Book of the Month

How Book Clubs Went Indie: The Success of Emily Books, The Nervous Breakdown & More

The success of web-based book clubs shows the benefits—and drawbacks—of a changing publishing landscape. Maura Kelly reports.

Don Ryan / AP Photo

When Emily Books, an e-bookstore, chose Glory Goes and Get Some last December for the third installment of its monthly e-book club, 27-year-old Sara Renberg’s initial reaction was to balk. The book is a semiautobiographical story collection about a young woman born into an elite Upper East Side world, and tales of the overprivileged turn Renberg off—even tales in which the protagonist ends up in rehab for heroin abuse, as she does in Glory Goes and Gets Some. But Renberg, a computer programmer who writes poetry, had been deeply impressed by the first two titles that Emily Books had chosen: Inferno, a novel by poet Eileen Myles, and No More Nice Girls, an essay collection by rock critic Ellen Willis. “I thought, ‘You know what? I should just trust these people.’”

Now, Glory Goes and Gets Some is among her favorite books. “I feel like every month I have a new favorite,” she says.

Emily Gould, the former coeditor of Gawker, started Emily Books—which sends subscribers an ebook monthly, for $160 a year or $14 a month—because she discovered that her favorite way to find out about a great read is through an endorsement from a “trusted friend,” as she puts it. “And I kind of wanted to virtually be that [friend] for a bunch of people.” Gould and her business partner, Ruth Curry, began their enterprise to help give new life to forgotten titles. “We wanted to come in there on our white steed and rescue those books,” Gould says.

Their gallantry has largely succeeded. Glory Goes and Gets Some had fallen out of print after being published in 2001. “The author told us we had sold more copies of her book in a month than her publisher had in the last 10 years,” Gould says.

A number of indie book clubs have sprung up around the country since roughly 2008, when Powell's, the famous independent bookstore in Portland, Ore., started Indiespensable. Novelist Stephen Elliot launched his club two years ago through The Rumpus, the online culture magazine that he founded. The Nervous Breakdown, another Web magazine, started one a few months later. In contrast to Emily Books, which focuses on previously published titles and only sends members e-books, The Rumpus ships out advance hard copies of new releases every month. Elliot has a grass-roots mission: to get worthy reads into the hands of subscribers before the media has a chance to weigh in on them—or ignore them. “The whole idea was, ‘We're going to get you the book a month in advance so we can talk about it prior to anyone reviewing it,’” Elliot explains. “We can take part in the conversation, rather than being told what the conversation is.”

The rise of indie book clubs very clearly maps out the change in the landscape of the publishing world. For one, Elliot wants to help fill the void created by the decline of small bookshops. “People went to those places for recommendations,” he says. “It was the hand-selling of books—like, ‘You gotta read this.’” He adds, “That's what we want to be.”

In an analogy, Gould likens Glory Goes and Gets Some to an exotic vegetable like the Italian turnip kohlrabi, and a good indie book club functions like a Community Supported Agriculture group, which provides subscribers with a selection of farm-grown vegetables on a weekly basis. When Gould and Curry first joined their CSA, “there were some vegetables we had never heard of and had zero interest in eating,” Gould says. “But then we tried them, because they were coming in our basket every week, and we found out we really loved them. So it's like we want our books to be someone's celeriac, basically.” (“I don't even know if that's how you pronounce it. But it's delicious, especially with mashed potatoes.”)

But partaking in these clubs is less like eating your vegetables and more like enjoying a guilty pleasure. The Nervous Breakdown subscribers, like those in The Rumpus club, often receive copies of a book well before it's available to the public, and being that far ahead of the curve can be thrilling. Sarah Clark Kruer, a 36-year-old tourism marketing executive from Irvine, Calif., says that when a review of The Nervous Breakdown’s December 2010 pick, Pictures of You by Caroline Leavitt, showed up in the February 2011 issue of Elle, she felt a special privilege hitherto reserved for literary critics and publishing insiders. “I'm like, ‘Oh my God! I've read that book! I had it first!’” The book went on to become a New York Times bestseller.

Enthusiasm like Kruer's delights publishers, not least because it often translates into social media buzz, which is another ingredient that must exist for indie book clubs to work. “It's a really great way to get a different kind of publicity,” says Michael Taekens, who collaborated with the book club dons at The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, and Powell's during his tenure as the online marketing director for Algonquin Books. “I was thinking, ‘Traditional print media is just going the way of the dinosaur,’” he said. This seemed like one of the most inventive and best ways to get the word out about new publications. It wouldn’t be worth the effort for publishers, however, were it not for the high quality of the organizations involved, says Taekens, now marketing director for Graywolf Press. “If some Joe Blow blog said, ‘We want to do this book club thing,’ we wouldn't just say, ‘Oh sure, what's your address?’ These are really dynamic sites, and by and large their focus is literature.”

Dynamic though they may be, they're also small. The Rumpus's group has held steady at about 350 members since it launched in April 2010, and The Nervous Breakdown's, which launched a few months later, numbers about 300. There are 100 people in Emily Books’ club, open for business since October. Indiespensable, Powell's club, has grown from 173 subscribers to more than 1,500. But even that’s relatively small. Brad Listi, the founder of The Nervous Breakdown, admits that indie book clubs aren’t likely to ever be powerful enough to “blow things up” the way Oprah could. “She had an audience of 30 million people.”

Nonetheless, the clubs provide benefits that readers could never get on their own, above and beyond a new great read with every lunar cycle. Members get to feel like literary insiders. Many have exclusive opportunities to interact with authors. The Rumpus offers subscribers the chance to participate in chats with featured writers each month, for instance, and Emily Books organizes events like readings and panel discussions.

But subscribers also get to connect with each other. Forty-something Betsy Birdsall jokes that she likes the Rumpus group because it enables her to hang out in her bathrobe and slippers while pretending she has friends. She says Elliot encouraged her to get active with the club’s discussion group. “This is the first online community I’ve been a part of,” Birdsall, a paralegal from Agoura, California, said. “I'm not into social networking and I don’t watch television. I realize that makes me a freak in a few circles.” But not in The Rumpus book club. “I continue to be exposed to writers I haven’t read and to ideas about books and writing that I hadn’t really considered,” she adds. “It’s been life-changing.”