General Articles

Scherman’s March Through Bookland

Montreal-born Harry Scherman is the crack book salesman of all time — 135 million copies — by mail

JAMES DUGAN October 15 1948
General Articles

Scherman’s March Through Bookland

Montreal-born Harry Scherman is the crack book salesman of all time — 135 million copies — by mail

JAMES DUGAN October 15 1948

Scherman’s March Through Bookland

Montreal-born Harry Scherman is the crack book salesman of all time — 135 million copies — by mail


HARRY SCHERMAN, a quiet, croquet-playing New Jersey squire, has sold more books than anyone else in the 900 years since Pi Shêng invented movable type. His sales record adds up to at least 135 million books. Scherman is neither a publisher nor a bookstore proprietor. He sold his quota of almost one book per North American, or 270 times the number of books in the Toronto Public Library, by adding a gimmick to the U. S. and Canadian postal systems. The idea was the Book-of-the-Month Club, of which he is president. Other people write the books, publish them and select them for the club’s subscribers. Scherman’s idea sells them.

The history of the idea is pretty much the biography of 61-year-old, Montreal-born Harry Scherman, who has devoted his adult life to selling books by mail. “The bookstores don’t begin to do the job of getting books out to the people,” he told me, while addressing his croquet ball which was touching mine. “The club has filled an enormous vacuum the bookstores couldn’t handle.”

Crash! He drove my ball out of the court. “There are 42,000 post offices in the United States. The club hasn’t discovered one yet that doesn’t have at least one subscriber.”

Scherman’s croquet pitch lies in the upper dooryard of an old barn on a hillside overlooking a millpond at Bernardsville, N.J., 30 miles out of Manhattan. Cows and hay have surrendered to billiards and ping-pong, sprawling chesterfields and a corner recess where Scherman hides from the wooden golf fiends to do some work. The 200-yearold yellow stone house sits beside the barn on the ridge slope. It is furnished with comfortable antiques: in the small living room are hundreds of volumes of Book-of-the-Month selections and near misses. Works by winning authors include Sigrid Undset, John Gunther, John Steinbeck, Pearl Buck (four-time winner), Winston S. Churchill (twice), and a manuscript copy of “Crusade in Europe” by Dwight D. Eisenhower, which has been chosen as a Book-of-the-Month if and when the coy president of Columbia University accepts the decision of the club jury.

He Turns Ink to Gold

THESE authors owe a great deal to Harry Scherman’s idea. The most successful of club authors, Bill Mauldin, has received $100,050 in royalties from the club alone on 667,000 copies of his first book, “Up Front.” The club paid his publishers the standard 30-cent royalty per copy, which was halved with the author. Book-of-theMonth lightning strikes few scribblers, but when it does their regular bookstore editions and subsequent. cheaper reprints are accelerated into fantastic figures.

The least cash royalty a club-anointed author can receive is in the case of a dual selection (two for the price of one) in which the author’s royalty per copy is 10 cents, on a minimum guarantee of 350,000 copies. If only 350,000 of the club’s 700,000-odd current members keep the book, the luc^iy writer gets $35,000.

The world’s biggest book salesman is a middlesized, grey-mustached man with twinkling eyes and a nut-brown bald dome fringed with grey hair. He is enormously, almost defensively, proud of the job the club has done.

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Scherman's March Through Bookland

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Among the writers he somewhat extravagantly claims have been “made” by the club are Walter Lippman, Stuart Chase, Stephen Vincent Bénét, Clarence Day, Margery Sharp, William L. Shirer and Thornton Wilder. “We didn’t discover them,” admits Scherman. “In most cases we didn’t select their first books, but they became established through the club.”

The club is 22 years old. More than 500 titles, including premiums and alternate choices, have been distributed to a total of 95 million copies. Before he founded the B-O-M-C, Scherman sold 40 million books by mail. They were volumes of the Little Leather Library, pocket-sized nonroyalty classics bound in skeepskin and retailing for 25 cents. Schooled in handling mail-order book economics on a giant scale, Scherman evolved the Book-of-the-Month idea on the spur of necessity. The country was simply saturated with Little Leather masterpieces, and when it appeared that people had Aristotle coming out of their ears, Scherman folded the sheepskin library and sought something else in the mail-order book line.

