This week Paul Ford and Rich Ziade talk to Maris Kreizman, editorial director of Book of the Month Club, the 90-year-old book subscription service that shaped American literary history. Topics discussed include BOMC’s revival and current iteration, demographics and preferences in book consumption, materiality of paper books and physical bookshelves, Amazon’s relationship to the rest of the book world, and why Paul just can’t get behind mermaid fiction.
Paul Ford [Music ramps down] Hi. You’re listening to Track Changes, the official podcast of Postlight, a digital products studio at 101 5th Avenue in New York City. My name is Paul Ford [music fades out], I’m the co-founder of Postlight.
Rich Ziade And I’m Rich Ziade, uh the other co-founder of Postlight.
PF So . . . Rich and I are well caffeinated but our voices are a little grumbly because we did karaoke last night with the office.
RZ We did and—
PF We should tell people: we sang “Islands in the Stream”.
PF Together, everybody kicked off, Rich tool the Dolly Parton part and I, for really a lot of obvious reasons, took the Kenny—Kenny Rogers part.
RZ I tho—I thought it came together.
PF We did good. We did good. So look: Rich, tell people what Postlight does.
RZ Postlight is a digital products studio in New York City. We uh design, build, architect, ship. We looove to ship . . . technology products. From web to apps to just about anything. We’re a product shop! We love to bring it all together, and ship great product.
PF So about half of our work is in the media industry which is one hell of an industry as I can you tell from long experience.
RZ That’s one way to put it, Paul!
PF And the media industry has many tricky things going on with it. In particular that you can now read and do and experience all your media digitally . . . which is tricky cuz all the margins used to be moving things around physically, and made people go to bookstores and buy them.
RZ And newsstands . . . and records stores . . . and if we’re talking about media in the general sense.
PF So we have someone with us today who is riding that tornado [giggling in background]. Uh her name is Maris Kreizman.
Maris Kreizman Hi.
PF Hi, thank you for being here.
MK Thanks for having me.
PF Alright. What is this title that you have here?
MK I am Editorial Director of Book of the Month. Book of the Month is a 90 year old club . . . that was revamped uh about a year and a half ago . . . um to appeal to a younger audience.
PF Ok so what—it’s a mon—every month there’s a book.
MK Yup! There’s five books.
RZ Every month?
MK Every month.
MK Why not offer—
PF Let’s go—let’s go back 90 years.
PF What was going on 90 years ago [RZ chuckles]?
MK 90 years ago there was a panel of judges at this book club that discovered little known authors such as Truman Capote and Cormac MccArthy and oh and the first was of course Margaret Mitchell.
PF Oh Gone With the Wind Margaret Mitchell?
PK Ok so—so they’re like, “Hey, you might enjoy this book, Gone With the Wind.”
MK And what happened was they built this critical mass of members so that there came a point where they kicked off the New York Times Bestseller because it was too influential. And so every Book of the Month Club pick would be a the top of the Bestseller list.
PF Right so I mean this is—this is a very American story. Things like Sears Roebuck show up [MK yes!] and they’re like, “Here’s a centralized place to buy all of your stuff—”
MK Yeah, absolutely.
PF “—using this amazing technology known as the catalogue.”
PF “And we’ll mail it to you on—on trains. And there’ll be all these efficiencies and we’ll centralize and make lots of money and—”
PF And that’s—so that was Book of the Month Club. You don’t have to go to that bookstore anymore.
MK No, no, so we—we have a website. It’s all ecommerce. We choose five books a month and we still have a great panel of judges who endorse all of our books. And then you can, if you’re a member, you can either choose one book or three, if you want. Or you can skip a month, that’s ok too. Um—
PF And it comes right there in the mail.
MK And it comes in the mail! And it’s hardcover.
PF There’s a technology, I don’t know if you heard of it, it’s called ebooks and they’re on your phone.
MK [Laughs] Yes.
PF And you can get lots of them and carry—
MK You sure can.
PF—ca—carry hundreds of them around.
RZ I mean the Kindle is the dominant brand around [MK yes] ebooks.
PF Well what’s interesting is 90 years ago you had like the—the paradigm of Book of the Month Club but similar to like, like an Amazon-ish paradigm. Like we’re gonna [MK right] bring everybody together, and make it really easy for them to get these books. So—so this weird that [MK laughs] or just not the mainstream business narrative. So what’s actually going on?
MK So a couple of things are going on. One is that Amazon today can be an overwhelming for a casual book reader [PF mm hmm]. There is so much information thrown at you that our members really like that we are narrowing their choices down . . . to five books that we think are the best books of the month that they will love. I also think that there is something about the tactile experience of holding a book that just can’t be replaced by phones and ereaders. And I think especially for me today, the idea of putting my technology down and picking up a book is very [chuckles] empowering and helpful.
PF No, it’s sensible. I know that I read on the uh Kindle app on the phone [MK mm hmm] and I make it often about ten, 15 minutes into a book before something happens.
MK Twitter . . . [laughs].
