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Library Journal, October 15, 2000
by Francine Fialkoff, Editor
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Can an online book club make nonreaders into patrons ?

Move Over, Oprah

As web entrepreneurs rush to market with more and more gimmicky book sites, one simple idea may offer better potential for both libraries and publishers: the OnLine Book Club (www.chapteraday.com). Started by Florida businesswoman Suzanne Beecher to entice nonreaders to read and to encourage the use of libraries, the club e-mails five-minute snippets of chapters to book club members. Over the course of a week (Monday to Friday), patrons receive one or more chapters of a book. Beecher signs up publishers, gets permissions from authors, digitizes the chapter(s), manages the e-mail lists (maintaining user privacy), and sends out the selections under the library's name. In return, the library must promote the OnLine Book Club on its web site (Beecher supplies the logo for that, too) and market it to library patrons and the community in general. If their interest is piqued, readers either can borrow the book from the library (often via a link allowing them to reserve it electronically) or buy it from Beecher's own site.

Beecher, an avid nonfiction reader herself, got the idea for the book club when she realized how many of the women who worked part-time at home for her software development company didn't have time to read. "I typed in part of a chapter of a book I was reading, then the next day more," says Beecher "I started getting feedback from my staff about how reading made them feel." Then, says Beecher, "They were hooked...they let it into their daily routine."

 An energetic promoter, Beecher has done a good job of selling her idea to librarians, though her enthusiasm occasionally outpaces reality (one library she mentioned as having signed on hasn't done so yet-they're waiting for electronic reserves to go live). Nevertheless, Beecher is undaunted, noting that it takes time for something new to catch on. While being careful not to criticize librarians, she's hoping to help them reach out both to users and nonusers and to do so by going beyond the library corner in the local paper or the library patron. "One of my plans is to work with librarians to 'think outside the box,'" she says, touting a library that is advertising the book club on placemats in restaurants.

Beecher recently launched the Business Book Club, which delivers chapter-a-day segments of business books. Companies can choose to link to their local libraries, to the OnLine Book Club Store, or to both. Mary Ann Alderman, Brevard County Library (Cocoa, FL) community relations manager, recruited one huge Florida-based corporation that will offer books to managers. It's no small feat, however, to hook up to the local library, since the corporation has offices nationwide. In June, Beecher began the Audio Book Club, and the Teen Book Club will take off soon.

While librarians report the word of mouth from patrons is generally good, the program hasn't been wildly successful yet. That may be because most of the initial books were nonfiction. Now, with assists from librarians and readers, there's more of a mix. Also, many of the book choices aren't brand new, so interest may have peaked. Nevertheless, as Chicago Public Library's Merle Jacob notes, "That's not necessarily bad. It keeps the book alive a little longer." According to Nancy Pike, acting general manager of Sarasota County Library, FL, one of the first adopters, she's had to buy additional copies of some titles to meet demand. "From the first chapter of [Susan Orleans's] The Orchid Thief (Knopf), we had requests." Eugenia Bryant, associate director for public services at Morton Grove PL, IL, reports greater than expected circulation for two other titles after they appeared on the book club, Rachel Remen's My Grandfather's Blessings (Riverhead) and Myla Goldberg's Bee Season (Doubleday).

While librarians could probably do a better job of selecting books--"I'd like to see some history and biography,'' says Jacob, instead of all the relationship books--she values Beecher's efforts. "It takes time to negotiate with publishers and set up the mechanisms," says Jacob. For libraries, "It's a win-win situation even if it brings in just five more people. You never know who those five will tell." Publishers should take note, too: it's a win-win situation for them also, extending the life of a book beyond the bookstore's short shelf life, giving them a chance to promote new titles, and making readers of nonreaders.

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