4 months with the Charcoal Book Club

The Charcoal Book Club is a book-of-the-month club for photobooks. After my 1990s experiences with Record-, CD-, and Book-of-the-Month clubs, I was a bit suspicious/dubious, but still intrigued, and so I decided to give it a try…

I first heard of the Charcoal Book Club on the Magic Hour podcast back in December or early January 2018, and despite my misgivings, it didn’t take me long to sign up for a 3 month subscription as a sort of trial run.

From the first book—Stephen Gill’s Night Procession—I was wildly impressed by the packaging. Most books come in a great box that has sort of tapered sides. Instead of corners that can get dinged and damage the book inside during shipping, Charcoal packaging has just four edges, and they’re almost rounded.* And once you get into the box, the book is protected by at least one very heavyweight, stiff bubble wrap bag/wrapper thing, unlike anything I’ve seen before. It’s really great packaging, probably the best I’ve ever seen.**

Once I got into the boxes, I mostly found books that I wouldn’t have chosen for myself, but that I’m mostly thrilled to have. There hasn’t been a bad book in the bunch, and 3 of the 5 arrived signed (and Saul Leiter and Larry Sultan are both long dead and therefore unavailable to sign their books), probably adding to their relative value.

After the first 3 month subscription, I re-upped for a full year. I’m currently in the first month of my second subscription. So far, I’ve received

Opening came in an ordinary box that was all beat up and bent, but the same stiff bubble wrap protected the book inside, and it arrived in perfect condition, as all others have. I bought Pictures from Home myself, to check the claims that members saved in the store. (At the time, there was no apparent savings, but recently Charcoal announced that members would save 10%. I haven’t yet tested that claim, but take them at their word.)

Now, on the subject of value… the Charcoal Book Club isn’t particularly cheap. A month-to-month option is available for $65/month; a 3 month subscription runs $180; and a year is nearly $700.  At the time I bought my first 3 month subscription, a coupon code was available that took 10% off, so I got Night ProcessionAll about Saul Leiter, and Opening for $162.

At time of writing: Night Procession was unavailable on Amazon and $78 at Dashwood Books (as of September 18, 2018, it is out of stock at Dashwood too); All about Saul Leiter is $46.80 on Amazon and unavailable at Dashwood (and you can get a copy shipped direct from the publisher for $38); and Opening is $75 at both Amazon and Dashwood. So for my $162, I got three books that would’ve cost me $191 had I bought them individually. In addition, Dashwood does a decent job packing up books and Amazon is absolutely abysmal, but Charcoal is incredible. So I think I got a deal, though, again, I probably wouldn’t have bought these books myself… Opening wasn’t even on my radar, I already have Saul Leiter’s Early Color and Early Black and White, so don’t really need another, and I looked at Night Procession but decided against buying a copy, as the work isn’t really particularly interesting to me or applicable to my current processes. So, yes, I spent $162 for $191 worth of books, but it’s a strange sort of savings: I spent money to get savings that I only saved because I spent the money… I could’ve just not spent the $162, thereby saving all of it… So those three books cost me $162, full stop.

Anyway. All that’s to say that it looks a bit expensive, but you get your money’s worth, even though you’re likely to get books you probably wouldn’t have bought otherwise.

That said, the books are all really excellent, the packaging is second to none, and I like having someone else curate some part of my photobook acquisition, so the expense is worth it, for me. Plus members now get 10% off in the Charcoal store, so there’s an opportunity there too, if, like me, you have something of a photobook-centered GAS that you’re not working against very hard.


Overall, I’d give Charcoal Book Club a strong 4 stars.

I don’t advertise here and don’t have affiliate links, and I don’t have a relationship with Charcoal (beyond my membership), so I don’t have any offers for you. At time of writing, Magic Hour has a code that’s good for a free book, though, so maybe that’s enticing?

If you’re on the fence, get off it and join Charcoal Book Club. The first three months were so good that I used my birthday money to join up for another year (thanks, Mom!). It really is an excellent service. And if this is the first time you’ve heard of Charcoal books, I’m honored to be the one to introduce it to you. If you’re into photobooks, there are worse ways you could spend your hard-earned money.

*A photograph would help, but you can see them in any of the videos linked above, so I hope that’s sufficient.

**Target, of all places, previously held the crown. They tend to ship in these sort of shrink-wrapped cardboard sleeves. The book is in the middle of a thin, stiff sheet of cardboard. The edges are flat for several inches beyond the bulge created by the book, and the 4 or 5 (or more?) books I’ve received from them have arrived in excellent shape. Charcoal wins, though, since their packaging is partly reusable: I’ve already used one of their fancy bubble wrap bags to mail off a couple of books, but the Target wrappers go straight into the recycle bin.

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