RZ Well—well it’s not really—it’s not really a book. Right? It’s—it—you’ll be reading and it’s going well and then the notification about whatever you’ve got going on [MK yeah] whether it’s the ASPN app, or it’s the Twitter app, or it’s the anything app, it’s just like someone interrupting you constantly. So it’s really not any book. The Kindle captures it a little better [MK yes!] because you don’t get as much tapping on the shoulder.
PF I mean not—not the app but the actual sort of—
MK The actual device.
RZ Tries to shut out all those—all that noise but it’s—
MK And I say this as a—a former employee of Nook [PF mm hmm] which was Barnes & Noble’s uh ereader [sure], I have a Kindle now uh you know not my favorite company to endorse but when I’m choosing books, I choose far enough in advance that, you know, there are often no physical galleys. So I’m reading a lot in digital. So weirdly to help my hardcover business thrive um I’m reading a lot on my Kindle.
PF So your day to day job is evaluating books that people are gonna receive in the mail.
PF Ok. What goes into that?
MK Um a whole bunch. One is considering the five books that are gonna be broad enough that our members will like them but still tailored to our audience’s taste. Um we usua—
PF And is there—is there something that like is a like one non-fiction, one fiction?
MK Stuff like that um it’s predominantly fiction [PF mm hmm] um we usually like to have a thriller each month and then, you know, I like to have the one challenging literary fiction that might not be for everybody but it’s kinda pushing readers ahead a little bit and then, you know, a memoir or a true crime that kind of thing [mm hmm]. Um I think our members are coming to us for kind of beyond the bestseller list kinds of recommendations like they know who James Patterson is. They don’t our help figuring that out.
MK Um so we sure like to have debut authors and lesser known authors in our program.
RZ So, I wanna stereotype your customer base.
RZ They’re in upstate somewhere.
ML Ok uh [laughs].
PF Not every state has—this is someone who grew up in Bay Ridge. Not every state has an “upstate”.
RZ [Inaudible] bear with me here for a second. Um . . . they are at least within a mile or two of a shop that sells fudge and they’re over 40.
PF Wait. Let me—let me try the stereo—
MK Yes. Yeah [laughs]. Go.
PF—Let me try the stereotype.
RZ I think I might’ve failed terribly [MK laughs] but go ahead, Paul.
PF Well the interesting thing here is the vast majority of fiction readers are women.
PF So I’m assuming that that—I’m—I’m very curious if your demographics align with that or if they’re different.
MK Indeed they do [yeah] uh at last check the—it’s—it’s more than 90 percent.
RZ Oh wow! I was gonna guess 60. That’s incredible.
PF Now. There was a great um—I think it was Sherman Alexie who is a great writer, just came out at one point and was just like, “We need to thank the middle class women who buy our books [MK mm hmm!] because that—” Like the publishing industry has a tendency to literally patronize and it’s like [MK indeed] that’s not your customer. Your customer is—I was once in a room and—with a bunch of editors and somebody was like, “We should do a take down of book clubs. They’re ridiculous,” and it’s like—
PF That’s—that’s it. Like that is the—the way that [RZ chuckles] we all survive [RZ right] is through book clubs.
MK But the—the one thing that you didn’t get that I think you’ll find surprising and exciting is that um most of our members are in their 20s and early 30s.
RZ Most. The majority.
MK The majority.
MK And I think part of that is that they’re now used to subscription services in a way that [RZ mm hmm] [PF no kidding] um our paren—you know, there’s Birchbox and there’s—
PF [Stammers] So all those like annoying dudes with their silly subscription services have laid the ground for rebirth of uh—
PF [Sighs loudly] I wasn’t ready for that [MK laughs]. There—
RZ Well even beyond books, right? I mean subscription model—
RZ Underwear I don’t know what I think about but whatever.
PF Oh no. Everything. There’s a subscription [MK laughs] for every—
PF Cuz what happened is it became a startup model that—
PF Well sort of like three dudes with 100,000 dollars in VC funding [MK laughs] could get a box made and a brand and then put stuff in the box [RZ yeah] and be like, “We’re gonna—you know,” and a Google spreadsheet, and be like, “We’re gonna innovate.”
PF So this was the original model for that.
PF How—how do you get a new customer?
MK Um we do more marketing and advertising on Facebook and Instagram than any traditional publisher does.
PF Interesting. Wait. Who decided to resurrect Book of the Month Club in this new sort of more digitally savvy form?
MK My boss, John Littman—
MK—is the CEO and he came in and really—
PF How did he come by this remarkable asset? Is it owned by somebody? Book of the Month Club?
MK You know mm I might not be the best person to address this [laughs].
PF That’s fine—we can—ok.
RZ It’s private. I mean obviously.
MK It’s private.
PF It’s a private company and somebo—well someone owns a company that is Book of the Month Club.
MK Yes. Bookspan in general which is um Book of the Month and a bunch of other book clubs that have been around for decades.
PF And it gets a new CEO and they’re like, “Look: people know what this is. What can you do?”
PF Ok. And then he calls you in?
PF Ok. How many—how big is this organization?
MK There are about 15 people working specifically on Book of the Month but our organization is about 60.
PF Ok. And how do books come to you?
MK Um so that’s been an interesting part of my job because I have been a book critic; I have been a book blogger. Um so I have all of these relationships with editors and publicity people and marketing people and traditionally the clubs have subsidiary rights representatives who are the ones who actually sell the books.
