How Book of the Month Became a Hit With Millennial Readers

Brianna Goodman, Book of the Month’s editorial director, is perched on a bar stool at the company’s offices in Manhattan. Six rows of chairs have been set up for a live audience (OK, mostly Book of the Month club employees and a reporter) for a recording of Virtual Book Tour, a monthly author podcast cohosted by Goodman and editorial associate Jerrod MacFarlane.

Sitting between them is the British Cambodian author Kaliane Bradley, whose debut novel “The Ministry of Time” is currently ensconced on the bestseller list. Even before it hit bookstores in May, it was snapped up by the BBC with Alice Birch (“Normal People” and “Dead Ringers”) set to adapt the time-traveling romance as a six-hour series.

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“This book has so much to love in it,” gushes Goodman, by way of an introduction. “It’s a mix of time travel, of rom-com, of this really interesting exploration of time and history and the ways that language changes over time. It also has my favorite thing that happens in books, which is a dry sense of humor….It’s one of those books where I’m sitting by myself snorting quietly as I’m reading, so thank you.”

The audience questions veer from the origin of Bradley’s book (it began as a series of posts on a site for polar exploration buffs, during the isolating days of COVID-19 lockdown), the narrators’ biographical similarities to Bradley’s (her mother is Khmer, and emigrated to London during the Cambodian civil war), and the protagonists’ views on 21st-century technology (the real-life Lieutenant Graham Gore, who perished along with the rest of the crew of Sir John Franklin’s doomed Arctic expedition to discover the Northwest Passage, loves Spotify but hates smartphones and “East Enders”).

It’s a crackling Q&A, aimed at getting listeners to buy the book. But Virtual Book Tour, which launched in 2022, is also an organic outgrowth of the kinds of conversations that BOTM’s editorial team was having among themselves as they hashed out which five-to-seven books would be chosen as official Book of the Month selections.

When the Q&A wraps, the chairs are swiftly removed, the studio lights are dismantled, and several employees appear proffering “Ministry of Time”-themed cocktails (sloe gin, lemon juice, club soda, garnished with a sprig of mint and blue cocktail cherry). In the book, Lt. Gore finds a prunus spinosa bush (otherwise known as sloe), and picks its berries to make sloe gin, which was first popularized in the Victorian era. Bradley retreats to a banquette with a stack of books to sign for eager employees.

Book of the Month’s Brianna Goodman and Jerrod MacFarlane with author Kaliane Bradley, center, and the “Ministry of Time”-themed cocktail at a recording of the Virtual Book Tour podcast.
Book of the Month’s Brianna Goodman and Jerrod MacFarlane with author Kaliane Bradley, center, and the “Ministry of Time”-themed cocktail at a recording of the Virtual Book Tour podcast.

“I really only expected five to 15 people to read this book, and the idea that these amazing people have got behind it is really quite extraordinary,” says Bradley, in typical British understatement. “Just seeing the culture here, it blew my mind.”

A ‘Crappy Website’ and ‘No Point of View’

When Anne Hathaway asked Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show” audience how many of them had read the book on which her latest hit movie is based (Robinne Lee’s 2017 novel “The Idea of You”), the dead silence spawned a viral moment that played into the perceived sentiment that smartphones have birthed a generation of attention-deficit-addled nonreaders. (Fallon jokingly replied “we don’t read” and offered that if Hathaway was looking for readers, she head over to host Stephen Colbert’s “Late Night.”)

“The Idea of You” was not a BOTM selection (but author Casey McQuiston’s 2019 gay romance “Red, White and Royal Blue” – which became a hit film in 2023 – was). And the data shows that readers are not waiting for the movie; books are still a multibillion-dollar global business with U.S. sales alone accounting for a little more than $9 billion annually (on 700 million units), according to Statista. And despite the proliferation in audio books and digital readers, print remains the most popular book format; $3.2 billion of that annual total revenue is derived from hardback books.

Book of the Month has been a staple of the publishing industry since its creation in 1926 as a mail-order reading club and literary tastemaker. Debut novels by Ernest Hemingway (“The Sun Also Rises”), J.D. Salinger (“The Catcher in the Rye”) and Nelson DeMille (“By the Rivers of Babylon”) were among its monthly selections. But the advent of Amazon and mass-market discount retailers not only decimated independent bookstores, it made book clubs far less important as a promotional platform for books. And by the ’90s, Book of the Month Club began to cycle through a series of ultimately deleterious mergers and acquisitions. By the time John Lippman, a music publishing executive and erstwhile Lehman Brothers vice president, took a majority ownership stake in the company in 2012, Book of the Month Club was in the proverbial remaindered bin.

