it's a book-club member's nightmare: opening the mailbox to find another unwanted hardback and dreading the hassle of lugging it back to the post office. That scenario has driven more and more bookworms to chain stores and discount outlets, leaving the venerable Book-of-the-Month Club Inc. with flat sales and depressed earnings for the past two years. "We need to change our old-fashioned image," says Juanita James, who in January was installed by parent Time Warner Inc. to do just that. "We want people to think of us as a service, not a nuisance."
James, 39, caught the attention of Time's top brass when she turned around Time-Life Libraries Inc., a unit that sells Time-Life Books and music over the telephone. By giving managers more profit responsibility and improving telemarketer training, she boosted both sales and morale. At Book-of-the-Month, she has marketing in her sights. Using detailed surveys and computer records of buying patterns, she's trying to judge members' interests better so the club can tailor book offerings accordingly. That way, a member who bought a sailing book one month might be offered another water-sports book the next--not a tome on the Civil War.
James, a Princeton University graduate and Columbia MBA, has shown a flair for waking people up. Last October, at a meeting where book-club execs typically drone on about upcoming strategies, James had her crew replace their suits with Halloween costumes reflecting their divisions. The head of the cookbook club, for instance, gave his sober-faced speech in chef's garb. James, the teller of company fortunes, was in gypsy attire. "In a high-pressure environment, you need a pressure valve," James says. Of course, reversing Book-of-the-Month Club's fortunes would turn down the pressure, too.