Publishers have long relied on local book club selections to boost sales. But for indie booksellers, book clubs’ importance to the bottom line has been mixed in recent years, particularly with the rise of e-books. Now that sales of print books have rebounded, some booksellers are finding that catering to book clubs helps sales improve even further.
Book clubs continue to be popular. In a 2015 report on the ubiquity of book clubs, the New York Times estimated that five million Americans belong to one or more. People want to socialize over their reading, said Lisa Baudoin of Books & Company in Oconomowoc, Wisc. Like many booksellers, she has built strong relationships with book clubs in her community.
Books & Company regularly hosts three in-store book clubs for adults, and it supplies books to 40 other clubs that register with the store to get a 15% discount. Twice a year, the bookstore throws a party with wine and appetizers for its club members. During the event, publishers’ reps usually present a total of between 10 and 15 new and upcoming releases as potential book club picks.
Left Bank Books in St. Louis sponsors eight in-store book clubs and provides a 20% discount to another 36 external groups. It holds a biannual Reading Group Appreciation event. “This really direct and personal way of interacting with customers who may not be standing at your counter is very valuable,” co-owner Kris Kleindienst said. “It’s a great way to build awareness and loyalty.”
Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, N.C., goes a step further: it throws a two-day Book Bash twice a year. Last fall’s event drew almost 300 people. The store hosts a dozen book clubs, as well as another 50 registered clubs. While booksellers take turns introducing a total of 16 to 20 titles at the Book Bash, primarily in paperback, the morning crowd snacks on coffee and donuts. The store serves wine and cheese during the evening program. “The titles we present tend to sell for quite a while afterwards,” general manager Sarah Goddin said. “Some book groups huddle together and select their books right then and there.” Book group orders receive a 21% discount.
Nicole Sullivan’s desire for a comfortable venue where she could talk about books and sip wine with her own book club inspired her to launch the BookBar in Denver three years ago. The store, which features a simple menu of appetizers, desserts, and beverages, has been so successful that it added an additional 800 sq. ft. last fall. Not only does the BookBar provide a 20% discount to any customer buying five or more copies of a title, but it also gives a 10% discount on bottles of wine to book clubs. On average, five book groups meet there each day. Once a month, the store hosts a Book Social, which Sullivan described as a “book club with no strings attached.” People can mingle over free wine and talk about buzz books.
At Subtext in St. Paul, Minn., book club sales are so important that the store maintains separate bookshelves for two different groups: Books & Bars, an open book club that meets at a nearby bar and is moderated by Minnesota Public Radio’s Jeff Kamin, and a private group, whose members together buy 20 copies of each book that the moderator selects. In addition, Subtext hosts one in-house club and two outside the store, at a brewpub and at a fitness facility.
Cindy Dach, co-owner of Changing Hands in Phoenix, said that the First Draft Book Club has helped raise the bookstore’s profile and “works beautifully.” The book club is moderated by Arizona Republic reporter Barbara Van Denburgh, who picks hardcovers and paperbacks for its monthly reads. Customers receive a 20% discount for hardcover and 10% for paperback. First Draft attracts about 80 people each month, down from 200 at the inaugural meeting in June 2015; the newspaper’s regular features on Van Denburgh’s picks have expanded the store’s customer base.
Although a number of the booksellers interviewed observed that in recent years they’ve seen sales to book clubs decline as more members download e-books, others report that those losses are countered by some club members buying hardcovers. Approximately half of the stores queried have found that more and more, book club members are seeking out hardcover editions of buzz fiction such as H Is for Hawk and All the Light We Cannot See, as well as timely nonfiction such as Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. “Generally speaking, paperbacks are still the preferred format, but in the last few years I see a lot less resistance to hardcovers as groups just don’t want to wait for the year or more for a paperback,” said Holly Myers, at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle.
Book clubs are important, but as Lisa Gozashti, co-owner of Brookline Booksmith in Brookline, Mass., noted, author events have a much greater potential for sales. “We just had Chuck Palahniuk at our store and sold 400 books,” she said. Booksmith hosts two in-store adult book clubs and one children’s book club, which Gozashti views more as a community service.
At Left Bank, Kleindienst said that sales to book clubs account for only “a single digit” of total sales. What matters more, she continued, is the notion that a bookstore is “a safe harbor, that third place where you can freely talk about ideas and books.”
According to Ann Berlin of the Ivy Bookshop in Baltimore, which hosts quarterly parties for its approximately 60 external book clubs, “a lot of [book club members] are regular customers, and they’re ordering backlist.” She added, “What’s important to us is our relationship with our customers. We give people what they want, when they want it.”