“They had a crappy website, they weren’t good at e-commerce [and] they just weren’t about anything,” says Lippman, who is now BOTM’s chief executive officer. “There was no point of view; they were just drifting.”

The digital revolution splintered the book business and the crowded promotional environment and proliferation of algorithm-enabled e-commerce was an added challenge for general interest book clubs. When Oprah Winfrey launched her book club in 1996, her celebrity (and the invaluable promotional daily talk show platform) conferred a supreme arbiter. For publishers, the Oprah’s Book Club imprimatur on the jacket was the ultimate get. The Book of the Month Club attempted to keep up by reinstating its celebrity novelist panel, but its offerings were too broad to engender a loyal community of readers and subscription numbers began to fall.

“Supporting new authors, helping them break through, that was actually the thing I was most interested in,” Lippman says. “It sounded like fun and that’s what was missing. It was like, ‘Who used to do that in the book business?’ Oh, us, like 90 years ago. Why don’t we just do that thing again and also be good at e-commerce?”

Lippman relaunched Book of the Month in 2015, dropping the “club” from the company’s moniker and focusing primarily on new fiction. Subscribers pay $15.99 a month and can choose among five to seven hardcover books, with extra books available at $10.99 each. A year later, BOTM had become profitable again, and by the end of 2017, revenues notched $10 million. Today, the company’s revenues are more than $50 million annually, according to industry sources.

More than 80 percent of BOTM subscribers are Gen-Z and Millennial women, according to Lippman. “We didn’t specifically reinvent it for younger women, but that’s who came to us,” he says. “Women read most [of] the fiction in America, and if you’re promoting up-and-coming authors, you tend to attract younger audiences.”

BOTM has more than 350,000 monthly subscribers and about 2 million followers across Instagram, Facebook and TikTok. And the operation is still lean; there are about 50 employees in New York.

Goodman — who at 31 represents BOTM’s target subscriber — is the final arbiter of the organization’s monthly offerings, which span genres from thriller, literary fiction, and historical fiction, to fantasy, sci-fi and short stories. She was a Book of the Month subscriber before she became an employee. And her rise through the company has been remarkably swift. She joined Book of the Month as an editorial assistant in 2018, two years after graduating from Fordham University with a degree in literature and creative writing. A classically trained ballet dancer, she moved to New York in 2011 to dance at the Joffrey Ballet School, sharing a one-bathroom apartment in the West Village with six roommates.

“We were all dancers,” she says. “There was a lot of tension.”

She was dancing at Joffrey for several hours each day while attending classes at Fordham at night. At the same time she was auditioning for professional dance companies and occasionally picking up babysitting gigs to earn extra cash.

“At a certain point I just couldn’t make the financials work,” she adds. “I also had many other interests. And I just hit a point where my life was so disciplined and so contained in this very narrow way, and I just like wanted it to open up more.”

BOTM provided that opening. “At the time it was a pretty small company so there was a ton of opportunity,” she says. “I was just excited to learn every single aspect of the editorial team’s work.”

Goodman reads about five books a week on average. She has a six-person editorial team also charged with reading submissions, but she reads every single book that BOTM recommends, cover-to-cover.

“If I’m reading a book, and I can tell that it’s something really special and really different, my heart literally starts racing,” she says, placing a hand over her heart for emphasis.

She owns about 250 books, down from 500, a culling necessitated by a recent apartment move. Most of her workday is filled with meetings — with agents, publishers, authors — and so she reads on weekends and in the mornings before arriving at the office. (An early riser naturally, she’s usually up by 6 a.m.) There are stacks of books all over her apartment, on the coffee table, in the corner of her living room. When friends visit, she sends them home with books. Asked if she has a stack of books on her nightstand next to her bed, she laughs: “They are actually in the bed with me. I sleep on the right side of the bed and books sleep on the left side of the bed. I know I shouldn’t do that. They are hardback books.

“It’s really important for me to tap into that mindset that I had when I was hired, of being a member and rushing to open the app on the first of the month to see what the new books are. It can be so easy for people who do this job to start to feel like everything feels the same, ‘I’m so overwhelmed that I’m sick of reading.’ But it’s so important for me to never feel that way and remember that this might be the one book that a member reads this month.

“If I didn’t love books,” she says. “I couldn’t do this job.”

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