The Future of the Book

A Future for Books Online: Tumblr’s Reblog Book Club

By posted at 12:00 pm on January 27, 2015 7

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The Tumblr reblog holds a special kind of power. It’s the way that posts are shared on the platform — if, for example, I like your photograph, or link, or video, or 5,000-word analysis of our favorite TV show, I can re-post it on my own Tumblr, with or without additions, your original post fully intact. It will appear on my blog and on my followers’ dashboard feeds; if one of them reblogs it, and a few of her friends do the same, your post will gain momentum — it might even snowball to popularity. Posts on Facebook can slip into the ether, the whims of finicky algorithms; on Twitter, arguably the most temporal social network, your 140 characters have a matter of minutes, even seconds, before they drop out of sight down the infinite stream. On Tumblr, posts spread outward in networks of webs. They have drastically longer shelf lives than their counterparts on other social media outlets — reblogs, which make up 90% of Tumblr content, can make the rounds for weeks, months, even years, and with a tag search and a reblog or two, they can spring to life long after they’re published. In other corners of the Internet, you broadcast and consume information; on Tumblr, a platform built on mutual interests and passions, all that sustained sharing helps build real digital communities, one reblog at a time.

Book lovers will be pleased to know that the Tumblr book community is thriving. The Millions has its own popular Tumblr and our own Nick Moran has done a few great round-ups of literary Tumblrs, and the community has only grown since the last installment. Book Tumblr is a space where basically everyone who regularly has their hands (or, I suppose in the digital age, their eyes) on books can gather: writers, artists, editors, publishers, lit mags, booksellers and their bookstores, librarians and their libraries, and, most important of all, readers. The Tumblr book fandom is as committed to the written word as they are to the platform’s creative and transformative slant: when they finish a book, they’re ready to pull the most thought-provoking quotes or draw fanart or bake the cake they read about in chapter 12. There’s equal space for criticism and celebration, and it’s the kind of community that forces me to talk sappily about the power of the web, how people thousands of miles apart can find each other and build friendships based on a single book, or a love of books generally.

At the heart of Tumblr book fandom is books.tumblr.com and the woman who runs it, Rachel Fershleiser, once described by Lydia Kiesling here at The Millions as “an energetic person whose job at Tumblr (Literary and Non-Profit Outreach) seems to be using technology to make things happen with books to make things happen with technology.” Nicole Cliffe at The Toast recently took things a delightful step further by saying Fershleiser “represents for books on the Internet like an avenging angel who is also very nice.” Fershleiser (who, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ve met many times in bookish internet circles over the years) is a former book publicist who came to Tumblr from Housing Works, where she ran events — and got the bookstore onto Tumblr, one of the first institutions to create an analogous physical-to-digital space for readers to gather around books. At Tumblr, she encourages other organizations and writers onto the site; in a room full of publishers at the FutureBook conference in London a few months back, I seriously enjoyed watching her rep for Tumblr with enthusiastic and hyper-intelligent zeal. She curates a broad, book-positive discussion on Tumblr — and the Reblog Book Club, a year and a half old and now in its fifth round, is at the very center.

cover“I wanted to do a Tumblr book club from the day I started,” Fershleiser told me a recently when I stopped by Tumblr’s offices near Union Square in Manhattan (the address is one that loyal Tumblrites will recognize instantly from every email they get about new followers). “I love to talk about books — that’s what I’m doing here — and I love to talk about books on the Internet, and Tumblr is such a rich place for engaging with art in a creative way. My actual lifelong dream is to be the Oprah of the Internet. So this seemed like a good place to start.” She launched the Reblog Book Club in the fall of 2013, and the first title was Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, a book (that I happen to be obsessed with) about a girl who writes fanfiction about the Harry Potter-like Simon Snow novels. “I got really in my head about choosing a first book,” Fershleiser said. “There were no rules: is it YA or is it adult, is it serious, or dystopian, or funny, and how can I choose one book for a hundred million people? It’s a really big community.”

