceived value of books, which affects how people feel about buying them. As time has passed this has become much less of a problem, as there is so much discounting going on across the board that what the now much-reduced clubs are doing is much less important.

What about the author?

Book club, direct marketing rights and mail order rights are always handled by the publisher (see Subsidiary Rights). The standard royalty to be paid to the author on club rights is 10% of net receipts, i.e. the amount which the book club pays the publisher for the books. On rights deals, the club buys the rights, prints the books and pays a royalty on the club price of the book. This royalty is then split with the publisher, usually 50/50. The result of all this is that authors only get a small income from club sales, although these may amount to thousands of copies, particularly on the ‘choices’ which are automatically sent to members.

Mail order

Mail order is seldom as contentious as book clubs, mainly because big mail order titles and ‘continuity’ series (which are sent out as a series with a new book despatched every few weeks) are created by and for large mail order organisations such as Reader’s Digest and Time-Life. The books are usually also sold in the shops, but it is the mail order sales which are of prime importance. Often these books are not produced by authors working on a royalty basis, but by writers who are contracted to write specific parts of the text, usually for a flat fee and no copyright.

The big clubs

Although not all book clubs and mail order operations are large, the investment required to set up in these areas is such that only the big corporations can afford it. Bertelsmann has a chain of giant book clubs and is particularly strong in Europe, but no longer including the UK, where it used to own BCA. Their giant French club, France Loisirs, used to have a membership of 4.5 million, which represented a staggeringly high percentage of all the households in France. The two huge book club groups combined a few years ago in the US to maximise their purchasing power and remove the competition between them, which had hugely benefited publishers.

Where next?

The glory days of book clubs are long past, as they struggle to counter the threats posed by discounting on a massive scale, including the use of books as ‘loss leaders’ in supermarkets and price warehouses. They have also been massively affected by the growth of Amazon and the consumer’s increasing unwillingness to be restricted in their choice. Books which arrive without being ordered, the so-called ‘negative option’ are especially unpopular. Clubs have had some success with establishing themselves on the Internet and repositioning themselves as organisations offering recommended lists of titles, saving time for busy book-buyers.  Surprisingly perhaps, they don't seem to have pursued this option in an energetic fashion, so have lost the opportunity to build communities of readers on the web.

The book trade

Since browsing in bookshops is regarded by many readers as part of the pleasure of buying books, the heavy book-buyers are probably the hardest to convince about the value of saving their time. Elsewhere the chains have competed aggressively to develop superstores which make book-buying both glamorous and accessible. Online bookselling has revolutionised book purchasing, bringing a vast range of books within range. Both supermarkets and online booksellers are also cheap, given the heavy discounts on many bestsellers and the continuous price promotions – just like the book clubs used to be in fact.

Chris Holifield