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The New Golden Age of Online Book Clubs

As publishing people never tire of repeating, Oprah is the most powerful person in the book world in terms of the sales numbers her endorsements generate. Of course, Oprah isn’t really an author, editor, or publisher, but she tells people to read books, and they listen — lots and lots of them listen. Just look at her two Oprah Book Club 2.0 picks: Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis. Both books would have done well on their own, but here we are, well over a year after the release of Strayed’s memoir, and the paperback is still making bestseller lists. Mathis, who The New York Times called “just another promising writer” two weeks before Oprah came along and made her the book club pick, has had a similar experience thanks to the blessing of St. Oprah.

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For the sake of argument: Oprah’s, well, Oprah. She’s one of the most famous, richest, and most powerful people in the world. It isn’t surprising that when she recommends a product to her vast audience, it does well. But might there be more to this than a question of exposure? The old-fashioned idea of the book club — even one without a celebrity at the helm — could be an easy way to get more people excited about books in a time when Americans are reading less. Making reading, a solitary endeavor, a more community-oriented experience — especially at a time when so many are finding their community online and expressing their enthusiasm for reading through sites like Goodreads — is beginning to look like a promising strategy.

“I think it’s more than time to recognize that online communities are where so many conversations about writing are happening,” says Rachel Fershleiser, Director of Literary Outreach at Tumblr. Fershleiser has been busy as of late, since the popular blogging platform recently launched the Reblog Book Club, the first official Tumblr book club. The club, whose first selection is Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, gets Tumblr users talking about the book by either posting to their blogs with the hashtag #reblogbookclub or submitting posts to the club’s blog. Reblog will then spends one day a week discussing the book in a “non-spoilery” way, including users thoughts and a Q&A with the author. It is a “crazy literary experiment,” and Fershleiser says it doesn’t really have a set criteria just yet, noting simply that Rowell is an active Tumblr user, “and it’s a damn good book.”

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Tumblr may be bringing the online book club to the masses, but Emily Gould and Ruth Curry’s indie venture Emily Books takes another route by unveiling a new ebook every month — sometimes publisher backlist titles or out of print classics, as opposed to newer releases — and sending it to subscribers. While Emily Books’ curated selections have included Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods and Barbara Browning’s I’m Trying To Reach YouThe Rumpus Book Club offers readers a chance to read books before their official pub date, and then take part in an ongoing moderated discussion about the title.

New clubs that are centered around the Internet and e-readers might take away the face-to-face engagement of more traditional book clubs, but if the Internet is where today’s readers are going — and it is — then it’s exciting to see well-funded companies like Tumblr, small websites like The Rumpus, bigger websites like Mashable (see: MashableReads), and indie entrepreneurs like Gould and Curry all take an interest in moving book clubs’ stimulating conversations and frank expressions of literary love online.

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