07/10/2019

Reading could seem a mainly solitary activity. Yet, readers have always expressed the need to discuss, exchange views and tell the stories that thrilled them. The web has surely let this sharing spread. But, as it is usually the case, it has also led to unexpected consequences for the publishing market. 

These days we are all subscribed to at least one social network. Whether Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, virtual communities have become an integral part of our daily life. Many however don’t know there are more specialized and niche social networks targeting smaller groups of readers who share the same passions and interests. For example, platforms such as Strava or Crank up for sport lovers, Manjoo or Fuudly for food lovers. This trend then extended to the world of books, as well. In the last twenty years, many have been the efforts to build a community of writers and readers, but only few have succeeded and made a relevant impact on the publishing market. 

Social networks for readers 

A first socialization experience involving readers but going beyond the traditional book club, is BookCrossing. The idea by Ron Hornbaker and his wife Kaori is quite simple: giving readers worldwide the chance to physically exchange and share their own books, by leaving them in the urban landscape and tracking their position through an online archive. The BookCrossing website opened in 2001 and since then it has become a global phenomenon involving 132 countries, 13 million books and 1 million users. In the years the website has also developed giving its subscribers the chance to create their own virtual library, to discuss literature in the forums and to buy books.   

This last feature is what the book market shows more interest at. In fact, the social networks for readers that have popped up in the following years have often been linked to publishers or to online stores, focusing on sharing as a driver for sales. One fairly successful social network for readers is Anobii. Created in 2006 by Greg Sung in Hong Kong, it was acquired by an English startup led by HMV Group and supported by Penguin, Harper Collins and The random House Group. It arrived in Italy in 2014 thanks to Mondadori and is now managed by Italian software house Ovololab. Since its creation, the platform has been trying to create a sharing environment for readers. Here, they can create and share their own virtual library including ISBN codes, rate books read and share reviews and reading tips with the other users. To date, Anobii has over 1 million users worldwide, 400.000 of whom in Italy, where it gained most traction. Anobii’s overall catalogue includes 11.5 million titles, with 2.8 million reviews (1.000 per week on average), and over 22 million book ratings. 

A similar case it that of Goodreads, created in 2006 by US entrepreneur Otis Chandler. Among its features, it allows to create a virtual library and share views on the books read. But, most importantly, thanks to machine learning algorithms (like those used by other multimedia sharing platforms such as YouTube or Spotify), it suggests its users the titles that might match their interests, based on what is already in their own libraries and on the choices made by readers with similar libraries. This feature was extremely successful and in 2013 led to the acquisition of the social network by Amazon, which 5 years before had acquired the competing platform Shelfari, whose users where then moved to Goodreads. Many, including the Authors Guild, believed that through this operation Amazon gained a monopoly position on online book sales, thus jeopardizing the digital market for other platforms or publishers. 

Social networks for writers 

Social networks in the world of books do not involve only readers, though. In fact, the online presence of authors has so far becoming an essential element of self and book promotion, since it enables the retention of the readers, who through social networks can create a more intimate connection with the writer. Especially for those who venture into the world of self publishing, having an online fanbase is a good strategy to attract publishers or literary agents and thus shift to a profession production, promotion and distribution level. Goodreads, besides engaging readers through the above mentioned features, has also become authors’ favorite place, especially as to promotion. Not surprisingly, its main feature for those who subscribe as authors, is to be put in touch with readers who might be interested in their genre. Furthermore, since Goodreads is part of Amazon, the reviews and ratings that the writers receive on the social network influence their position in Amazon’s charts and often determine whether the book will become an Amazon Best Seller or not. 

Quite different but equally important is the fanfiction phenomenon. These are works written by the fans with stories or characters from literature, cinema, TV series or other media as their starting point. Though such a writing practice was already in place before the advent of the internet, this one caused its boom leading to the development of different platforms that in time have even specialized in the kind of fanfiction they produce. The most interesting aspect of the use of these social networks is exactly the social aspect of both reading and writing. As the user publishes their own story,  the others comment on it and review it, applying a sort of shared reading and writing. In some cases, as for the DeviantArt platform, the writing exercises is combined with fanart (drawings, photos or comics, always inspired by original works), mixing different artistic languages. 

These social networks should not be mistaken as an end in themselves. These communities of story sharing are often a great opportunity for publishers, which can scout authors who already have a strong fanbase. An outstanding example was the publication of After by Anna Todd. The platform where the author had started to write the first chapter is Wattpad. The various posts published from her smartphone were soon followed by over one million readers. In 2015 the book was published by Sperling and Kupfer and became a bestseller in many countries. What’s more, it revived the market. One the one hand, the various publishers started to publish books of the same genre, often scouting authors on writing platforms. On the other, a series entitled “I classici di After” with all the literary classics referenced in the books (including Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina) was launched. For her new book, the author asked to be allowed to keep publishing some chapters on Wattpad. 

The change is evident, not only in the relation between reader and writer, but also in the writing practice itself. The need to share and tell was already there before the arrival of the new media, but these certainly made it simpler and extended it to a “global book club”. If, on the one hand, it is true that social networks for writers and readers keep being niche platforms, on the other they represent an opportunity for the market and a trend to keep an eye on. 

 

Anna Pederneschi

Anna Pederneschi

PhD student

Philosophy postgraduate at Pavia University, she studied Publishing at Università Cattolica in Milan. She has just started a PhD in Epistemology at University of California Irvine. She is interested in the impact of social media on social behaviors, the interaction between traditional culture and pop culture and the use of language as a knowledge tool. 

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