coverBut Rowell proved to be a perfect choice. Her previous novel, Eleanor & Park, had come out earlier that year and had been a huge hit, and she was an active Tumblr user and unabashed fangirl — and, of course, she’d written a novel about loving books and celebrating them online. There weren’t a lot models for a massive-scale online book club — some sites set titles and interviewed the authors, and maybe opened up a comments section or discussion thread. But Tumblr is all about peer-to-peer exchange, and Fershleiser wanted to reflect that. She set a fairly loose schedule — dates by which chunks of the book would ideally be read — and an open format: all the tools of Tumblr, from gifsets to multimedia to chains of reblogged meta, were put to use. The ask box was always open, so Rowell could drop in and answer questions whenever was easiest (rather than the formally scheduled Q&A sessions we see with a lot of authors online).

This kind of thing is relatively new territory for authors — how many times have you cringed in the past decade seeing writers forced to start blogs or Twitter accounts or somehow engage with their readers online when it didn’t come naturally, or worse, when it clearly made them uncomfortable? But these days plenty of writers do shine in digital spaces, and Rowell is one of them — and when Tumblr called, her publisher embraced the opportunity. Stephanie Davis, the marketing manager at St Martin’s Press, told me, “Working with Rachel to launch the Reblog Book Club was really exciting because the community on Tumblr is so expressive, creative, and authentic.” Davis cited the fact that Rowell was on Tumblr, and enthusiastically so, that made her an ideal first choice. The club was an experiment — and it was a successful one. It showed off the very best of the Tumblr book community: “It was thrilling to be able to approach a traditional book club in a new way,” Davis said. “And to see how the Tumblr community jumped in and participated — I’m still blown away by how talented her Tumblr fans are!”

The conversations in the Reblog Book Club are nearly always civil, and usually pretty warm and engaged — something that’s particularly notable online. Perhaps it’s because Fershleiser is there to moderate, or perhaps it’s because the author is there, too, or perhaps it speaks to the kinds of readers attracted to the group. “This is my own little push-back against the idea that online conversation has to be mean and shallow,” Fershleiser said. “Not only are people kind and thoughtful, the conversation is nuanced and in-depth and we read complicated books about complicated characters and have complicated responses to them, and I think that’s wonderful. I want to smash it in the face of people who think that enjoying the Internet is the opposite of people enjoying real books.”

covercovercoverThe titles that followed Fangirl transcended genre labels and age designations. In the book store they’d be classified as middle grade, YA, and adult, verse and prose; in reality, they’re more like a collection of books about complex female protagonists getting things done. There was Laurie Halse Anderson’s The Impossible Knife of Memory, our own Edan Lepucki’s California, and Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, for which she won the National Book Award late last year. It felt fitting to get in touch with Edan for a Millions piece, and she told me, “The Reblog Book Club was one of the most satisfying parts of publishing my book this summer because I got to see readers interacting with my work in ways that I couldn’t elsewhere. (A writer should always avoid reading their Amazon reviews, for instance, unless she wants to feel like a pile of shit in three seconds flat.)” She continued,

On Tumblr, even if readers weren’t loving my novel, they were still engaging with it in these thoughtful ways, wrestling with how they felt about the characters, why I’d made certain choices, guessing about what was going to happen, etc. And when a reader loved my book — oh how they loved it! I feel like the internet has brought back sincerity and enthusiasm, made it acceptable, and that is refreshing. It’s not cool to be cool, it’s cool to get excited about stuff and to be a fan with a capital F…It truly made me feel like my book was alive for people in the way it had been for me, when I was writing it.

coverAnd now, to start 2015, there’s Katie Coyle’s Vivian Apple at the End of the World. I’ve never met Coyle in person, but we followed each other on Tumblr about a year ago, and I feel like I know her deeply, from her enthusiasm for Doctor Who gifsets (it’s all about Peter Capaldi on that front) to her long, thoughtful essays, including a wonderful post last year in which she described the genesis of this book: Neil Gaiman had posted about the Hot Key Books Young Writers Prize on his Tumblr, and she’d seen it, entered, and won — and eventually got to thank him in person. The book was published as Vivian Versus the Apocalypse in the U.K., and was released there along with a sequel, Vivian Versus America, last year; the newly-titled version came out in the U.S. this month. Coyle seems to like Tumblr as much as I do, if not more. “I feel like there’s really no better place on the internet to be loud about the things you love than Tumblr,” she told me. “I’ve used it for my personal blog for about six years now, and in that time I’ve really noticed that it’s helped change my tastes, and open my eyes to new things I wouldn’t have otherwise heard about.”

