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Fitzgerald steps down from the Book Club

Exchanging one head for another, the Book-of-the-Month Club appears to have no jarring new plans in mind; but it's probably too soon to ascertain just if or how members of the mighty mail-order book service will be affected by a new man at the top.

The person departing is Edward E. Fitzgerald, whose BOMC career began when he joined as vice-president in 1971. Later rising to be president and chief executive officer, he became BOMC's chairman of the board and chief executive officer in January 1981. In September, Mr. Fitzgerald turned 65, and at the end of the month he withdrew from the club - to be succeeded as CEO by Al Silverman, who had been president and chief operating officer under Fitzgerald.

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On the eve of his BOMC leave-taking, Fitzgerald spent some time with us, talking about the club, its developments under his leadership, and its principles and goals.

Owned by Time Inc., BOMC and its affiliated clubs (which offer more specialized books on sailing, science, business, cooking, and crafts) claim a membership of more than 2 million Americans. In a country where book-reading holds a position of lesser importance for many than, say, the gentle art of professional football, a collection of 2 million members is a comfortable crowd.

''We're an idiosyncratic company,'' Fitzgerald says. ''We truly buy books for the club because we like them, even if in advance we don't think they will do that well. The Book-of-the-Month Club offers its members the very best books we think they will take.''

Among current offerings are ''The Nightmare Years 1930-1940,'' by William L. Shirer; ''The March of Folly,'' by Barbara W. Tuchman; and ''Lincoln,'' by Gore Vidal.

To distinguish the BOMC from the Literary Guild ( its greatest competitor, where he sharpened his book-club teeth as director during the 1960s), Fitzgerald says that ''the guild goes more into entertainment than we do, but I don't say that disparagingly. We also definitely take some books that are not heavily literary.''

In contrast to its weighty tomes, BOMC does supply members with titles of limited literary ambitions - Robert Ludlum's ''The Aquitaine Progression''; ''Reggie,'' by Reggie Jackson; and ''Motherhood: The Second Oldest Profession,'' by Erma Bombeck.

''What I'm saying,'' remarks Fitzgerald, ''is that our club has standards, but that it isn't stuffy. Our judges decide on the main selections that should be offered to the American reading public. We don't interfere.'' The five judges choosing main selections are Clifton Fadiman, John K. Hutchens, David W. McCullough, Mordecai Richler, and Wilfrid Sheed. The remaining books made available to club members are picked by BOMC staff.

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''This is a 58-year-old company that has a considerable tradition,'' Fitzgerald continues. ''I don't think it's too pompous to say that it is an American institution.''

Nevertheless, this American institution has occasionally taken a daring step forward.

The Quality Paperback Book Club, BOMC's soft-cover offspring, was the biggest step, and it was taken a decade ago. Fitzgerald had watched his own children choose paperbacks over cloth editions of a particular book. So, he thought, why not a book club for like-minded readers? There was much industry speculation at QPB's birth that paperbacks couldn't provide enough return on investment, but today this booming adjunct has 500,000 members - a satisfactory and younger throng who contribute pleasingly to BOMC's coffers. QPB, under the direction of Lorraine Shanley, sells more obviously adventurous titles, such as William Zinsser's ''Writing with a Word Processor'' and G. B. Trudeau's ''Doonesbury Dossier: The Reagan Years.'' QPB is Fitzgerald's proudest accomplishment.

Another healthy and remunerative part of BOMC is its records division, led by George Spitzer. ''When I came here, the club did maybe two records a year,'' says Fitzgerald. ''Now the records account for about a tenth of our business.'' These range from Ella Fitzgerald's classic ''Gershwin Songbook'' to the complete symphonies of Dvorak. And BOMC will break more new ground shortly when it begins to market its records to retail outlets.

And where else is BOMC going? Silverman, the incoming CEO, chooses not to say at present, preferring to let Fitzgerald have his final moment in the media sun as he quits the club.

When Fitzgerald is asked what the future holds, he says, ''The book club business cannot grow quickly, but we've been growing for 58 years. We consistently earn 5 percent more than the previous year,'' - income deriving from the records and from the 12 to 14 million books the BOMC distributes annually.

He isn't concerned with the spread of bookstore chains or discount stores that threaten to snag book club members by popping up in shopping malls and similar mass marketing outlets.

Fitzgerald remarks, ''I always say that no bookstore will give you four books for $2 the first time you walk into a store.'' This is BOMC's introductory offer , although new members must agree to buy four more books in the next two years. On the other hand, Literary Guild is currently offering four books for $1, with four additional purchases also required.

However, another of BOMC's ploys is to offer big-ticket highbrow items to attract new members - multi-volume sets such as ''The Second World War,'' by Winston Churchill, or ''The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.'' ''Blockbusters like these are good for the club,'' Fitzgerald says with a knowing smile. ''Once you subscribe and receive something like the OED, you know what? You don't have anything to read. So what do you do? You order more books from us.''

A regular monthly column in the Book Review.

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