Abstract: The Book-of-the-Month Club: A Reconsideration

Daniel Raff


The Book-of-the-Month Club, which was founded in 1926, was once among the most prominent of American corporations, a powerful force in its own line of business and conspicuous enough to the general public to have been a subject for cartoons in the <i>New Yorker</i>. It also represents a business model of considerable Coasean interest and a much studied but grossly misunderstood act of entrepreneurship. Most of the academic literature about the Book-of-the-Month Club is written by Cultural Studies academics and concerns the development of twentieth-century American middle-class culture. In this paper, I attempt to bring the company's strategic and business history into better focus, reconstructing the entrepreneurial context, the economic logic, the venture's resources and mobilization, and the evolving results. I do this deploying the approach to studying business history and strategy experience more generally sketched in the papers by Lamoreaux, Raff, and Temin in the <i>American Historical Review</i> (2003) and <i>Enterprise and Society</i> (2004). The main orientation of the paper is toward historicization rather than the long view, but the issues that arise in the course of it have striking contemporary resonance. They also suggest a somewhat novel view of the dynamics of American business in the late 1920s and the Depression.