It was pretty hard for me to keep from falling in love with Vivian Apple at the End of the World: the characters — particularly the heroine, Vivian, who grows progressively bolder as the novel proceeds — are smart, dynamic, and seriously funny, and it’s a whip-smart satirical take on contemporary America, from religion (the big one — it’s about the Rapture) to consumerism to feminism to homophobia. And these past few weeks, Coyle watched her readers react to her work as they read it, something most authors never get the chance to do. “Overall it’s been really great,” she said. “I’m a debut author and basically had no feeling of assurance whatsoever that anyone other than my parents was going to read this book. To be able to go on Tumblr and see people not just reading it, but engaging with it, picking themes and characters and quotes they particularly liked or were interested by, has been overwhelming. It is a little weird to watch it unfold in real time. I’ve seen posts where people say, ‘I have a question about this, can’t wait to see how Coyle addresses it’ and I’m like ‘oh no oh god I never addressed that thing.’”

She doesn’t have much to worry about, though: the Reblog Book Club seems to be loving the book, and engaging with it in typical fashion, with fanart and meta and playlists for the apocalypse. “I am a huge fan of fans,” Coyle said. “If there was a fandom fandom, I would belong to it, because nothing is more beautiful to me that goofy outrageous creativity being applied to movies and television shows and books, especially. So the idea that someone would read the book and make a playlist, or draw a picture, or paint their nails the color of the cover, was and is almost too wonderful for me to bear. I have long said that my only authorial goal is to inspire someone else to write fanfiction about my work. I’m not sure if that’s happened yet, but I feel like I’ve gotten a bit closer.” (I’ve advised her to watch her inbox on this front.)

For the readers, some of whom come via the authors, others who show up for every title Fershleiser picks, the Reblog Book Club is a unique space on the web. Lauren Bates works in a library in Florida and has a dedicated book Tumblr, and she found out about the club through Rainbow Rowell’s Tumblr: “I was newly post-grad and unemployed and really very desperate to stay engaged with literature without the excuse of schoolwork,” she told me. “The literary community can sometimes be intimidating or inaccessible to people who don’t have connections to the industry or an active literary scene in their community, and even if you do live in a relatively literary community, it can be difficult to find people with a similar taste in books.” The Tumblr book community, she said, is a beautifully egalitarian space: “We have no idea what each other’s backgrounds are or where (or if) anyone attended college or what their major was or any of that. Your credentials don’t give your opinion more weight than anyone else’s.”

Another active member, Sarah Smith-Eivemark told me that she “owe[s] her publishing career to the Bookternet:” I joined Tumblr a little over three years ago, but I didn’t start actively posting until about two years ago, when I realized that so many of the people who I respected in publishing, the people whose careers I wanted to emulate and work with, had a Tumblr of their own. I’m completely addicted now. I’ve met and connected with more people who share my love of reading and independent publishing through Tumblr than I have with, well, anything else.” Smith-Eivemark is now the publicist at Coach House Books in Toronto, and she still uses Tumblr in her professional life. If anything, the Tumblr book community shows her all the people out there incredibly excited about reading: “…it can just seem so challenging to simply get people to buy a book,” she said. “The Reblog Book Club encourages me, and reminds me that not only are there readers out there, they’re smart, funny, and exactly the kind of people I’d want to know (as we say) IRL.”