PF So it—we don’t have a real publishing audience. Explain what those are.
MK Ok. So. You have the sub-rights people at publishing houses sell rights. They sell book club rights as a—as a small part of what they do. It used to be a huge part back in the early days of Book of the Month, and we’re hoping that it’ll grow again. Um they also often sell foreign rights. So if—if a publisher holds world rights to a book, they can try to get, you know, a British edition. That kind of thing [PF mm hmm]. Um and then another thing that had seemed to be on its way out is for serial rights which is letting a publication excerpt a small piece of—of the book.
PF I mean it—it’s tricky for people to understand cuz I think they think of books as objects but the rights are the real business of the book, right?
PF Ok so—so this stuff is sort of filtering to you.
PF And to get to those five [MK laughs], how many books does it take?
MK Um I have a short list of about 40 a month [PF ok]. Um so basically one of the hardest parts—
PF How much skimming do you have to do?
MK I do some skimming.
PF Yeah this is.
MK I do some skimming but I’m a bad skimmer. I usually wanna find [laughing] what happens and [PF sure] but one of the hardest things about working in books is that there is no centralized location that tells you exactly when books are coming out, and in what order. So I basically keep a spreadsheet of all the books that I know about, and then I use that list to cull it down to 40.
PF I’ve thought about this problem before cuz there is a metadata standard throughout the book publishing industry called I believe Onyx which is—
PF Yeah and so Onyx like has all the information. Like people publish in Onyx and—Barnes & Noble knows everything that’s coming out, I’m assuming [MK yes] right? But like no one else does. That’s not a decentralized—
RZ That’s like a data—like a public database orrr?
PF It’s actually just a—
RZ An industry database?
PF It’s a—it’s a schema so they can like send their info to Barnes & Noble.
RZ Oh I see.
PF Or to Amazon.
RZ It’s a standard.
MK It’s a standard.
PF Amazon ingests a lot of Onyx but there’s no centralized open clearing house for Onyx data [RZ got it]. So only big players know what’s getting published.
RZ Got it. Uh has anyone—
PF Is that actually accurate? That’s my memory of how it works.
MK I—I—I think so.
PF Ok. Alright. So you actually have to figure out the publishing industry—
PF—cuz you’re a smaller player.
PF On a—on a week to week and month to month basis.
PF Ok so you’re updating your Google spreadsheet all the time.
MK All the time. And, you know, I’ve had a lot of jobs in the book publishing industry but I’ve never quite understood exactly what’s coming out and what the process is so much as I have in this past year.
PF It’s grizzly when you get in there, right?
MK It’s [chuckles]—it’s pretty grizzly.
PF What—what’s happening in the book publishing industry these days since you have a good observatory?
MK I think that a good thing is that the—finally the um billionaire schema has died. The sadistic billionaire . . . romance.
PF Oh! Like the um uh Fifty Shades of Grey?
MK Yes. Yes.
PF So less women being sexually tortured for fun and more—more—
MK Yeah. I mean I think that might still happen in ebooks a little bit more [PF sure] but um—
PF There’s always a market.
MK There’s al—but that’s died down. Um I think—
PF How are dragons? Are dragons ok?
MK Dragons are ok. Um—
PF Dragons have enjoyed like a 15 year run.
MK We really thought mermaids were gonna have a moment and then they really [PF mm hmm] didn’t.
PF Cuz they can’t walk.
MK That might be why.
PF What are you gonna do? They can go like two places [MK laughs] and then when they get outta the water they can’t talk which is ba—like—
RZ Mermaids can’t talk?
PF When they get outta the water and the—the witches curse them [MK laughs]. Rich is very confused right now. The um—alright so basically when the mermaid gets out of the water, long story short, she’s lost her voice.
RZ So wait, generally?
PF No, in the stories about the mermaids. So, you know, I mean—
RZ Like there’s a legendary story about a mermaid?
PF Well, not legendary, it’s Hans Christian Andersen through Disney.
PF But anyway [MK chuckles] it’s a really tricky thing cuz how many times can you like describe her eyes, or like her new legs? Or whatever [RZ right] and then you gotta have her say or do something [right] [MK sure]. It’s a tricky one [MK it’s tricky]. [Stammers] And I think like you set yourself up for . . . the medium because I mean it’s perfect as an animated film . . . but like [MK laughs] a lot of mermaid related—a mermaid related trilogy—
RZ I feel like we’re going off the rails here [MK laughing].
PF Are we? Are we? [Chuckles] I’m—
RZ Let’s stay focused on what we’re—
PF Uh you know—
RZ The digital transformation of the Book of the Club, of Book of the Month [PF laughs]. Uh I have a question. I have two questions [MK yes] for you: um do you do like sponsored book?
RZ You don’t?
RZ So there’s no like, “Here are the four that we picked out,” [no] and then there’s a sponsor and it’s got a little font cuz you don’t really wanna emphasize that it’s sponsored. You don’t do that.
MK No. These are all hand picked.
PF Do publishers try to convince you?
MK Um they haven’t actually done that yet. I don’t—
RZ Has anyone tried to pay you off?