He was up against an immutable axiom of the mail-order book business that said you cannot sell new books by mail. Rural bibliophiles had been stung too many times by blue-sky operators: they trusted only a good safe classic, preferably unexpurgated and vouchsafed by a famous scholar like Charles W. Eliot or J. Alexander Hamilton. Scherman cut the knot by inventing the book jury and the book “club,” which gave new books the giltedged sponsorship of trusted critics like Christopher Morley, Dorothy Canfield, Heywood Broun, Henry Seidel Canby, and for the inspired small-town touch, William Allen White, the Emporia editor. These were the original B-O-M-C judges.

His Secret—-the Jury

Book clubs were not new. There had been a rash of them in post-World War I Germany. The first mail-order book club was English, founded in 1902 by the London Times. The Times Book Club dealt strictly in reference works, encyclopedias and war histories, backed by the majestic reputation of the paper. The German clubs had no juries, but were simple means of mass distributing new books at cut prices. Scherman’s invention of the book jury system did the trick. The first selection, “Lolly Willows,” went to 4,750 members who had answered a small ad campaign. Scherman’s canny advertising copy—he was a master of the clip-the-coupon appeal—said the judges would pick “the best book of the month.” At first members were obliged to take a book a month, with no return privilege. In 1929 the “bestbook” claim was dropped when the judges picked a literary hoax, Joan Lowell’s “Cradle of the Deep,” a thrilling account of the author’s childhood at sea, which she had failed to label as fiction. Before long, members were allowed to contract for less than 12 books; today the commitment is to pay for four books out of 13.

The club immediately inspired imita-' tion. Since 1926, dozens of clubs have flared up—and folded in most cases.

Scherman’s principal competitors today are The Literary Guild and the Book Find Club. The former is sponsored by Doubleday’s, the largest book publishers in the United States, which

also invented the only new development of Scherman’s original idea. It sponsors half a dozen book clubs, including the Book League of America, the Home Book Club and the Family Reading Club. The Family Club capitalizes on the reaction against book-club selections featuring abandoned historical hussies, such as “Yankee Pasha” (“exotic harems of Tartary”) which was a recent selection of its sister club, the Literary Guild.

Advertising Pioneer

Scherman was born in Montreal of English parents who had come from Manchester to improve their fortunes. His father tried without success to acclimate himself to both Canada and the U. S. He separated from Harry’s mother, Katherine Harris Scherman, and returned to England. Mrs. Scherman, a woman of great vigor and enterprise, took her four children to Philadelphia, where Harry grew up.

Mrs. Scherman went to work for the Jewish Publications Society, a nonprofit firm which issued scholarly works on Jewish history and religion. She traveled throughout the United States and Canada and built the society into a cultural force in the Jewish community. Despite many absences from home, she ran a happy and well-organized household. Until her death a few years ago, Mrs. Scherman was a lively and witty matriarch and the centre of the family. At Christmas the Schermans gathered around her in a laughing house party, which featured a report of their year’s doings in the form of a musical revue, with songs, dances and sketches by the tribe. One of Harry’s nephews would satirize his distinguished uncle’s activities, while the Big Man of B-O-M-C would join in by ribbing a grandchild.

Harry Scherman went to Central High School in Philadelphia, which pioneered small classes and had a liberal arts curriculum the equal of many college courses today. His bookish interests were developed by several distinguished scholars then on the faculty. He remembers particularly Prof. J. Duncan Spaeth, who taught Old English literature and philology, two subjects it would be hard to find in a contemporary high school.

