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Bertelsmann in Online Deal With LookSmart

German media giant Bertelsmann plans to take another step toward revitalizing its book club business with the Feb. 15 launch of the LookSmart Book Club, an online partnership between its Doubleday Interactive division and Web directory LookSmart.

The two-year deal is first among many private-label ventures planned by Doubleday with Web sites to transplant book clubs online in the face of stiff competition from Internet booksellers.

“Given the evolution of the Web, and the availability of titles which are really ubiquitous, we’re trying to reinvent the book club model and make it compelling for a new generation and a younger breed of consumers,” said Seth Radwell, president/CEO of New York-based Doubleday Interactive, an arm of Bertelsmann’s paper-based book club company, Doubleday Direct Inc.

To make the LookSmart club more palatable to an online audience, Doubleday will rid the service of a key book-club staple: automatic title shipment. Instead, consumers who sign up at LookSmartBookClub.com must initially buy two books for a $1 each, followed by another two within a year at their leisure.

“It’s more convenient and easy for the consumer to use, so we relaxed some of the old constraints of the model,” Radwell said, “and, at the same time, we obviously leverage what book clubs do best: pre-selection and finding the right title for that audience in a way that retailers can’t.”

Even with the loose commitment and discounts of up to 50 percent, Doubleday still hopes to net around $40 a year from each customer. The company projects over 10,000 customers will enroll the first year. Doubleday Direct’s 40-plus paper-based book clubs each year garner around $100 from sales of seven to eight books per member.

San Francisco-based Looksmart appealed to Doubleday on many grounds. First, the site offered a younger demographic. Its users are mostly 35 to 45 years old. The average Doubleday club member is 46. Next, it gives Doubleday access to around 9.5 million unique visitors to LookSmart.com, according to December data from Media Metrix.

But more critically, LookSmart allows Doubleday to retain control over back-end operations such as order fulfillment, site maintenance and tracking of customer preferences in title selection to build a well-profiled database. Plus it shares an interface and look that’s congruent with the entire LookSmart.com environment.

In return for customer-referral fees and revenue share from books sold, LookSmart will plug the book club through banners, links, message boards, and e-mail.

Once database segmentation becomes possible, Doubleday plans to send e-mail offers based on customer buying habits, upcoming events or new book selections.

Nisreen A. Shocair, Doubleday’s director of online marketing, admits that perceptions have played a key role in the declining membership and aging profile of book clubs. Consumers often think of being yoked to long-term purchases, a fear the new online effort by Doubleday aims to allay. The LookSmart Book Club will rebrand the notion of a book club, she said.

“It’s not about commitment,” Shocair said, “it’s not about things that we send you that you don’t want; it’s about things that you do want and it’s been a challenge trying to reach this younger market and that’s part of Doubleday Interactive’s goals, is to reach this younger consumer. Obviously, they’re all online.”

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