Does anyone recall which national TV show was the first to announce a new book club this year? Live with Regis and Kathie Lee? The Today Show? Guess again. Last January, well before Oprah pulled the plug on her club and the network morning shows stepped in, PBS introduced the Masterpiece Theatre Book Club, tied to three titles from long-running series' spring lineup (Book News, Jan. 21). Spearheaded by Amy Guertin, program marketing coordinator at PBS flagship station WGBH in Boston, the program distributed promotional materials for the club and copies of Nancy Mitford's Love in a Cold Climate (Vintage), Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim (Penguin) and James Agee's A Death in the Family (Vintage) to affiliates across the country. Then each participating station invited its viewers to join an (untelevised) discussion at the station, or at a local library or bookstore.
Though the book club is officially on hiatus until the fall, some participants have enjoyed the discussions so much, they are refusing to take a break. "Our members wouldn't let us take the summer off," said Susan White, director of education and outreach at WUFT in Gainesville, Fla. "They were so concerned we might not do it next season they said, 'hey, just let us keep going!' " The group has continued to meet in a local library to discuss titles such as Jill Ker Conway's The Road from Coorain (Vintage), Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (Penguin) and A Great Deliverance by Elizabeth George (Bantam), which tie in to productions in other PBS series.
Other stations are equally bullish. Even at this early stage, 50 have signed on, with perhaps 10 more expected to enlist by the fall, when the clubs will read Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell (Penguin Classics), Almost a Woman by Esmeralda Santiago (Vintage) and The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy (Scribner Paperback Fiction has the official tie-in to this new remake; there's also a regular edition from Oxford World Classics). Station managers who weren't yet thinking about joining "really took notice when they saw how many stations were already on board" at a recent conference, said WGBH director of station relations Caroline Santangelo.
For PBS, the grassroots clubs help build community good will while fulfilling the federal requirement that public broadcasters demonstrate an educational benefit to the public. Santangelo stressed the book club's interpersonal aspects: "If you do a local panel discussion to tie into a program, it can be great, but it's still a passive experience for the audience. The book club engages our community in a way that's interactive and personal." Other outreach programs tend to have limited runs, explained WGBH's Guertin. "But this is tied to a major national prime-time series that is well-loved by three million viewers. It'll continue for as long as we can keep it going."
That's good news for publishers and booksellers, who are finding that the Masterpiece Theatre Book Club is helping move books: after a show airs, there's typically a 1,000-copy sales spike for the book tie-in, according to Vintage v-p Russell Perreault. "That's a great boost for these older backlist titles," he added. The local clubs, which have an average of 12-15 participants, account for only part of the bookstore sales related to the airings, since some members receive free copies of the selections from the station. But even if WGBH stopped providing each affiliate with 10 free copies (which WGBH buys from Forester Incentives), "that wouldn't stop the people in our club from coming," maintained Darren LaShelle, program manager for Toledo, Ohio's WGTE. "While a few people choose to borrow from the library, some of those people end up buying the book after we've read it in the club because they liked it so much."
Clubs and the booksellers often work together to draw in the local community. WCET in Cincinnati holds its meetings at Joseph-Beth Bookseller; the store helps promote the club through its listserv and monthly calendar, and offers members 10% off reading list titles. "There is a display table set up with our logo and the Masterpiece Theatre logo," noted WCET project manager Laura Dell.
"It gives us an opportunity to get a dozen people in here once a month, and show them what a great store we are," said Chris Champion of Thackeray's Books in Toledo, which set up a book club with Toledo's WGTE. The bookseller issues membership cards to book club participants entitling them to a 20% discount on the selected titles. "I see a lot of members leaving at the end of the night with Thackeray's bags loaded with books from outside our reading list," said WGTE's LaShelle.
Major chains are getting in on the act as well. "The Masterpiece Theatre Book Club brings us more of the kind of customer we want to attract," explained Jennifer Hanft, community relations manager for Barnes & Noble's Libby Place branch in Richmond, Va.
Considering that all of this activity has sprung up in just six months, the book club seems on track to become a success for PBS, WGBH and Masterpiece Theatre. As it grows, publishers and booksellers may increasingly find it one as well.