Oprah's success forces rethink at the Book-of-the-Month Club

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The Independent US

In the glory days, literary giants such as Mordechai Richler and Wilfred Sheed would meet for lunch every month in New York to select which new novels should be offered to America's readers.

In the glory days, literary giants such as Mordechai Richler and Wilfred Sheed would meet for lunch every month in New York to select which new novels should be offered to America's readers.

In this thoroughly bookish way, the Book-of-the-Month-Club became the trendsetter and taste-maker for generations. Along the way a host of new, exciting writers, such as J D Salinger, were discovered and then exposed to a wider audience. The Book-of-the-Month club made them famous. But faced with plunging membership and under attack from brash rivals such as Oprah Winfrey's book club, mass-market retailers and online booksellers such as Amazon, the club which spawned a host of imitators is undergoing a traumatic overhaul.

One of the first moves has been to scrap the panel of literary figures, including the novelists E Annie Proulx and Anna Quindlan and the writer Bill Bryson, who make the club's prestigious monthly selection.

"A lot of the things that I had the opportunity to look at, I think might have been overlooked otherwise," Ms Quindlan told the New York Times. "I'd hate to see them veer too much towards the predictable best-sellers. That's sort of cheap and easy."

At the Book-of-the-Month Club, which is now jointly owned by Time Warner and the German publisher, Bertelsmann, suggestions that it is "dumbing down" are adamantly denied. Its spokesman, Kevin Goldman, said that the editors who would be making selections for readers from now on were the best in publishing and that its selection of books was second to none.

The selection panel was first dropped in 1994 in an effort to democratise the choice of books. Then it was reinstated in 2001 when the club decided it needed to return some of the literary prestige associated with the big- name writers. Mr Goldman said: "We did that for four years and it was a good programme but we are now going in a different direction ... We have to reinvent it to keep going."

It is clear the club, founded in 1926 by the former advertising executive Harry Scherman, faces a stiff task in maintaining its membership, which has dropped to about 400,000 compared to 1.5 million in 1988.

The most recent members of the selection panel, who were each paid $50,000 a year for their work, have made a number of selections that turned into massive hits. Among these recent selections were The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold and The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst.

In future, members will receive 17 mailings a year which will include a monthly selection that they can accept or reject. From now on, however, those selections will be chosen by the club's staff on the basis of a member's previous purchases and expressed interests.

Among the current "editors' selections" on the club's website are The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, A Salty Piece of Land by Jimmy Buffett and Collapse, Jared Diamond's examination of why some societies succeed and others fail.

The club also hopes that membership will be boosted by a new feature which allows readers to further tailor their choices by selecting which of five categories - mystery and suspense, history and biography, fiction, home and health, or current affairs - they would like their books chosen from.

"We've been playing around with different formulas for quite a while now," said Seth Radwell, the president of club's editorial group. "We've always prided ourselves on picking good books across different genres. Now we're starting with a new mode that gives the consumer much more choice."

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