It’s always the simplest problems that lead to the most eye-opening trips down the corporate rabbit hole.
Marla Knutsen of Altadena contacted me to say that she was having a hard time closing her account with Quality Paperback Book Club. She said she’s been telling the organization by letter and email since January that she wanted to cancel her membership — and they keep sending her books.
“I am worried that they’ll eventually send this to collection,” Knutsen said.
She’s right to worry. No debt collector has yet contacted Knutsen. But companies like this, whose business model centers on sending you things every few weeks and then charging you for them, are notorious for going after people who stop paying their bills.
I wasn’t surprised by the problems she was having — I had the same ones as a kid after I foolishly joined the Columbia House record club and then couldn’t stop the records from coming.
What did surprise me, though, was the enormous difficulty I encountered just trying to find someone at Quality Paperback Book Club, or QPB as it calls itself, who could deal with Knutsen’s issues.
That, in turn, led to questions about who actually owns the business — and why the parent company is apparently working so hard to remain out of sight.
Let me say up front that I have nothing against book clubs. Anything that encourages reading in the age of 140-character tweets and what-I-had-for-breakfast Facebook posts is OK by me.
But I have little patience for businesses that make it as difficult as possible for a customer to say thanks but no thanks. Back in the days of dial-up Internet access, AOL was one of the prime offenders for this sort of behavior. Some gyms also make breaking up especially hard to do.
It’s like once they get used to seeing your membership money each month, they just refuse to give it up.
According to the website for Quality Paperback Book Club, you can select four books for $1 each when you join. Then you have to buy at least four more books “at regular club prices” over the next year before you’re eligible to cancel your account.
During that time, members also will automatically receive the club’s “favorite picks” every three weeks unless they decline them within 10 days of receiving the catalog.
Knutsen, 70, said that after almost two decades of membership, “I kept saying I wanted out.” But the favorite picks continue to arrive — about $80 worth so far, by her reckoning.
I didn’t think this would be tough to fix. A call from a reporter is usually sufficient to get a business to straighten up and fly right.
But just try to get in touch with Quality Paperback Book Club. It’s practically impossible.
I started with a message sent via their website. That garnered no response.
I called the number for customer service in the club’s membership agreement. Always a busy signal.
So I began poking into the organization’s corporate lineage in hopes of finding a parent company that could be held accountable. This is where things became downright weird.
Quality Paperback Book Club is affiliated with the venerable Book of the Month Club, which has been serving up literature to the masses since 1926.
The clubs were purchased in 2000 by a company called Bookspan, which was a joint venture of publishing giants Bertelsmann and Time Warner. Bertelsmann took complete control of Bookspan in 2007.
A year later, Bookspan, along with its music-by-mail cousin Columbia House, was sold to an Arizona investment firm called Najafi Cos.
Bookspan’s offerings grew to include 19 separate book clubs representing a wide range of genres and literary interests.
In early 2013, Najafi issued a press release saying it had sold its majority stake in Bookspan and Columbia House to something called Pride Tree Holdings. Terms of the deal weren’t disclosed.
And that’s where the trail suddenly grows cold.
If you do a Web search for Pride Tree Holdings, you’ll find virtually nothing except a handful of references to it being the buyer of Bookspan and Columbia House. No other business activities come up. No address or phone number is given. No corporate officers are named.
You’ll find info for Pride Tree Holdings’ subsidiaries, such as Bookspan and Direct Brands, which operates Columbia House. But Pride Tree Holdings itself is, in Internet terms, an almost blank page.
The company didn’t exist before acquiring the book and music clubs. It was incorporated in Delaware, where records available from the state’s Division of Corporations say it was established in November 2012.
State records say Pride Tree Holdings’ registered agent is another Delaware company called Corporation Trust Co.
A spokeswoman for Corporation Trust said her company has no relationship with Pride Tree Holdings other than to represent it for official matters. She said she couldn’t provide any contact information or pass along any messages.
A senior executive at Bookspan eventually responded to an email I sent and offered to look into Knutsen’s problem. But he declined to speak on the record about his own company, Quality Paperback Book Club or Pride Tree Holdings.
He said there was no one else I could speak with.
I’m not suggesting that Pride Tree Holdings or its subsidiaries are doing anything untoward. But any corporate entity that goes to this much trouble to remain under the radar clearly doesn’t want any attention.
And that’s a very unusual posture for a company with such high-profile consumer businesses.
My advice to Knutsen, as well as to anyone who’s having trouble with a corporate divorce, is to send a certified letter to the head office laying out your wishes and grievances.
Pride Tree Holdings may be as slippery as a greased pig, but the address for Bookspan is 250 W. 34th St., New York, N.Y. 10001.
If debt collectors call, explain the situation and then send them a certified letter as well detailing why the debt isn’t valid. In many cases, that should get them to back off.
Finally, steer clear of businesses that automatically send you stuff you may not want. What they’re usually delivering is frustration.