Do Book Clubs Really Save Money?

Even in this era of iPads and Kindles, book clubs seem like a great deal – at first. I mean, who doesn’t want four good-old-fashioned books for only a buck? But the offer loses some of its luster once you read the fine print. Factor in shipping costs, contract agreements, and monthly requirements – and that book club may not be such a great deal after all.

1. Signup offers

To lure you in, book clubs give you a stash of books for next to nothing. For example, as of this month, here are the signup offers from three of the bigger clubs…

Doubleday Book Club

  • Initial offer – Five books for $0.99
  • Optional promotion – Buy two books for $5.99 each
  • Shipping – Estimated at $13.70 for five books

Quality Paperback Book Club

  • Initial offer – Four books for $1 each
  • Optional promotion – Buy two books for $4.99 each
  • Shipping – Estimated at $11.71 for four books

The Literary Guild

  • Initial Offer – Five books for $0.99
  • Optional promotion – Buy two books for $5.99 each
  • Shipping – Estimated at $13.70 for five books

2. Contracts

Here’s where things start to head south. To get these deals, you have to agree to a “membership commitment.” That varies, but your commitment requires you to buy a certain number of books at full price within a year. For example, membership agreements as of February…

  • Doubleday Book Club – Buy four books at full price
  • Quality Paperback Book Club – Buy two books at regular price
  • The Literary Guild – Buy four books at full price

If you don’t buy enough full-price books, the club will charge your credit card on file for the cost of the remaining books you didn’t buy.

3. Automatic shipping

Every month, the book club will send you a “feature selection offer” via snail mail or email highlighting two books. You must accept or decline both books by the due date. Forget to do that, and the book club will ship the books automatically – and charge the credit card on file.

Once the books arrive in the mail, you can go through the hassle of returning them, or you can keep the books you probably didn’t want in the first place and use them toward your purchase amount.

4. Book pricing

Book clubs insist their prices are lower than the publisher’s listed price. For example, from the Literary Guild website…

With our unbeatable deals, you’ll experience great discounts on bestsellers, critics’ picks, fan favorites and more. Remember, you’ll always save up to 50 percent off Publishers’ Edition prices.

That sounds good, but most stores price new books for less than the “listed” price. For example, A Good American by Alex George is “listed” for $25.95, but that’s not what bookstores are charging:

  • Amazon.com - $15.41
  • Barnes & Noble - $15.56
  • Buy.com - $16.92

So are book clubs a good deal on regularly priced books? It depends. The book club pricing is lower than the publisher’s listed price, but the discounted amount varies. To make sure you’re getting a good deal, you need to compare each book with other bookstores.

The clubs also run sales – like buy-one-get-two-free offers – throughout the year. Shopping the sales can save you money, but the books you buy won’t count toward your “membership commitment.”

Bottom line: Book club deals are just decent pricing with a contract attached. For example, let’s say I signed up for the Doubleday Book Club today…

  • This afternoon I buy five books under the promotional offer. Total: $14.69
  • Next month, I buy one feature selection for $17.99, plus $3.99 shipping. Total: $21.98
  • A couple of months later, I buy two books for $30.98 and get $2.99 promotional shipping. Total: $33.97
  • At the end of the year, I buy another book for $17.99, plus $3.99 shipping, to complete my membership agreement. Total: $21.98

After the year is up, I paid $92.62 for nine books – or roughly $10.29 per book.

Not at a bad deal, but not a great one either. I could have gotten those prices shopping around at Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble without the hassle. And personally, I think no purchase commitments and no monthly selections is a far better deal.

Finally, let’s not forget I can get as many books as I’d like free from the stacks my tax dollars already help support: they’re at the public library. See Thousands of E-books: Free.

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