Book of The Month Controversy: Why Does It Cause an Uproar?

Book of the Month (est. 1926) is an American online subscription service that ships its members five to seven new hardcover books every month. For the first time since the club’s inception in 1926, members have the opportunity to select the book they would like to receive from a list of titles that have been chosen and recommended by a panel of judges. A book club where members have access to an online forum to discuss the books they’ve read with other club members.

Controversy

While protests for Black Lives Matter dominated the news in June of 2020, Book of the Month promoted two nonfiction books written by Black authors on its Instagram page.

Several commenters criticized February’s Book of the Month selection for failing to do more to promote Black authors and authors of other minorities, or to use the current events to further the visibility of such authors.

When the person in charge of BOTM‘s Instagram account deleted comments from Traci Thompson, host of the podcast The Stacks, and then blocked her, the company received even more criticism. The original Instagram post’s caption has been replaced with a more formal apology to Thompson and an explanation of what went wrong.

book of the month controversy

When the company announced that it would be featuring American Dirt as the February 2020 selection for Book of the Month, it sparked another controversy amongst subscribers. If you haven’t heard of the book, it tells the fictional story of a Mexican mother and son who flee to the United States border when their family is threatened by a cartel leader.

It was on everyone’s reading list, but it turns out the author is white and female. Cultural appropriation and stereotyping are two of the issues that have been raised in the book.

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It Was Featured as A Botm Pick and Eventually Sold Out

Despite some team members’ disappointment with the selection, Book of the Month decided that it was “more productive to encourage conversations around these issues than to sweep them under the rug,” as stated in the disclaimer accompanying the book’s listing on the site(opens in a new tab).

They claimed they wanted members to decide for themselves if they wanted to read the book. This is something I opted not to read.

History

In 1916, while working as a copywriter for the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, Harry Scherman conceived of the “Little Leather Library.” Scherman and his business partners Max Sackheim, Charles, and Albert Boni sold 40 million copies of their “30 Great Books For $2.98” (miniature reprints “bound in limp Redcroft”) in the first five years of operation.

As a result, Sackheim and Scherman started their own advertising firm focused solely on the publishing industry.

book of the month controversy

To combat the difficulties of generating buzz for a new release, Scherman, Sackheim, and Robert Haas (son of Kalman Haas) founded the Book-of-the-Month Club in 1926. Club membership would be a “standard brand,” as Scherman put it. It gains credibility as a trustworthy judge of quality literature and draws customers as a result.

This means that new titles don’t have to wait for their reputation to rise before they’re accepted,” he clarified. In just 20 years, the club went from having 4,000 members to more than 550,000.

The popularity of the Book of the Month Club helped establish the club as a recognized brand. One way to get books noticed by the public was to have them featured as a “Book of the Month Club” pick.

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Club Regulations

Similar to other box subscription services, the club offers a subscription program wherein members sign up for a membership for a predetermined amount of time (three, six, or twelve months) and receive their monthly book shipment on the first week of the month.

In the past, when the club sent out monthly selections via mail-order catalogs, members participated in a “negative response” system in which they were automatically sent that month’s selection if they did not decline it by a certain date. Members could respond by either declining the choice or choosing to order a different book or product. The absence of a response was taken as tacit approval of the option presented.

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