Today’s New York Times brings news of the latest effort on the part of liberal and left-wing media figures to sway American public opinion – the launch of the Progressive Book Club.   Its CEO, nonprofit fundraiser Elizabeth Wagley (whose father John Wagley has long been prominent in Democratic circles and whose husband Joe Conason was one of the Clintons’ chief journalistic spear-carriers in the days of impeachment) offers this rationale for the PBC on its site:
“We started PBC because we realized that conservatives had used books, book clubs, and publishing to lend currency and legitimacy to their ideas – and that unless progressives learned to use these same tools, right-wing ideas would prevail for the foreseeable future.”

A quick review of the history of politically-minded book clubs is in order.  The first book club started in Germany in 1919. In 1926 Harry Scherman founded the Book-Of-The-Month Club in the United States, which proved an almost instant success, peaking at over a million subscribers in the years after World War II.  In 1927 Doubleday followed suit with the Literary Guild, and in the 1940s and 1950s set up a number of extremely successful subsidiaries (Science Fiction Book Club, Doubleday Crime Club, etc).  In the early 1990s, Bertelsmann acquired Doubleday’s clubs, and the Book-Of-The-Month Club as well, ultimately achieving a near-monopoly in the field.  But in recent years the number of subscribers to general-interest and fiction book clubs has markedly decreased in the US, to about 7 million (though the concept continues to find success in European and some Asian markets), and Bertelsmann now has its American book clubs up for sale.

The first politically-minded book club (in the English-speaking world, anyway) was Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club in the UK, founded in 1936.  Its early titles were markedly Stalinist in orientation; Gollancz, indeed, rejected George Orwell’s Homage To Catalonia.  The club reached its peak of 57,000 subscribers (in a population of about 40 million) in the fall of 1939, after which Gollancz, disillusioned with Communism after the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, shifted the LBC selections to more moderately leftist titles; the club came to an end in 1948.

In 1941, a 25-year-old clerk in a remainder warehouse named George Braziller suggested to the leftist (and, indeed, Communist-dominated) League Of American Writers, shortly before its demise, that it sponsor a club similar to Gollancz’s; that organization, probably because of the LBC’s apostasy from Stalinism, declined.  The following year, Braziller borrowed $25 and set up the Book Find Club, which offered a list of fiction and nonfiction titles, some of the latter leaning toward the Browderist line of Communism, some in a more moderate vein.  The club proved an almost instant success, and by the high noon of postwar leftism in the spring of 1948 had over 75,000 subscribers – a fraction of the BOMC and Literary Guild membership, but impressive nonetheless.  (In fact, in 1946 or so a very short-lived rival was set up, under the sponsorship of James T. Farrell and other anti-Stalinist figures, to compete against the BFC.  Its name? The Progressive Book Club.)

By 1950, with the rise of McCarthyism, the fortunes of the BFC declined and Braziller dropped political books to focus on literary and cultural titles.  Around 1960 he sold his club to Time Inc, which operated it unsuccessfully for a little over a decade and then discontinued it.  (Braziller, meanwhile, had set up his own publishing company in 1954, and continues to run it to this day.) 

But it’s probable that the PBC’s principals have the model of the Conservative Book Club in mind rather than Braziller’s half-forgotten club.  The CBC was set up during the height of Sen. Barry Goldwater’s 1964 candidacy by Neil McCaffrey, a former Doubleday editor.  McCaffrey, already prominent in the conservative movement for his work in marketing William F. Buckley’s National Review, was partly inspired by the millions of copies Goldwater’s The Conscience Of A Conservative had sold by mail-order.

McCaffrey’s initial promotion of the CBC was somewhat frustrated by the dearth of conservative-minded titles being issued in the mid-’60s; in those days, apart from Buckley’s bestsellers, Henry Regnery was nearly the only publisher ready to look at such books.  So McCaffrey set up his own imprint, Arlington House, which built up an impressive list of political volumes during the late ’60s and ’70s. 

Arlington House went under at the end of the 1970s but McCaffrey kept his book club going, with a smallish but staunch group of subscribers, until his death in 1994.  After a few fallow years, Tom Phillips of Eagle Publishing acquired the CBC around the same time he bought Regnery Publishing.  This brought about a dramatic change.  The CBC’s selections (often but not always Regnery books) received wide publicity on the shows of Rush Limbaugh, Michael Reagan and other conservative-friendly radio hosts, and on the infant Fox News Network.  The list of subscribers zoomed above 80,000, and thus many CBC selections made the bestseller lists of the New York Times and Publishers Weekly.  Major publishers like Crown and Penguin set up imprints for such books. 

It’s not surprising that liberals tended to ignore the Conservative Book Club in its early decades; Lew Rockwell, one of Arlington House’s editors, has noted that the imprint’s only real bestseller during its decade-plus of existence was not a political book but Harry Browne’s How You Can Profit From The Coming Devaluation.  But the first mammoth bestseller of this kind in recent times, Rush Limbaugh’s The Way Things Ought To Be, came out 16 years ago, and the first title to reach #1 bestseller status partly thanks to CBC promotion, Gary Aldrich’s Unlimited Access, was published in 1996.  So it’s surprising that it’s taken this long to liberals to get something like the Progressive Book Club in gear.

The PBC site includes a page listing its editorial board, a somewhat diverse collection including novelists Michael Chabon, Dave Eggers, Barbara Kingsolver and Erica Jong; reliably leftist historians like Eric Foner and Todd Gitlin; Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker; Sir Harold Evans; the somewhat superannuated Lewis Lapham and the up-to-the-minute Markos Moulitsas Zuniga of DailyKos fame; and David Brock, John Podesta and Robert Scheer.   The titles offered include Sen. Jim Webb’s latest effort, and a few literary novels, most of them by writers not especially noted for political activism (though it seems likely that Orson Scott Card and Thomas Mallon won’t be PBC selections any time soon). 

It’s hard to guess whether the PBC will make a go of it.  In the Times article Andy Schwarz, the Conservative Book Club’s general manager, notes that the number of subscribers has leveled off: “We’re holding steady, but we’re not growing as much as we’d like.”  But it’s been 60 years since a fullscale effort was made to reach left-leaning readers via the book-club route, and if a significant percentage of the 25% of Americans who identify themselves as liberal (according to a Rasmussen poll last week) can be induced to sign up for the Progressive Book Club it could get off to a better start than was the case with Air America, so widely hailed when it debuted in 2004, so moribund now.