After graduating from Central High, he tried a year and a half at the University of Pennsylvania. Lack of interest and finances led him to quit school in 1907 and join his family then living in New York. His mother got him a job on The American Hebrew as a subeditor at $15 a week. Augmenting this by space writing for Philadelphia papers, Scherman worked at night on his big ambition to become a social playwright. He studied the dramatists of the day—Sir Arthur Wing Pinero, Scribe, Ibsen, Strindberg, Henry Bernstein, Eugene Walters, Augustus Thomas and W. Clyde Fitch. He wrote five plays on social problems, including a dramatic exposition of Henry George’s single tax theory. None of his plays or short stories got past the editorial judges.

By 1913 it was obvious that he was not getting anywhere as a writer, so he went to work in a new subliterary field which paid large and ready money. He became one of the two original advertising copy writers, when he ana Maxwell Sack heim signed on with Ruthrauff & Ryan. They were soon joined by Albert and Charles Boni. These four originated between them the basic technique of selling books by mail. They wrote the coupon ads for the J. Alexander Hamilton Institute’s textbooks on how to forge ahead, and sold sets of Oscar Wilde and Joseph Conrad. In 1916 the quartet left the

ad agency and lauached the avalanche of Little Leather books. They were joined by another bookselling demon, Robert K. Haas.

From these five have come an astounding number of cultural enterprises. Haas went on to found Pocketbooks Inc., and bring 25 cent best sellers into drugstores and newsstands. Sackheim became one of the leading mail-order merchandise experts in the United States in his later career with Sears & Roebuck, which, by the way, now has a book club of its own, The People’s Book Club. The Bonis founded the Modern Library. Albert Boni became Horace Liveright’s partner in one of the most brilliant publishing houses of the ’20’s, Boni & Liveright. The Boni brothers also founded Bonibooks, another inexpensive line of classics and reprints. Albert Boni

organized the Washington Square Players, which later became the Theatre Guild. Harry Scherman and Max Sackheim had their own advertising agency for a brief period after the demise of the Little Leather Library. They specialized in mail-order publishing accounts. In 1926, Scherman with Sackheim and Haas announced the Book-of-the-Month Club.

By the end of the first year there were 40,000 members—satisfying, but hardly a patch on the millions of sheepskin tomes they had sold. By 1929 there were 60,000 subscribers who received “All Quiet On the Western Front” and liked it. Then the bottom fell out of mail-order books as well as everything else in the ’29 crash. Sackheim felt that the cycle was over anyhow—all mail-order book schemes were short-lived. Scherman bought his interest. Haas left a few years later, thinking that the B-O-M-C was forcing its luck. Scherman bought his stock. The membership went down to a point where Scherman had to think up something quick.

Premiums to the Rescue

He invented the book premium and the book dividend. The premium was a book offered “free” for joining the club and the dividend was a book given as a “bonus” for each pair of regular selections purchased. Critics of the book clubs are constantly asking the United States Federal Trade Commission to enjoin club advertising against the use of the word “free,” pointing out that these inducements are handsomely absorbed in the all-over operation of selling books. The FTC took action this summer, asked the book clubs to explain why they should not give up this practice.

The club began picking up members again about 1936, weathered a slump the next year and kept growing steadily. Despite four distinctly felt recessions in 22 years, the trend has been steadily upward. The greatest membership was 930,000 in 1946, which has slipped down a couple of hundred thousand this year. Scherman says the Canadian Book - of - the - Month Club, an autonomous organization, keeps a stable membership, without showing the fluctuations of the home club. There are 75,000 Canadian B-O-M-C customers at present.

Canadian members occasionally get a different selection than Stateside readers, when the judges have picked a purely U. S. subject such as “Inside U. S. A.” About half of the Dominion titles are printed specially in Canada for the club. The club would like to print them all in Canada, if paper and press and bindery time were available. Otherwise, the club has to absorb the customs duty on books shipped in from the U. S. A.

The Book-of-the-Month Club, w'hile

not a publishing house itself, is the world’s largest user of book-printing plants and binderies. The bulk of the work is done at a huge factory in Kingsport , Tenn., which has a capacity of 25 million books a year. The club reprints all of its selections in its own special editions, which are as nearly like the format and quality of the regular trade edition as possible. The club leases the plates from the original publisher as a part of the 30-cent royalty per copy.

