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Public Libraries Embrace
Online Book Clubs

by Kimberly Hundley


Suzanne Beecher (left and Sarasota County Library
Directory Shirley Amore.

Nearly 300 public libraries already have signed up to offer the online book clubs created 1-1/2 years ago by entrepreneur and booklover Suzanne Beecher. The service is free. It gets people reading and using their libraries, and demands on library staff are minimal. What's not to like?

a_071coverThe concept is as simple as sampling a fine wine before you buy. Subscribers, who sign up at their libraries or library websites, are e-mailed five minutes worth of reading from a worthwhile book several days in a row. After about four days, many subscribers find they have become painlessly hooked on the book. But the daily literary fix doesn't last forever. After three chapters are revealed, the installments stop. Newly won devotees of the work who want to keep reading are instructed to reserve the title at their public library or purchase it online.

"I have never been so blessed as right now to work on a project that I believe in so strongly," says Beecher. "It's a passion of mine." Beecher strongly believes that people would make more time to read if reminded how important and enjoyable it is. The five-minute snippets of text are designed to work the transformation. "People don't have to read a lot to change how they feel about themselves," Beecher says. "Five minutes of reading a day can make a profound change."

The book-club idea grew from a random act of kindness. An avid reader, Beecher would often try to talk about books with employees at her Sarasota, Fla.-based company, most of whom were women, working part-time on computers and raising children. "I realized they did not have a clue what I was talking about unless it was the latest kids' book. They weren't doing any reading for themselves," Beecher recalls. "They became upset with me: 'We're trying to find time to shave our legs and you're telling us to find time to read a book.'"

E-mail was exchanged daily in the company and, on a whim one sleepless night, Beecher decided to type in the first couple pages of a book she was reading and email it around. The next day she did a little bit more, and so on. "It didn't take but four days for me to get emails and phone calls from my staff asking, 'What happened to the rest of the book?' I told them they'd have to go to the library or buy the book. Then I'd start sending them excerpts from a different book."

The experience led to an epiphany for Beecher. Here was a group of people who felt they didn't have time to read in their daily routine, but who were now making time because of the positive way the e-mail was making them feel.

Beecher approached Sarasota County Library Director Shirley Amore about starting an online book club. Amore agreed to give it a try. Today, about 850 patrons are members.

DearReader sets up the clubs for libraries, contacts publishers to get rights for the material and puts together the daily e-mails. "We take care of the subscriptions and unsubscribes," Beecher says. "We do everything, in essence, for them. The libraries' commitment is they will market the club to patrons and other interested people in the community. We even assist the library in doing that. We have artwork for bookmarks, signs and a screensaver advertising the online book club."

Library size no object

Recent participants include the Chicago Public Library and Maricopa County, Ariz., Public Library System. "It doesn't matter what size your library is," Beecher says. "We are very very happy to start a library online bookclub for a 3,000 population or a Chicago-sized city." Beecher explains that any visitor to the library's website can click on the DearReader icon, linking to a website where an email address may be submitted. The next day, the member receives an email with a short teaser introducing the five-minutes worth of content. The message contains an option for readers to reserve the book online at their public library. Those who want to purchase the book are directed to www.dearreader.com, which is how the club is funded. An average book runs from five to seven days. The emails also contain a promotional or informational tagline written by the specific library where the subscriber signed on.

The email lists are confidential and not used for any other purpose, Beecher says. "We don't sell or rent anyone's name. We literally have thousands of readers. We are so conscientious about it that when Maricopa County asked us if they could have a copy of the e-mail addresses to send out other stuff, we said no."

DearReader.com has just begun an audio bookclub, which works the same way, except members download narration. Also in the works is a business -book club. Corporations are invited to sign up their employees to receive snippets of business titles. Emails will include the option to reserve the books at the public library or purchase them online.

"Library online book clubs are going to be the hottest craze," Beecher predicts. "There will be clubs for fiction, nonfiction, audio, motivation and so on. It is going to be the latest thing. People in the community are going to be talking about it. I compare it to the old general store, a gathering place where information is exchanged, which is how I see libraries. I don't see any reason that libraries can't be that more in the future even than now."


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