Tuesday 22 August 2017

Generating likes - the rapid rise of our online book club generation

Reese Witherspoon's book club on Instagram has almost 10 million followers
Reese Witherspoon's book club on Instagram has almost 10 million followers

Claire Coughlan

Actress Reese Witherspoon shared a reading recommendation on Instagram several weeks ago. She said of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by debut novelist Gail Honeyman, that she 'fell in love' with the character of Eleanor, and assured her 9.7 million followers that they will 'fall in love too'.

Witherspoon later announced that she had bought the film rights to the Glasgow-set novel, via her production company, Hello Sunshine. She is the curator of an online book club through social media site Instagram, populated by a dedicated community of avid readers worldwide, who hang on her every word.

This seems to be part of a growing trend for online book clubs, which are often celebrity-led. From Emma Watson's feminist book club on Goodreads, to Florence and the Machine frontwoman Florence Welch's reading group on Facebook, or YouTube star Zoella's book club, for which she has partnered with bookseller WH Smith to provide her millions of young fans with reviews of young adult fiction, as well as author interviews - online communities are eager to share recommendations because they may not have the time or opportunity to meet in person. But how much impact do these recommendations by famous faces actually have on how well the book does?

Martha Ashby, the acquiring editor of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine at HarperCollins, says that they definitely have a noticeable effect on sales.

"We announced it [the Witherspoon endorsement] a week before our publication day and we saw a huge spike in the pre-orders on that day," she says. "That was when Reese Witherspoon posted about the book from her personal Instagram account and also from the book club account, so that was one spike in sales. That was on the Tuesday, then on the Thursday, she announced the film news through Deadline, which we then shared through the trade press and we saw another huge spike then as well."

It's not difficult to see why Eleanor Oliphant has already made such significant waves via word of mouth and social media only a month on from publication.

It tells the story of a young woman who grew up in the care system and has since learned to fend for herself. Eleanor has worked in the same job for years, adhering to a strict solitary routine in and out of work, insisting to herself that she's 'completely fine', until gradually she lets the world in, bit by bit.

Eleanor Oliphant's voice is unique, shot through with black humour - completely different to the unreliable narrators of 'grip lit' we've come to know so well over the past few years.

"From the very first page, the voice is confident and unusual," says Ashby.

"It's recognisable enough to be someone you know, or someone you work with, but then with that slight off-kilter quirk - you know that everything isn't completely fine. And you get that from very early on in the very first chapter. There's an honesty and a sense of humour that just elevated it from a lot of brilliant voices that you read in fiction.

"As the book progresses, I felt that Gail never really took you where you were expecting to go; Eleanor gets herself in these situations where you're preparing yourself to cringe on her behalf because she's misread a situation. What happens again and again is that people are kind to her and people don't laugh at her; they accept her for who she is. Firstly, that felt refreshing and secondly, it made you think about kindness and acceptance."

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is one of those life-affirming reads that you'll want to pass on to others - I've already recommended it on the Facebook book club I'm a member of, as the ideal summer read. This is the Rick O'Shea Book Club, curated by RTE 2FM DJ O'Shea, who also organises public author interviews and events for members. Mostly, readers engage with each other, offering recommendations and many have ended up meeting 'in real life', to attend the club events or just to swap books. The club was set up by O'Shea in the summer of 2014 as a hobby.

"Nobody has every approached me to go sponsoring the book club, that might happen at some point in the future," says O'Shea.

"But for the moment there's absolutely no financial gain involved in this for me at all, shy of every time we meet up, someone will buy me a pint.

"One of the things we get more and more often when we do the real-life meet-ups in the book club, is people going, 'I don't have a lot of friends in the real world who talk about books'. So, they don't have a network of people they can meet and form an actual book club with, where they can meet once a month in someone's front room with a couple of glasses of wine."

The Rick O'Shea book club is every-growing and now has almost 8,000 members.

"I thought, at the beginning, I'd recommend a couple of books once a month, I'd come back at the end of the month and we'd all have a chat about it, and that would be that. And nothing could be further from the way it's actually worked."

Eamonn Condell, from Portlaoise, a HR and health and safety consultant, says that the format of the Rick O'Shea book club suits him because he commutes to Dublin and he isn't aware of many local book clubs in his area.

"I work in Dublin every day and there is one meeting in our local library, but they meet at 12.30pm on a midweek day, which isn't very practical," he says.

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