The Book-of-the-Month Club News, which is personally edited by Harry Scherman—Be carries it through to the printers where he checks proof himself —is the 28-page trade organ of the big book bonanza. Here the judges expound their select ions in words warm and words cautious. Mr. Justice Clifton Fadiman, who with J. P. Marquand replaced the late founders Heywood Broun and William Allen White on the high bench, is the cleverest reviewer. Fadiman touches off a burst of eulogistic fireworks about a new book: only by captious examination of subsequent paragraphs can the reader winkle out Fadiman’s reservations. “One of the finest novels we have been privileged to offer our readers in many, many months,” he said of Graham Greene’s “The Heart of the Matter.” How many, many months is left to the reader to figure out. Fadiman also took care of anyone who may not like Greene’s book by saying, “no one but a village atheist can fail to respond to the torment” in Greene’s hero’s soul.

The judges suffer under the same strain as a movie press agent faced with establishing his new picture as twice as colossal as last week’s picture. They are consoled by annual salaries of $22,500 each, plus bonuses for good picking. Scherman has nothing to do with their selections, although he and Club Treasurer Meredith Wood attend the monthly luncheons in which the judges deliberate their final choice. The literary pontifications are based on what each judge likes, not what they think the members will like. There are no dissenting opinions announced. If Dorothy Canfield likes it, Clifton Fadiman presumably likes it, too. Not the least of Harry Scherman’s innovations in literature is this miracle of finding five prominent book critics who are always unanimous in praise.

How They’re Picked

A staff of readers scans the 3to 400 new books a month which have the general appeal to qualify in the B-O-M-C sweepstakes. They grade five or six books with an A and a half dozen or so more with a B. Each judge then reads all the A books and one or more judges all the B’s. At the decisive luncheon in the B-O-M-C offices any judge may promote a B to an A, or nominate any new book, previously rejected or otherwise.

The grading process goes on for months before a book is scheduled to be published, the judges reading from proofs and sometimes manuscripts. Selection by the club usually determines the date of trade publication. Publishers are willing to wait a couple of months until the B-O-M-C schedule can fit in a book. At the moment five books have been selected for future distribution and are being held in reserve, including Eisenhower’s volume. If Eisenhower gives the word to publish, say in October, some other author will have to wait until Ike has taken up his lute on Parnassus. Only authors of the stature of Churchill and Eisenhower may tell the club when they want their pieces issued.

The Book-of-the-Month Club is listed on the stock exchange, along with

A. T. & T. and General Motors. The controlling interest is owned by Scherman and his family. Last year there was a dividend totaling $1,125,000. Canadian taxes of $45,000 were paid. The gross sales were over $18 millions. The club has 1,400 employees. It is the fourth largest user of the U. S. postal system, after the federal government and the mail-order houses of Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward.

Nowadays, the club offers its readers multiple choices each month. In July, for instance, readers who may not have chosen “The Gathering Storm,” by the former British Prime Minister, instead could have the pick of 55 alternate selections under club imprint, plus 24 former books-of-themonth still available. A further list of “Books We Recommend” includes 17 current books which may be ordered at list price, but these do not count toward book dividends. When the club does its own printing, the price of a book may go down from 15 to 40% of the retail figure. The member’s price averages $3 to $3.50, including dual selections. Prices in Canada are about the same.

By and large, the 7,000-odd retail bookstore proprietors of North America oppose the book-club idea. Although Scherman has many working arrangements with booksellers, whereby they can sell B-O-M-C membership for a commission and collect a further commission on each book selected, the recent convention of the American Booksellers Association seethed with plots to unhorse the cut-price mailorder book club. The hopes of the small retail bookseller have been pinned on a forthcoming legal action against the clubs in the United States for alleged restraint of trade. The small men beef that they cannot compete with “free” inducements and “dividends.” They say they are often stuck with large stocks of a book when it transpires that the B-O-M-C selects it as a “free” item and people stop buying it in the bookstore.