MK [Chuckles] No one’s tried to pay me off.
MK As far as I know. No. No.
PF Dinner’s not—dinner in [MK yeah] publishing doesn’t really count.
RZ Oooooh boy!
PF Yeah I know. No, no, cuz it’s actually an expensive dinner culture.
MK It is.
PF It’s really hard to—
RZ It’s just part of the game?
MK Part of the game.
PF Yeah it’s really, really hard to convince [RZ I see] like you could take me to Per Se and tell me something and I—it still wouldn’t be like a sway.
RZ Got it!
MK I haven’t been to Per Se, by the way [laughs].
RZ You’ve been to some nice places.
MK Yes I have [laughs].
RZ Um. Ok. Alright.
PF Yeah [laughs] people—people slide books across the table, you know, in like brown paper—[MK laughs] wrap—wrappers.
RZ Yeah. That’s interesting to hear though like so your credibility and your objectivity is a big deal . . . here, in this world.
MK Yeah. Yeah.
PF Well I think you’re—it’s—it’s—it’s a tricky one cuz you’re not necessarily a journalistic organization but you have a [MK no]—an implied bond with your customer.
MK Absolutely. And, you know, we try to chose judges who we respect a lot, who I think our audience respects a lot, and they’re made up of different authors, and book critics, and people who work at online publications, and it’s a whole great mix of—
RZ Oh so recognizable names.
MK Yeah! Yeah yeah.
RZ Got it. You know like [stammers] what this makes me think of is I think twice or I think three times a year Bill Gates writes pretty well known write-up of like, “Here’s what I read this summer.”
PF Oh those books’ll do well. He’s—he’s like the [inaudible]—
RZ He’s pretty influential.
RZ And they’re usually like all non-fiction—
PF Well there used to be—
RZ—if I’m not mistaken.
PF I mean the—the tremendous force Oprah’s Book Club.
PF That was a huge deal for me.
MK It sure was.
RZ That, I think, that’s what makes me think about the resu—like a resurgence of some kind because she would put you on the map in such a huge way just by—
PF No that’s—she moved—she moved the whole market. And it’s not the biggest market in the world.
PF It’s not like she. It’s not like cars but [MK chuckles] nonetheless like an Oprah Book Club uh endorsement would change—
MK That’s the stamp of approval.
PF—your fortunes. Yeah. Right. I think it’s hard for people to understand too like one hit book at that scale is the key to a large publishing company surviving for another couple of years.
MK Absolutely. And—and I think in terms of like hte key changes um that I’ve seen in the industry since I started 15 years ago is that there’s a much smaller mid-list which is like [PF right] the books that you give in advance of 60-70,000 dollars and you hope that the readers find them [PF mm hmm]. So many of the books published by big publishers today have huge marketing budgets, have huge advances, and they have to work.
PF Right. Right. Well to the point that you get like a James Patterson who becomes a brand and then other people start writing the books for him [MK jinx with Paul for him] [RZ yeah] and—but he’s—he’s what makes it possible for Little Brown to keep publishing books, you know? It’s like inside of Hachette. So there’s a lot of like these giant orgs where they’re balancing this slightly trashier, bigger brands against—
MK [Giggles] You said that, not me.
PF I’m allowed to say it uh [MK laughs] nobody—nobody cares what I think about publishing [MK laughs] and um ok so you’re in this world where—lemme—lemme throw a term at you and see what you think about it about [MK oh]: mm—middlebrow.
MK [Sighs] It’s hard because I’m in a book publishing bubble in New York City [PF mm hmm] and that word is frowned upon greatly [mm hmm] but I think that if we looked at the better side of it, we’re looking for people who like to read [mm hmm] and it’s not their—maybe their main identity.
PF Or their job.
MK Or their job. And they’re looking for entertainment. Which sometimes we forget because we’re so . . . excited about who will run an award and who’s breaking ground. And sometimes people just like a good story [mm hmm] and if that’s middlebrow then—
RZ What does middlebrow mean?
PF It’s kind of beer [MK laughs]. No, highbrow things are um, you know—
RZ Snooty and—
PF Yeah chamber music at Lincoln Center—
RZ Got it! Got it.
RZ And middlebrow is sort of—
PF Um [sucks teeth]–
RZ It’s like Orange is the New Black?
PF That would actually be an archetypal—it’s like a beloved of highbrow critics but it’s actually archetypal middlebrow—
MK Yeah I think that’s—
PF It’s very accessible to everybody [RZ yeah], um it doesn’t go out of it’s way to have an intellectual posture.
PF It doesn’t signal kinda [MK laughs]—but it doesn’t signal a kind of like inaccessibility.
PF It doesn’t go like—
RZ Which is middlebrow.
PF Whereas um—
RZ That PBS series where it’s like the 1400s or whatever.
PF Those are often aiming for highbrow. See the tricky thing with Am—with our stuff is like it’s often actually really middlebrow. Like [inaudible]—
RZ Downton Abbey! That’s the name of it.
PF See that’s like middlebrow tending to—
MK Well now we’re having this prestige TV argument which is a whole other thing.
