How Online Book Clubs Became Big Business



When it comes to industries that like disruption, book publishing is at the bottom of the list. The written word is one of the oldest forms of communication, the first “books” date back to the 3rd millennium BCE and were written on papyrus and clay tablets– and although we no longer use clay, a book, more or less, looks like it was thousands of years ago. (With much better coverage.) Even ebooks, which entered the literary scene in the early 2000s, are still not as popular as hardback books. However, if the past year and a half is any indication, times are changing. Since the start of the pandemic, Americans have would have read more than ever, and sales of printed books are at their highest level for over a decade. In an age when people crave connection, book clubs, especially virtual ones,exploded. There is also a demand not only for places to talk about books with other readers, but ways to chat with authors and editors too.

These four founders believe our reading habits and book clubs are ready for a change, and they do it one app – and, in some cases, a vibrator – at a time.

Padmasree Warrior, Founder, President and CEO of Fable


After three decades in the tech world, former Cisco CTO Padmasree Warrior, a self-proclaimed “obsessive reader” as a child, has turned a new leaf in her professional journey. In July 2021, she founded Fable, a social reading platform. According to Warrior, complaints about reading often fall into three categories: people don’t know what to read, they don’t have time to read, or they want to read with other people. Unlike existing platforms that try to focus on just one of these pain points, Fable seeks to tackle all three.

Through lists called “folios” curated by industry trendsetters (like author Jasmine Guillory or Emmy-nominated filmmaker Tiffany Shlain), trackers that help people develop healthy reading habits ( on their website, Fable says that “reading books for just 30 minutes a day can make you happier and healthier, and help you live longer “), and a social networking component, Fable aims to help users fall in love with reading both as a mental wellness practice and as a community building exercise. Warrior was inspired to enter the book space professionally after seeing research that showed the mental health benefits of reading. “Reading always has a learning element,” she says, explaining why she believes the collective book experiences flourished during the global health crisis and beyond. ”We all have our own interpretation. That, in itself, broadens our perspective.

Book recommendation: Circe by Madeline Miller

Details: Free to join; a $ 9.99 monthly subscription grants access to premium features, including special book clubs, exclusive events with authors and curators, and discussion guides. Download it.

Melissa Gill, Founder of The Steam Box

mel gill


Melissa Gill faced a double whammy at the start of the pandemic: Not only did she lose access to her typical support system thanks to stay-at-home orders, but her husband left for a military deployment of more than 300 days. Feeling lonely, Gill relied on romance novels to get her through the year. His love of the genre quickly prompted questions: Why are people ashamed to talk about romance novels when it’s one of the best-selling genres? Was she the only one using these books to get excited? And why is there so little romance by and for women of color? “If I wanted to find people who look like me or who look like my husband or my friends [in books], I really had to dig, ”she explains.

After a smooth opening in 2020, it officially launched The steam box earlier this year. Each quarter, the subscription service features a romance novel written by a woman of color, self-care items such as bath bombs and candles, and a limb sex toy. The company also hosts virtual discussions with authors and readers around the books, as well as discussions on diversity in publishing. (In addition to her work on The Steam Box, Gill is a co-creator of Dear editors, a new equity initiative that launched an online petition to hold publishers accountable for diversity in the industry.)

Obviously, Gill wasn’t alone in her old fight: the initial Steam Box launch box sold out within 24 hours. Her husband also returned home in February to a very different house: since Gill packs and ships everything herself, the two now have an entire room full of vibrators.

Book recommendation: Take a clue, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert

Details: A quarterly subscription starts from $ 55. (To see the different membership options here.)

Do you like book clubs? Join ours.

Allison Trowbridge, Founder and CEO of Copper

allison trowbridge founder of copper


Allison Trowbridge’s journey to start her business began with a revelation: She was publishing a book while finishing business school at the University of Oxford and found the process of promoting his work exhausting. While Trowbridge jokes that the experience made him want to stop publishing (his book, Twenty-two: letters to a young woman in search of meaning, came out of in 2017), it also helped her understand how difficult it is for the vast majority of authors to successfully launch and market their books.

By combining this information with knowledge of how people turn to book clubs for socializing, Trowbridge launched The copper, a two-way marketplace that allows authors to expand their audiences while helping readers build community with authors they admire and with each other. (The company is still in beta; there is a waiting list for early access to join the Copper community.) “As a writer I love that someone can read my book and it’s like they just spent eight hours with me in a very personal setting [way], “she explains.” A book club allows people who have lived this same moment of very intimate sharing [to] create an opportunity to have conversations about [what we read]. “On Copper, authors can make real-time connections with readers. Meanwhile, readers can organize book lists and give or receive recommendations, in addition to having direct access to the authors they love. For Trowbridge, it’s a win-win.

Book recommendation: Gatsby the magnificent by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Details: Free to join.

Jessica Ewing, Founder and CEO of Literati

jessica ewing

Steven visneau

Literati’s origin story begins with Founder and CEO Jessica Ewing going forward with “the dumbest thing anyone could have ever done:” Leaving a successful career as a product manager at Google to become writer. This move, however, showed Ewing that there was enormous room for improvement in the book space – and neither the literary establishment nor Silicon Valley was fully equipped to handle it. There was the traditional book industry, which could deliver great stories but in desperate need of modern and efficient updates to the publishing process, and there was the world of technology, which could easily automate book marketing. , but in the process, sacrificed a bit of craftsmanship.

Enter literate, a book subscription service that hosts both children’s and adult books, the latter of which are personally selected by public figures such as basketball icon Steph Curry and Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai. Visionaries often choose books around central themes and can organize book conferences or virtual events with the authors. For example, Megan Rapinoe focuses on “human stories” that “galvanize readers to meaningful action”. (For September, she chose Tarana Burke’s Unbound.) “Literati is, to me, really the marriage of those two sides of me that have always been in conflict,” says Ewing of the merging of art and technology in one company. and the artist and what art is. We try to create a more human experience around buying and reading books. This desire to switch to analog has paid off: the company, launched in 2016, has grown from 20 employees at the start of the pandemic to more than 140 people in just one year.

Book recommendation: The hero’s hundred nights by Isabel Greenberg

Details: $ 9.95 monthly subscription and book delivery charge for the children’s box plus the cost of the books they keep. The Adult Book Club starts at $ 20 per month for an annual subscription ($ 25 if you pay monthly), which includes shipping and access to the Literati app where discussions take place and members can talk about the month’s selection directly between themselves, the author and the head of the book club.

The original version of this article stated that the literate book club price was $ 9.95. This price reflects the price of the children’s book club. Adult book club price has been added.

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