Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Digital Book Clubs

A few months ago there was a burst of enthusiasm for Twitter book clubs. We participated in some of the excitement around the Wossy bookclub. Like a lot of good ideas, this one seems to have fizzled. There have been other Twitter bookclubs, but like the Jonathan Ross experiment, it seems that they quickly need to invoke the aid of a more substantial platform (wossy went to a news forum), Facebook or an email list. Perhaps Twitter with its 140 character limit doesn't really have the bandwidth for the conversation engendered in a proper book club. That may be part of the problem....

But a more serious, and remediable problem with these book clubs is that it is very hard to share the reading experience through the web if the club is using a print book or even a traditional eBook. eBooks dont generally facilitate straightforward citations and bookmarks. This is of course where a platform such as Exact Editions (or the pre-eminent Google Book Search) come in. Such digital editions can be easily shared and precise passages cited and even excerpted by their book club readers. It would seem to us that there is big scope for the revival of the book club idea through the web. This could either be the informal 'reading group' style of book club that has become so popular with readers in the UK and the USA in the last decade, or the special interest type of book club for a relatively mass market, which was the foundation of Bertelsman's fortunes in the 1950's and 60's.

Such book clubs would work well with a subscription service which gave their members access to a book for a period of time. Our interest in this idea was sparked by a suggestion that the Guardian is planning to create a readers club. That could well be the basis for a valuable subscription service: valuable both to the Guardian, its readers and the publishers and authors of books who might be very willing to grant the Guardian very favourable leasehold rights.

But in some ways the most obvious sponsor for a new wave of digital book clubs will be found amongst publishers. Publishers could now launch digital book clubs (for a small annual fee, say £9.99 per annum) which would give limited access (a month or two) to books, 3 or 4 a month, with rights that they control and with audiences which they can develop. The advantage of a private book club for a publisher are several:

  • It can become a premier layer in the catalogue (a title which is selected for one of the slots each month) is gaining additional promotion
  • Providing full access to some books, to club members for a month or two is in most cases not likely to preclude sales of the title to club members (but perhaps the lightest forms of fiction would not be suited to such temporary loans).
  • Selling print copies of the books that are on digital loan for a month or two would be a key objective
  • As would be the option of selling digital subscriptions to those titles. Sales direct and indirect would be encouraged by promotion through a digital book club.
  • Publishers who have a direct sales operation in place will be particularly interested in these opportunities.
  • Bookclubs will foster word-of-mouth success. Digital book clubs will merge into digital word of mouth (even as some of the book choices inevitably die through word-of-mouth).
  • The publisher who develops his direct links to a reading audience is well placed to develop other attractively 'social' elements of the reading experience (Twitter, Facebook, Myspace etc)
  • A key value of a book club is the proposition of membership. The publisher who can boast of having 5,000, or 10,000 or 40,000 members in his history book club is going to be in a very strong position to attract new authors. And new members.
  • Choice, but 'limited choice' is also a key value, both for the members and for the publisher in negotiating rights (and negotiation will be needed, not all authors and agents will immediately recognise the advantage of having their new book out with 4,000 members on a 2 month loan)
  • Publishers like propositions which develop their unique role as a builder of lists. It is the publisher with a strong and coherent list, or strong and coherent lists, who can most successfully launch and possibly 'twig' such book clubs. But above all publishers should like this proposition because it is non-exclusive. Developing your own bookclub is not going to stop you selling books via the Guardian book club, the Tesco bookclub, or the Walmart bookclub if and when they come to pass. It certainly is going to help you sell eBooks to Amazon or Sony if you can point to some of the opinions that have surfaced on your own readers' comments and reviews.
'Book clubs' are an attractive idea, and as the web becomes more social and more content oriented, their time will come again. The concept of a book club is so much more attractive than the concept of an ebook, or a digital edition, don't you think? But I suspect that the bookclub may be a key part of making ebooks that flourish.

2 comments:

Kassia said...

Hey Adam -- While the Wossy club seems to have lost steam, the original Twitter Book Club is still going strong (#tbc, September read is "A Gate at the Stairs" by Lorrie Moore, details here). You're right that the 140-character limit makes for some tough conversation, yet we've had 20 - 25 participants a month (with many lurkers!).

As we learn to use tools and share ideas, I think, like you, this idea will be born and reborn.

Adam Hodgkin said...

Thanks to Kassia for the reminder and the link. Kat Mayer tweeted the suggestion that bookglutton is 'perfect for bookclubs'. I agree with that and agree that http://blog.bookglutton.com/
is a most intriguing model for sharing books and collective reading.