PF Right, right, yeah we immediately went to TV. So this [MK laughs]—but this is the thing, right? Like the middlebrow is actually kind of the sacred space of American publishing. It’s where all [MK sure] the money is made. The highbrow is—ends up in academic presses and—So it’s interesting hearing like what would qualify . . . so there’s a thriller and then there’s something a little more literary in every—
MK Yeah. And then there’s, you know, we hope for perhaps a historical fiction or [PF mm hmm] um—
PF Historical fiction means you get it like everything works out with historical fiction like it’s history it can be very highbrow and very trashy and just—
MK Absolutely. I think—I think that historical fiction—one of the things I love about it is actually being able to learn about a culture or [PF mm hmm] or—or something else without having to read a history book.
PF Yeah, no, exactly.
RZ I wanna come back to paper.
RZ And I have friends who never jumped on Kindle. It’s not like they tried it and then they went back to paper. And they couldn’t articulate for me—I’m a geek. I think the Kindle is like, “Wow. That’s great. I don’t have to carry around a bunch of stuff. I can put 11 books on this thing that weighs about four ounces.” So that’s very sexy to me. I’ve been trying to understand what it is about—is it the artifact? Is that you get to put this thing on a shelf after the fact? Like what is—I can’t—I can’t hear the argument of like, “I like to feel paper.”
MK No. My argument—and this is really only for me and my reading experience is that I read so much. And I’m so grateful for my Kindle because I can carry, you know, 20 books with me everywhere I go.
RZ Right. This is your profession.
MK But. When I’m reading in paper, I feel like I—I tend to remember more. I have a better grasp of the material maybe because [RZ interesting] I’m physically [chuckles] grasping it [huh] and then putting it back on my shelf I can look at the book and feel some of the feelings that I felt when I was reading it. Which is something cannot be done on a Kindle.
RZ A reflecting on the thing cuz it’s there and it could be there for years [MK yeah] after the fact [exactly].
PF I agree with that. And I mean that is—that is—
RZ Alright. I’ve got an idea.
RZ When you’re done reading a book, the 42 inch screen you have at home, it knows that you’ve finished the book and it digitally puts it on the screen so as you finish books the TV is compiling books on the screen . . . like a screensaver. What do you think? We need to shelf anymore. We can work this out, guys [MK laughs].
PF It’s—it’s not the worst idea.
PF I mean [RZ laughs] cuz actually—
MK But then how will I watch TV?
RZ Oh no you could— you could flip off it—
RZ And watch—and watch TV but—I—I think this is a winner right here [MK laughs]. If you wanna run with this, Book of the Month, go! It’s [stutters]—
PF I think that points to something interesting. You did just remind me like I never see people with giant reams of paper in tote bags on the train anymore which—
PF—used to be a big part of New York City cuz the whole—
MK It really was.
PF—the whole publishing industry just carried reams of print outs.
MK I always said, you know, I was an editorial assistant in 2001 and our entire jobs were to fight paper. We—we had to print things out, we had to [RZ sure] distribute manuscripts, we had to fax things, we had to file things, we like had in-fighting because some people knew where the good Xerox machine was [RZ laughs] [PF right] and—and that’s gone now. I think that’s incredible.
PF It’s true cuz a manuscript would weigh three or four pounds [MK yeah!] and you might have three of them, so it’s like just ten extra pounds at all times.
RZ Right. For the profession, obviously, the tools have gotten way better [MK laughs yes] and way more convenient for the professional.
PF Edit—editors were very excited about epaper. Early days. Like they all—when they started to hear about it, cuz they were like, “That would make my life physically better.”
RZ Yeah. Yeah.
MK In the year 2000, I was at the Radcliffe Publishing Course and Stephen King had just released the first ebook and we were told that it was gonna change our lives forever. And it eventually did! [PF Mm hmm] It, you know, it just took a little longer—
RZ Simultaneously? Or just—
MK Uh just on ebook.
RZ Wow. Ok. That’s a big move. Yeah.
MK Yeah and um it took—it took awhile after that but—but I think it really did.
PF Look: one of the things we did when we created this space is um I asked if I could have a nice library area. And I brought in—I have a collection of books about technology, sort of focused on the history of technology and—and digital stuff. And I’m very fond of them and they’ve been sitting at home. So I had a—there’s a place for them here. And having those spines and looking at those spines is very evocative. It’s very meaningful. It’s part of what sort of on my writerly side of my career uh it’s really important. Like I actually will go in there and I will look at those books and I will think new thoughts because of the juxtaposition of those spines [MK mm hmm] and there’s two ways to look at it. One is that there’s magical about paper but I think it’s just the—the prioritization and how people do interface work, and how they think about books digitally never takes that experience into account. They don’t think [MK no] about the whole book, they think about how to list it, they think about it as a node in the database, and they think about the price, and the margins associated with it.
RZ Yeah. I think generally speaking: the disposability of stuff is a big part of digital and people view it as a very positive thing [MK mm hmm]. Like the article . . . that’s been solved. Like [sure] th—the article—that—that discreet unit . . . is perfect for digital. Like I—I just don’t need it anymore. I’m done. It’s topical. It’s like it’s—it’s irrelevant in four days.
PF I—I read The Times more than I used to when I got it on paper and I don’t miss the stack [RZ yeah]. That is true.
