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New online Progressive Book Club mixes pleasure with politics



Published: Sun, June 22, 2008 @ 12:00 a.m.

By Hillel Italie

The club’s founder said the idea for the club happened a few years ago.

NEW YORK — For the past five years, liberal books, especially the Bush-bashing kind, have been a thriving market. A new online club is betting that they can evolve from a market to a movement, long after the president has left office.

The Progressive Book Club, which officially launched last Monday, combines the offerings of a traditional book club with the interactive features of an online social network and the ideals of a grass-roots political party.

Authors Michael Chabon, Dave Eggers and Barbara Kingsolver are among the editorial board members for the new club, which offers a selection of works each month, at discounts from 10 percent to 40 percent, and perhaps up to 80 percent. For most sales, the club will donate $2 on the member’s behalf to a range of educational, environmental and other organizations.

The Web site, www.ProgressiveBookClub.com, will also feature videos, audios, forums for debates, book reviews and recommendations.

“The idea for this came a few years ago,” says Elizabeth Wagley, the club’s founder and CEO, and a former fundraiser and communications executive for nonprofit organizations. “I kept noticing how the right in America had an ability to get their message across in a way the left didn’t seem to have.”

Wagley was soon introduced to Michelle Berger, former senior vice president of Bookspan, which runs the Book-of-the-Month Club, the Literary Guild and other clubs. They found support from such magazines and blogs as The Nation, The Huffington Post and Salon, along with the Service Employees International Union. Virtually every major publisher is participating, but smaller companies such as Chelsea Green Publishing and Soft Skull Press will also be featured.

“We are completely agnostic when it comes to publishers,” Wagley says.

The club begins with around 200 books, from the memoirs of former President Clinton to Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” to novels by Toni Morrison and Sherman Alexie, and will add 15 releases each month. The emphasis will be less on name calling than on history, narrative and policy.

“Most of our books aren’t going to be about how Republicans are turkeys,” Wagley says.

Also included are books by editorial members Chabon, Kingsolver and Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation; and two books by Joe Conason, an author and liberal columnist married to Wagley.

Political book clubs date back at least to the 1930s and 1940s, when the Left Book Club was popular in England (it was revived online in 2006). While some regional liberal clubs exist in the United States, no current club has the history, and reach, of the Conservative Book Club, founded in the 1960s and with a current membership of more than 80,000, according to general manager Andy Schwarz.

“Liberals already have plenty of books and literature out there, everywhere promoted by the mainstream media,” he says, strongly doubting that the progressive club will succeed.

Starting any club is a risk. Thanks to the Internet, price clubs and Oprah Winfrey, membership at the Book-of-the-Month Club and other general interest clubs has dropped considerably over the past 20 years. Bookspan has been put up for sale by corporate owner Bertelsmann AG.

Albert N. Greco, a leading publishing researcher, calls the trend against book clubs a “classic example of a ‘disruptive technology’ upsetting a well established business model.”

“I would concur that clubs like the Book-of-the-Month Club have been impacted by the Costcos of the world,” Berger says. “But the clubs that remain the most profitable, clubs for black books and science fiction and mysteries, are tied to a niche community.”

The Progressive Book Club will be promoted through The Huffington Post, Salon and others, and plans to run ads in The New York Times. Wagley hopes to build a membership of “several hundred thousand” in the next few years, a level comparable to such niche clubs as Black Expressions.

Wagley said she and fellow organizers quickly agreed on calling themselves “progressive,” not because they feared the word “liberal” — much disparaged in recent years — but because “progressive” is more appealing and more accurate.

“‘Liberal’ is a sort of ideology, and continues to be a very strong and valuable one that I proudly adopt and everybody here would proudly adopt,” she says. “But progressive is a way of thinking which encompasses what we are. This is a forward-thinking operation. This club is about what we can do about the future.”


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