coverIt’s a little coincidental that this round of the Reblog Book Club coincided with the launch of another online “book club” at another behemoth of a social network: Mark Zuckerberg’s New Year’s resolution to read a book every two weeks led to the announcement of Facebook’s “A Year of Books,” in which 278,000 (and counting) members will “discuss” a new title once a fortnight. The inevitable comparisons to Oprah came and went — for an eloquent analysis of why exactly Zuckerberg is not and will never be Oprah, I’d recommend Anna Wiener’s fantastic piece on the subject in the Gawker Review of Books. “Oprah built an entertainment and media empire that trades in feelings; she is the definition of a successful personal brand,” she wrote. “Mark Zuckerberg built Facebook, a website buttressed by targeted ads with a well-intentioned but often emotionally clumsy experience. Oprah can make one’s life feel like an important journey to the center of the soul. Facebook can make one’s life feel inadequate, ephemeral, and commoditized.” But while the first meeting of the club was reportedly a mess, the first featured title, The End of Power by Moisés Naím, skyrocketed in sales. Maybe it doesn’t matter whether it’s possible to have a real discussion in this kind of space: Facebook merely suggesting a title will lead people to buy it (though not, it should be noted, to necessarily read it.)

The contrast between Facebook’s book club and the conversations I see on Tumblr are striking. As much as the book industry needs — perhaps even is desperate for — a solid and regular base of book-club consumers, this big, dedicated driver of sales (on that front, Zuckerberg and Oprah will likely have much in common), people who make and distribute books also want passionate readers, the sort who will evangelize for a book that they love. Fershleiser agrees — during our conversation, she echoed some of my thoughts from my last fan culture column on the topic, on how book fandom is more about depth than breadth. She said:

I think that some people think of fandom only as people who already have millions of people hanging on their every word. A lot of what we’re doing here starts smaller. For the books we choose for the Reblog Book Club, the authors are on Tumblr and they have some kind of following but it’s not because they’re the biggest authors on Tumblr, it’s because it’s going to be something interesting to talk about. It’s not that there are huge numbers of people participating in the book club, it’s that they’re really, really engaged and excited and when you have even 50 people on your platform who are talking about a book, every day, who are making incredible fan art, nail art, getting really excited, getting into heated debates about things, especially on a network like Tumblr, with the reblogging and the following, it reverberates through the network and it feels like, ‘What’s this thing that everyone’s talking about? It’s exciting and I want to be a part of it.’ It doesn’t take six million people to create that kind of feeling —–it grows organically.

Is the Reblog Book Club the future of books online? I sure hope so, or at least that it’s a big part of it. It represents some of the best of what the web can offer — genuine connections and discussions, between groups that can’t realistically interact in the analog world, and a sort level playing field, bookstores and authors and librarians and readers sitting side by side, one post after another. And perhaps most importantly, the Tumblr book community gives permission to get deep into the world of a book: it’s cool to love it for a while, and to try to press it into the hands of everyone on your dash. With a few well-chosen gifs, of course.





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7 Responses to “A Future for Books Online: Tumblr’s Reblog Book Club”

  1. John
    at 2:56 am on January 28, 2015

    Wow! For someone like me who for nearly 50 years takes more pleasure in buying books rather than reading most of them, this inspires me to read a lot more than I ever have. Thank you for this piece.

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  5. Nicole
    at 8:20 pm on February 11, 2015

    What a great article!

    “The conversations in the Reblog Book Club are nearly always civil, and usually pretty warm and engaged — something that’s particularly notable online.”

    This is the thing I love most about Tumblr and I think it’s because of the incredibly clever way the system is designed so that you can’t comment on posts unless the author is specifically asking for replies.

    So in order to participate, you have to reblog something onto your own tumblr, so you have to completely own it. The problem elsewhere on the internet is that someone can very easily leave a nasty comment on something and walk away, perhaps without even returning to the scene of the crime and witnessing how much they have upset some people. On Tumblr you have to reblog something to your own space if you want to say something, and if what you said is really mean or awful or not constructive, nobody is going to reblog it, so it just sits there by itself and dies. Or perhaps a choice rebuttal gains traction instead, and order is restored. Because it’s all about sharing your interests and hopes and dreams and aspirations, your own tumblr feels like a part of you, and I think people are less likely to act out in unsavoury ways because it reflects so much more poorly on them.

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