RZ Yeah. That—that part I think—
MK Just the crossword.
RZ—that’s been conquered. I feel like. And, you know, apps like Snapchat and whatnot, it’s all very transient. Right? So and I think recently they came out with some stats that physical books have a resurgence happening—
MK Yeah. Yeah.
RZ—and—and that it’s picking up. And I think it’s because of the permanence of the thing.
MK I mean one interesting point about Book of the Month is that our biggest social media channel is Instagram. And we have more than a quarter million followers, and people love the idea of books as objects . . . that are beautiful, that are—that are symbolic of the way you live.
MK And I don’t see that going away anytime soon.
PF So it’s that evocative experience like—do they all come at once? When they come in the mail?
MK Um there—there—there’s, you know, not everybody chooses on the first day.
MK And you get to choose. You know, it’s not automatically sent so . . . you know, first couple weeks of the month.
PF Do you think that Columbia House Records could have a chance through like the 12 for a penny?
RZ Yikes [PF laughs].
MK Um. I mean you laugh but—
RZ Nobody’s gonna get that reference.
MK—but I mean I look at the vinyl resurgence [PF it’s true] as a—as like a comparable kind of—
PF I was laughing at your expression, not at my own [MK laughs] joke. You—you were just like, [defeated] “Alright, ok.” [MK laughs] Would this ever go digital? Would you guys—is that—is that under consideration?
MK I mean—
RZ Oh I thought it—I thought there is a digital version.
MK So you just go to the website and take a look at the books but then—
RZ Only physical!
MK Only physical.
RZ But you’re—you’re handling ecommerce and all that stuff [MK mm hmm] at Book of the Month [mm hmm].
PF That’s the thing: everything about this sounds digital except for the ultimate thing that comes through the mail.
MK Absolutely. Yeah.
PF And so the brand’s out there—see this is—this to me is fascinating is you take the—the thing that has latent value: the brand, the identity—
PF This um millions of people and then you see what you can do.
MK I would ar—I mean one of my biggest challenges though is going back to publishing industry who [stammers] you know most people there have known about Book of the Month for many, many years and have an idea of what it is. And then our audience actually doesn’t know that history quite so well.
PF Sure. Of course. The 20 and 30-year-olds [MK yeah] didn’t grow up with it in the same way.
PF Right but a 55 year old editor did [yes] like they were aware of it [yes] as this great cultural force [yes]. Yeah. Interesting, interesting, so how—how did you get into this? How’d you get here?
MK As I mentioned before, I was an editorial assistant way back in the day [PF mm hmm] and for years and years and years all I thought I wanted to be was a book editor and part of that was because I loved working at a publishing house, I loved knowing that there was a direct path that I could follow to get to where I wanted to be—
PF Yeah but writers are exhausting.
MK [Laughs] They sure are but um—
RZ They’re a necessary piece of the puzzle. What are you gonna do?
PF Ah if you get ‘em out of the process [others laugh] it’d be easier for everybody.
MK I’ve become part therapist too.
PF Yeah, of course.
MK Um and then it just turned out that my career didn’t work in that step by step way. And I spent some time at Barnes & Noble, and Nook, I was at Kickstarter doing publishing outreach and helping individual publishers and authors grow, and then I got to Book of the Month because I started as a judge. I started as a judge about a year and a half ago, enjoyed it so much that when I saw that there was an Editorial Director position open I went for it.
PF So, this used to be a tremendous force in the industry.
MK Yes. And it is growing!
PF It’s growing. Ok. [Stammers] But this uh it’s interesting cuz it’s sort of like as we’re talking about it it’s clear this is a reboot and that there’s a lot going from the ground up [RZ yeah]. No but it used to be that people cowered in fear of—of Book of the Month Club. Like I mean it’s—
RZ Right but then it got—it got disrupted.
RZ Because of the changes in technology and now [MK absolutely] it’s resurging.
PF Was that actua—was that what did it was it—was it kind of trundling along until internet and Amazon showed up?
MK I think so.
RZ You gotta imagine that Amazon became just a force—
RZ—that had to be dealt with.
PF Amazon was designed to obliterate, in early days, Book of the Month Club. But the core piece is here is that there is a desire among enough human beings, let’s say [MK yes] a couple million human beings who still are like, “I want these paper books in my house. On my shelves. [Mm hmm] And I want to the read them.”
RZ I’m gonna make a prediction, a very controversial one, that within ten years Amazon buys you and you become part of Amazon Prime. Which is incredibly convenient because [PF laughs boisterously] you get two days delivery to get the book.
PF Maris can say nothing. It’s really good and just—Rich likes to make people squirm.
MK You can imagine [RZ no! It’s not—] what my face looks like though.
RZ Yeah [MK laughs]. [Laughing] You think that’s—you think that’s a really bad thing?
MK Um. I think there has to be diversity in what is [stammers] in market places.
RZ Right. But they did leave Zappos alone. They left Goodrea—I think they left Goodreads alone.
PF I don’t—yeah. Yeah.
RZ Did they shut down Goodreads [laughs]?
PF They didn’t shut it down.
