In our last thrilling adventure, as you’ll recall, we were considering reprint editions of books, specifically those published by companies which specialized in reprints: Triamgle, Walter J. Black, and so forth. There are plenty we didn’t mention, but that’s part of the fun of the world of books, chocolate chowder: there’s always more to learn. But I would be remiss if I did not give some attention to a more specialized type of reprint house: the book club.
A book club is an outfit which offers its members a chance to buy books at a special price, usually because they have printed new, somewhat cheaper editions. They began in Europe, and were brought to the United States by the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Literary Guild (who still argue now and then about who came first.) The clubs make a big deal of their selection process, letting you know they have worked very hard to come up with a really good and important book. This became such a widespread belief that publishers started to blurb it on copies of their own editions: chosen by the Book-f-the-Month Club! was a major selling point. (How you sell books by letting people know that if they wait, there’ll be a cheaper version available is something I don’t understand, but if I understood these things, I wouldn’t be sitting here blogging. I’d be blogging from one of my seventeen penthouses.)
And the book clubs did change America’s reading habits: Margaret Mitchell was convinced that Gone With the Wind sold as well as it did because the BOMC, as it is known, picked it up, and Nelson DeMille attributes his whole career as a writer of bestsellers to the fact that the BOMC folks made him famous.
Book Club editions can generally be distinguished from the genuine first editions because they are smaller and thinner. The dust jacket will generally lack a price, and instead say something about being a monthly selection of such and such a club. If the dust jacket is missing, flip your book over and look in the lower right corner of the back cover. Many will have what is known as a blind stamp: a small mark, usually a circle or a square, pressed into the fabric of the cover. Now you know you do NOT have a first edition, and therefore your book is Just A Book.
HOWEVER, if you were paying attention on Wednesday, you may have noticed our lesson for the day, which was “It All Depends”. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule.
The Doubleday Crime Club should be noted at once, because it didn’t play fair. It was not, in fact, a book club. Doubleday simply published its first editions in a line it called the Crime Club, to emphasize the feeling of community among mystery readers. These books are rather small and thin, but that is because publishers let writers write small, thin mysteries in the days before Tom Clancy.
The Science Fiction Book Club is another sack of cats. It WAS a book club, with the same monthly newsletter offering main selections (if you want this book, you need do nothi9ng; it will be mailed to you) and alternates. But because, as a general rule, science fiction and fantasy were published almost exclusively in paperback at that time, the nice hardcover copies with dustjackets, published by the Science Fiction Book Club, are the first hardcover editions of many classics of speculative fiction. For those people who like first editions but hate paperbacks, these are the editions to have, and the price goes up accordingly.
There are a couple of cases, too, in which a major book by a major author was somehow issued first by the book club instead of the regular publishers (this happened with two Stephen King novels in 1992) so those are what are known as the True Firsts, and command a premium price.
So, as noted, It All Depends. This still doesn’t make my heart ripple when you call me to donate all those books Grandpa bought from the Book of the Month Club in the Fifties. No, not even if you wrote “First Edition” in marker on the covers.