The American Booksellers Association wants to fight fire with flames, and adopt the very relationship the clubs have with publishers, of leasing plates for a minimum guaranteed royalty. The book clubs answer that they are not in competition with the bookstores. The B-O-M-C states that 75% of its business is consigned to postoffices where there is no local bookstore.

Is It Literature?

Sir Stanley Unwin, president of the International Publishers Congress, is a severe critic of book clubs. The head of Allen & Unwin feels that book clubs generate worship of the best seller— which is commonly the most nearly mediocre book available. Among the also-ran books there will be several that will live longer than the club selection. This point isn’t literary criticism on the part of myself or Sir Stanley Unwin: it is based on the fact that 500 rejected books will produce more distilled literature than one chosen book.

New Walt Whitmans and Herman Melvilles could not be selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club with their contemporary counterparts of “Leaves of Grass” and “Moby Dick.” Whitman and Melville were derided and neglected 80 years ago when they were first published. To expect Judges Canby, Morlev, Canfield, Marquand and Fadiman to choose the good books of our period would be asking them to witness two authentic miracles and beatify and canonize the writers between the shrimp cocktails and the black coffee of their judicial deliberations. The judges are in the mail-order merchandising business. The continu-

ity of English literature is left to the adventurer who will eagerly trouble to find a book he likes.

Scherman says, “We have found that the preponderant group of club members are people under 35, most of them with a college education. From 18 to 35 is the eager period, when a person reads the substantial stuff of a lifetime.” In mailing club advertising to prospective members, lists of physicians return a high yield, as do university alumni lists. The best mailing list the club ever used was a roster of women who had enrolled in glamour schools. The club has a 40% turnover each year.

Recently Scherman began his own calendar reform: the club now distributes 13 books a year, one every four weeks. The extra one in the baker’s dozen is called The Midsummer Selection and arrives in July. The change has simplified club bookkeeping considerably.

The North American volume in new popular books will probably hit $75 millions this year. The Book-of-theMonth Club alone may transact as high as one third of the volume.

He’s An Author, Too

While Harry Schêrman is proud of sponsoring “marvelous books, wonderful books” and making the reputations of the popular authors of the era, he himself has written only one book, “The Promises Men Live By,” published by Simon & Schuster in 1937, and not a choice of the Book-of-theMonth Club jury. The five writing judges have a stern rule not to pick their own works and they did not put the finger on the boss’ opus. “The Promises Men Live By” was, however, offered to club members a few months after publication as an additional choice. Forty thousand selected it.

In 1914 Scherman married a lively Irish schoolteacher, Bernardine Kielty. Mrs. Scherman writes a gosuipy backstage column of the literary life for the B-O-M-C News. They have two children and also a large deaf golden retriever named Dugan, which is a menace almost as formidable on the croquet court as this reporter, who is not the dog’s godfather.

Scherman has owned his country place for 20 years. It has demanded as much patience as the club. Originally the mill dam was not part of his property. Several years ago a private mental hospital was opened on the opposite hilltop. Its feverish social schedule included regattas and water pageantry on the pond, in which the patients participated with vim. Scherman bought the millpond. The hospital was then purchased by the band leader Tommy Do.sey, who furnished it as a week-end dormitory for his musicians. Beavers gnawed away the breastworks of the dam. Both the beavers and the sportive musicians were at last overcome.

“Harry Scherman,” said a man who has known him a long time, “loves a laugh more than anything else.” His long vigil with the book club has left him little time for his avocation. With the stock booming, the books safely judged and disseminated, the 350 personal account girls in firm and friendly contact with the members, and the prospect of four more Books-of-theMonth by WinstonS. Churchill coming up, Scherman is beginning to lighten the load. Recently a physician helped a great deal. Scherman had been on a punishing diet which included no meat or drink. The doctor said, “You’re starving yourself. You go have a highball and then a big steak dinner.” Scherman obeyed and has been feeling as good as a best seller ever since. ★