MK No, Goodreads is killing it but—
RZ So they kinda leave you alone.
RZ Look I’m not—
RZ Just to be clear: I am not advocating and I do not represent Am—Amazon in any way.
PF They’re probably not allowed in the Zappos compound in [inaudible] [MK laughs] it’s probably part of the guard llama there that they’re not allowed to walk past.
MK I mean the thing that I—that I wanna try to do at Book of the Month is uh imitate the experience of being at the coolest indie bookstore in your neighborhood, if you don’t live near an indie bookstore. [RZ and PF Right] Where there are passionate booksellers who have read the books and are really excited about them, and don’t use algorithms at all.
RZ Yeah. Amazon is not that. [MK chuckles] Very clearly.
PF But the funny thing is Amazon has tried to be this about 35 separate times.
PF They can’t get it. It’s just too big.
MK They can’t get it right.
PF They have opened up their own publishing houses, they have hired sort of reviewers and curatorial readers, and all this stuff, they’ve done this. But they can’t get it at that scale. It just doesn’t work.
RZ Well it’s just an attack, right? They see a geography that they want to conquer and they’ve tried all angles. And this one—this is one of the more in—like. You know. You can subscribe to dishwashing liquid on Amazon and that one’s [PF well this is] much less complicated to conquer than this world which has so much culture—
PF But the thing is—
PF—they conquered it but then book people would show up and they’d be like, “We wanna do the right thing.” And but it just it can’t be done at that scale. You can’t.
MK I—I recently tweeted that books just like dating and [stutters] other things like that can’t be done just by algorithms.
PF Mm hmm.
MK Because there’s too much going on there. The thing that you might not like about one book, you might love about the other book, and it’s like a personal relationship with each book and—
RZ Yeah. Well it’s not a calculated—
PF And you have to read about a dozen before you find one you like.
PF Yeah. Same with dating.
MK Same with dating.
RZ Uh ok. I’ll—I’ll park that prediction for now. Just wanted to throw it out there! [MK chuckles]
PF I’m gonna have to—this actually now sounds fun to me.
PF So—so to me I’m a customer for this. Like I would totally do this. I don’t think I’m going to allowed to bring a number of books into my home on a regular basis anymore though.
PF I have a lot of books at home.
RZ Oh so you just don’t have the room?
PF Well and also I used to be an—an editor and one of the things that you get as—especially as a magazine editor is they send you all the books.
PF And then they just make a pile like half this room that we’re in.
MK [Defeated] I have the pile.
PF And the pile is very attractive.
PF And there’s a fantasy that you’ll read all the books [MK laughs] [RZ yeah yeah] and so it’s still a point of contention that I bring quite so many books home [MK mm hmm]. So look: this is a really interesting story of—of sort of the old thing being made new.
RZ This is actually unusual for us because we love to show off about our desire to disrupt.
MK [Chuckles] Yes.
RZ Like that’s kind of what Postlight’s—part of Postlight’s philosophy is [MK right] how do we blow up this entire sector and what’s represented here is actually interesting you didn’t outsmart through technology, right? It’s actually outsmarted through the community and the culture around it. And I make these little jokes about well you will be disrupted at some point again [MK giggles]. There will be a—there will be a Kindle version where you’ll actually turn a page to see the next page [chuckles] or something silly. Um—
PF Right but that’s—you don’t get the cultural signifier. People like the thing in their home.
RZ I think that’s right. I think that’s the—that’s the hard part.
PF If you come over—if somebody comes over for dinner and afterwards you’re—you’re, you know, having a glass of wine and they’re just looking at your shelves [RZ yeah] and you’re like, “Oh that one’s great. Do you wanna borrow it?”
PF That aspect of hum—of human life [RZ mm hmm] you know we don’t talk a lot about—New York City’s a very publishing driven place but like it’s—there’s a reader culture.
MK Mm hmm.
PF Where that stuff is very, very—it’s more important than you’d expect. And it’s a social signifier.
RZ Right now the hot term . . . is machine learning and it truly works against you when we talk about this part of the world. Like the term—
PF Oh this would be—
RZ—[laughs] is not something to show off in this part of the world.
PF Have—have you ever heard about the—the old brand auctions? Very few people have.
PF There’s just a great article that um I read years ago in Ad Age. What they do every now and then, they gather together a lot of old brands like Leggs and—
PF And um—
MK With two Gs.
PF Yeah and [RZ laughs] Collier’s Magazine. Yeah the pantyhose [MK laughs] and Collier’s Magazine and things like that and they have an auction. And they go for like three grand a pop.
MK That’s fun.
PF It is! Right? Like and you could go be the person who owns Leggs. And then what are you gonna do with it? But that to me [MK laughs] when I hear this there’s part of me that’s like, “Oh yeah, I mean this is a more formal thing, this was an ongoing business but there was a latent value here that you’re trying to unlock and there are thousands of those floating around in the world where—” But entrepreneurialism isn’t—isn’t aligned with like—people don’t think about, “Oh, resurrect Book of the Month.” They think, you know? “Disrupt laundry.” [RZ Right] [MK mm hmm] But to me that’s actually more interesting cuz they’re floating.
