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Book Groups Ruining Reading?...

BooksThat's what this article in The Herald claims.  I disagree.

First of all, anything that gets people to read more is a good thing, IMHO.  As much as I roll my eyes at the latest Oprah recommendation, it gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling knowing that some segment of her audience is actually taking the time to walk away from the television and (possibly) crack open a book.  And before any Oprah fans complain about that comment, please see Exhibit A in the what-a-pile-of-crap-book-recommendation trial.

The real gist of the article is whether the big-time, mass appeal book groups are causing publishers to make stupid decisions for very limited PR opportunities.  I think the answer is "possibly", but not if publishers consider the long tail effects of this area as well.  For example, while getting Oprah or some other celebrity to hype your book will always drive more sales, how many thousands (millions?) of much smaller book groups have an overall impact on the business as well?

For example, I'm participating in my first book group.  (It sounds funny just saying that...)  It's a small group of people at Wiley, primarily in our San Francisco office, and we're reading Everything Is Miscellaneous, by David Weinberger.  We communicate via a private blog and although it's still early in the process, I think it's going to be a fun experience.

My point?  I think most publishers (and bookstores, for that matter) are better served by helping enable and facilitate book groups than they are trying to win the Oprah lottery.  Rather than forcing these groups to set up their own Blogger site (or whatever tool they prefer), why not offer a book group hosting service for free as a way of building more community and drawing traffic to an uber book group portal, something that's very much affiliated with your existing site?  Again, it doesn't just have to be limited to the publishers...I think a similar program by any of the bookstores would be viable as well.

Think of the benefits.  First of all, your site offers to sell the entire group copies of the book, maybe at a "special" discount rate for group members.  Second, because you're hosting the discussion, there are aspects that you could monetize further.  Think Google AdSense, for example.  You're also creating a wealth of great customer insight to the book.  What you do with that would only be limited by the terms of your membership agreement.

I'd love to do something like this with my own business, but I'm not sure very many programmers would want to curl up with the latest WROX offering and read it together as a group!


Sean Woodruff

This crosses my mind every time I am in a book store.

The book group, to me anyway, seems to be one way the stores could compete more effectively. Book groups, speakers, trainings/discussions...

Why not convert a section of the local Barnes and Noble to a private book group meeting place? Most readers, the store customers, love to discuss the books they are reading. The stores should wake up and catch on to that. They are in the party planning business, not the book storage and distribution business.

Michael Miller

Question: Do book reading groups move the needle?

I think not. My sister (Melanie Lynne Hauser) is a novelist with two books published, and she does a lot of small (6-8 people) book clubs for her books. Sales impact? Nil.

Do the math. Let's say you're really successful and get 100 book clubs around the country reading your book. At the most, we're talking 1000 copies sold, probably less. That's spread between 100 or more different stores around the country, a half-dozen copies per store -- noticeable, but barely. And the 1000 copies total aren't enough to push the book into the profitable column for the publisher.

And to move those 1000 copies, there's a lot of work involved, on the part of either the author or the publisher. Is the reward worth the effort? Probably not.

Compare this to the Oprah-sized book clubs, which move tens of thousands of books with very little effort. That's a good deal; local book clubs, not so much.

I'm not saying that authors and publishers shouldn't cooperate with individual book clubs and reading groups, just that as a sales strategy, it's not going to move a lot of books for the work.

Sean Woodruff

Michael, I see your point from a single author's point of view.

However, from the publisher's and book store's point of view it is about creating an atmosphere of discussion on ALL books and topics. I believe that would sell more books.

Joe Wikert

Hey, how come in this example Oprah doesn't have to get personally involved setting up small clubs but the authors do?! I never said that!

The author is just one person and Mike, you're right to point out the limitations that a single person can have in setting up clubs. But, I didn't mean to imply that the author has to be involved at all. What I'm suggesting is that the stores and publishers could do some very innovative things to *enable* more of these small clubs to sprout and exist. This would be done via fairly inexpensive online services, not personal appearances/work by the author.

Michael Miller

My point is one of efffort vs. reward, both for the author and the publisher. These things take a lot of work, demand a lot of attention, for a half-dozen people meeting once a week or so. (And most book clubs involve real live people meeting in person to talk, none of this online cyber stuff; you can't automate everything.) I'm just saying, it sounds good to get readers personally involved, but who manages that activity? It's just as much work to manage one six-person reading group as it is to put together an online ad or promotional brochure that can reach tens or hundreds of thousands of people. All the hands-on stuff has a very high cost.

Joe Wikert

I disagree, Mike. You're right that online groups/clubs aren't for everyone, but for those that want to run one, what's the harm in publishers/stores setting up a platform for them? It's a one-time set-up plus dirt cheap hosting, not anything that requires someone to manually do anything individually for each group.

Sean Woodruff

The online idea is great but I think people also look for the physical interaction. No matter what anyone says about all of the online world, human interaction is at a different level when in person.

Joe Wikert

Absolutely. But I'm not saying an online solution would be adopted by everyone. Most people prefer to browse books in person, but Amazon seems to thrive. Plenty of people would prefer to buy other goods in person, but eBay does just fine. IOW, for every online service/provider, you can probably point to multiple brick-and-mortar competitors. The reverse is true as well. Therefore, neither the physical nor the virtual world seems to have a monopoly.

All I'm saying is that there's an online opportunity here too, one that isn't being tapped into as much as it could be.

Michael Miller

It may be different in the tech world (lots of things are different in the tech world...), but it seems to me that most people who participate in local book clubs do so as much for the social interaction as they do for the literary challenge. (If they're reading my sister's books, it's definitely not for the literary challenge!) Do they get that social interaction by participating in online forums? I don't know, but I have trouble seeing the typical fiction bookclubbers geing satisfied with the online thing. It's chatting offer coffee that they seem to like.

Joe Wikert

You're right, and I know someone who used to belong to a club like that and I always made fun of them because the book/reading part was nothing more than an excuse to get together for dessert and chit-chat. In fact, the "group" rarely actually talked about the book!

Even though I'm in the tech publishing world, the group I'm currently part of is reading a business book (sort of). For me, it's not so much the face-to-face exchange I'd look for in this as much as it is the in-depth thoughts on the content; a blog can be used to communicate that just as effectively and it's available for me to read 24x7.

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