What I am about to tell you may both both shock and amaze, but I swear it is 100% true. There is a magazine featuring the first chapter from three new novels distributed to 10,000 commuters in and around London, and it is totally and completely free. That’s right: content distribution and discoverability innovation that isn’t digital.
The Underground Book Club is a free magazine, now on its fourth issue, of the same ilk as The Metro and The London Evening Standard, except instead of whacking you round the face with their massive horn for Boris Johnson and headlines whose puns are as subtle as a lead pipe to the kneecap, this magazine showcases incredible literature, helping authors find readers among commuters and spreading fiction far and wide. I caught up with Andy Brown, founder of The Underground Book Club, to find out what started it all, some of the challenges with the freemium model, and see where the Book Club is headed in the future.
1) Where did The Underground Book Club come from?
The idea came from constantly dragging my fiancée into every bookstore I’d see to pick up and read the first couple of pages of books that took my fancy. I’ve never really set much store by reviews, as I’ve never really had any reviewers round for tea or been out for pints with them… so how would I know our tastes in books were similar?
In my final year of University I attended a talk given by some other students who had set up a business printing free notepads for students with adverts printed on each page. Of course this was a huge success with students, but it got me thinking about how it had also been a huge success for the Metro, Evening Standard and more recently Shortlist and Stylist. My main quibble with the Metro was that I didn’t like to read it, it was reading material of last resort in my mind, 15 minutes of mild entertainment which slightly, but only just, beat staring at tube adverts. How could I provide interesting, high quality content to readers in this freemium format that has become so popular?
2) The Underground Book Club is completely free for readers but it obviously costs something to make. How does a business that isn’t backed by the Murdoch empire (ah lah Metro and The Evening Standard) go about achieving this? What would success look like to you given you’re not trying to shift units in the same way as most other magazines?
Thankfully with our first 3 issues we have managed to ‘shift’ all of the magazines we’ve printed, although I’ve still got about 300 – 400 of various issues sitting in my spare room which have been earmarked for promotions. Success for me on a personal level is someone enjoying the magazine, for the business though, it is reader engagement and in the current climate of social networking, this means likes and followers! The reality is that in most cases advertisers will only support a sure thing, a magazine that they know will be around in 1 years time and has 100,000 readers before it’s even done a single issue, so for us at such an early stage followers and likes are very important stats to show advertisers that we are providing an alternative to the Metro and Evening Standard that people actually want to pick up.
3) The books you featured in the latest issue of The Underground Book Club came from Bloomsbury, Pan Macmillan and Penguin. How are you working with publishers to source content?
That’s a good question, and had I come from within the publishing industry, I probably would have killed my own idea dead. Being a rational person with common sense I assumed that publishers would jump at the chance to put the first couple of chapters of their stories into commuter’s hands. Publishing is going through a bit of a crisis (in my opinion) and they are looking for ways to deal with digital, self-publishing, Amazon, book discoverability and so on. I didn’t expect publishers to offer the Underground Book Club the pick of their catalogue, but I also didn’t expect to have to pay publishers to promote their books! Luckily amongst the skeptical and cynical initial responses there were a few publishers who really saw the potential of this idea and were happy to let this unknown entrepreneur run with it and see what happened. We now have good working relationships with several publishers, and they will suggest books, or we will have found books of theirs that we would like to feature. Crucially it’s our magazine and we only feature books that we like.
4) You’ve got a couple of apps already. How important is this digital element to the overall project?
It just makes so much sense doesn’t it? As a commuter myself I prefer to pick up a magazine or newspaper on the tube, as I’m not always going to have my iPad with me. However reading on tablets is great, and as a tablet becomes more commonplace, as smart phones have done, there is a lot of potential for digital. From a business point of view, we print 10,000 magazines per issue, our app has been downloaded 3,000 times. For a fraction of the cost of a print run we are reaching 30% more people globally, which led to involvement from some cool indie publishers in Portland, USA!
5) How do you envisage the Book Club developing?
We are increasing the print circulation to 100,000 so we can reach more commuters in and around London. One aspect I am very keen to develop once the business is running smoothly, is the Book Club i.e. getting our readers involved. We’ve got lots of ideas here but mainly we want a digital space for readers to comment on the books in each issue, hopefully have the authors continued involvement and responses to their readers. We also think it’d be great to have Underground Book Club events in London… In short plenty of possibilities!