PF Like this thing was clearly in some pain and someone came along and said, “Let’s get it out of pain.” And uh and now you’re trying something.
PF But not—not destroying everything that—that came before. That continuity is very attractive.
PF I think belonging to something is very attractive.
MK And—and just the idea [stammers] so we recently re-published Lolli Willows which was the first Book of the Month selection ever in 1926. I think. And—
PF Is it good?
MK I love it!
MK Our members maybe didn’t love it that much but I love it.
PF What is—
MK It’s about a witch, basically.
PF Heh. Alright.
MK It’s a really feminist discourse that’s fun to read [laughs].
PF This—this is the thing: Book fo the Month Clubs are never afraid of like witches and wizards.
PF No. It’s always as—the Book of the Month traditionally through history was . . . you could get your Hemingway and you get your like, you know, a good, scary tale of [RZ and MK chuckle] of Connecticut farmhouses deeply haunted. Well, look, this is fascinating and uh it seems like you’re having fun.
MK I sure am.
PF You’re reading all the books.
MK I am reading all the [chuckles] books.
PF Um I guess my last question is: how—what are the writers make of it?
MK I think they love having one more outlet.
MK To—to be excited and—
PF Beats doin’ a reading.
MK [Laughs] Yes. And um . . . some of them love it so much that they become judges. So like Alexander Chi and Cynthia Sweeney are our two um authors who were Book of the Month Club selections and then who became judges afterwards.
PF Totally makes sense.
MK It’s really fun.
PF Alright look: I’m gonna sign up. Rich, are you gonna sign up?
RZ Are you really?
PF I probably will. Well, I have to talk to my wife [MK chuckles] about bringing hardcover books into the home.
RZ I have to say: I don’t read fiction. And I—I probably should read fiction.
PF You are incredibly typical. Like not in an insulting way [right]. Your demographic and the demographic of fiction readers doesn’t overlap [yeah]. I am actually unusual.
RZ You like fiction.
PF Oh yeah. I love fiction.
RZ Yeah. No, I—I—like my last book was like The Adolescence of Hitler.
PF Right. Right.
MK [Laughs] Yeah, that’s not a good beach read.
PF No. No.
RZ [Laughing] Not a good beach read.
PF See and for me I’m just like, “Oh thrillers sound good.” Cuz it’s hard to find good thrillers.
PF I just finally found a spy novel I like called Slow Horses I’m very into. It was good.
PF Yeah it’s about um the British spies who get uh in trouble and they have to go to a really crappy house and just kind of like be bad spies, and all they do is fight, they hate each other.
MK I wanna read it.
PF Yeah it’s good.
MK Ok good.
PF It’s good. Alright so I’m gonna go—I’m probably gonna do this.
RZ Recommend me one.
RZ Lemme—lemme take a stab at this. I just wouldn’t on my own go and get one.
PF [Exhales] I love my business partner but I don’t know if I know if [MK laughs] I want—I don’t know if I want him reading modern literary fiction [RZ laughs].
MK You can—I mean we also did um David Graham’s latest true crime, Killers of the Flower Moon, which was incredible. Um Stranger in the Woods which is a story about the world’s last—or maybe not the world’s but one of the last hermits in the United States of America.
PF Oh so I think I—
PF Oh yeah.
RZ So wait, this is part non-fiction?
PF Oh sure. Yeah.
MK Yeah! Yeah, yeah.
RZ Oh ok that I could do. I—I read that remember that Himmler I recommended to you?
RZ That’s a great book.
MK Oh yeah.
PF FSG book yeah.
RZ Fun book. Yeah.
PF No you um Rich, you’re a New Yorker reader. So it’s—it’s all, honestly there’s a lot on the line there.
RZ Yeah, you just gotta mix it up for me a little bit. Yeah [MK right] that’s fine.
PF Alright so look: you sold it.
MK [Laughs] Ok great. Thank you.
RZ Thanks for coming on.
PF Thanks. Buh-bye.
PF Alright so um all the links are gonna be on our homepage for signing up [yes] and getting your own books.
RZ You know I—I thought Book of the Month was just a lowercase term.
PF No, no. See that’s the thing: it’s a legendary thing.
RZ I had—I had no idea. I thought cuz, you know, there could be Book of the Month forrrr, you know, military stories or Book of the Month for—I thought it was just a phrase.
PF Alright nobody needs to hear us talk anymore.
RZ Yeah. It’s like Monopoly. You know Monopoly became a word?
RZ Like that.
PF But it was a word before it was a game?
RZ Oh is that true?
PF Yeah it’s about monopolistic businesses.
RZ Yeah there are words that pulled this off though.
PF Phew. Boy this is the worst outro I’ve ever done [music fades in] [RZ laughs boisterously]. Uh thank you for listening, everybody. My name is Paul Ford. I’m a co-founder of Postlight.
RZ And I’m Rich Ziade.
PF This is Track Changes, our podcast. We are going to ask you to, I don’t know, just rate us five stars on—on iTunes. You do whatever you need to do and—
RZ And email us!
PF Uh we’re your friends, we’re here for you, we’re glad to answer any questions.
RZ Have a great week!
PF Bye, everybody [music ramps up, plays alone for eight seconds, fades out to end].