When it comes to industries that love disruption, book publishing is low on the list. The written word is one of the oldest forms of communication—the earliest "books" date back to the 3rd millennium BCE and were written on papyrus and clay tablets—and while we don't use clay anymore, a book, more or less, looks like it did thousands of years ago. (With much better cover art.) Even ebooks, which arrived on the literary scene in the early 2000s, are still not as popular as hardbacks. However, if the past year-and-a-half is any indication, times are changing. Since the start of the pandemic, Americans have reportedly read more than ever before, and print book sales are at their highest levels in more than a decade. In an era when people are hungry for connection, book clubs—especially of the virtual variety—have exploded. There's also demand not just for places to talk about books with fellow readers but ways to chat with authors and publishers too.
These four female founders believe that both our reading habits and our book clubs are ready for a change, and they’re making it happen one app—and, in some cases, one vibrator—at a time.
Padmasree Warrior, Founder, President, and CEO of Fable
After three decades in the tech world, former Cisco CTO Padmasree Warrior—a self-proclaimed “obsessive reader” as a child—has turned a new page in her career journey. In July 2021, she founded Fable, a social reading platform. According to Warrior, complaints about reading often fall into three categories: People don’t know what to read, they don’t have time to read, or they want to read with other people. Unlike existing platforms that try to focus on just one of those pain points, Fable seeks to tackle all three.
Through lists called “folios” curated by industry tastemakers (like author Jasmine Guillory or Emmy-nominated filmmaker Tiffany Shlain), trackers that help people form healthy reading habits (on their website, Fable says that "reading books for just 30 minutes a day can make you happier and healthier, and help you live longer"), and a social networking component, Fable aims to help users fall in love with reading both as both a mental wellness practice and as a community-building exercise. Warrior was inspired to enter the book space professionally after seeing research that showed reading's benefits on mental health. “Reading always has an element of learning something,” she says, explaining why she thinks communal book experiences thrived during the global health crisis and beyond. “We all have our own interpretation. That, in itself, broadens our outlook.”
Book Recommendation: Circe by Madeline Miller
Details: Free to join; a $9.99 monthly membership grants access to Premium features, including special reading clubs, exclusive events with authors and curators, and discussion guides. Download it.
Melissa Gill, Founder of The Steam Box
Melissa Gill dealt with a double whammy at the start of the pandemic: Not only did she lose access to her typical support system thanks to stay-at-home orders, but her husband left for a 300-plus day military deployment. Feeling lonely, Gill leaned on romance novels to get her through the year. Her love of the genre quickly brought about questions: Why are people ashamed to talk about romance books even though it's one of the best-selling genres? Was she the only one using these books to get horny? And why are there so few romances by and for women of color? “If I wanted to find people who looked like me or looked like my husband or looked like my friends [in books], I really had to dig,” she explains.
After a soft opening in 2020, she officially launched The Steam Box earlier this year. Every quarter, the subscription service delivers a romance novel written by a woman of color, self-care items such as bath bombs and candles, and a sex toy to members. The company also holds virtual discussions with authors and readers around the books, as well as discussions around diversity in publishing. (In addition to her work on The Steam Box, Gill is a co-creator of Dear Publishers, a new equity initiative that launched an online petition to hold publishers accountable for diversity in the industry.)
Clearly, Gill wasn't alone in her former struggle: The Steam Box's initial launch box sold out within 24 hours. Her husband also returned home in February to a very different house: Since Gill packs and ships everything herself, the two now have an entire room filled with vibrators.
Book Recommendation: Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert
Details: A quarterly subscription starts as low as $55. (See the different membership options here.)
Love book clubs? Join ours.
Allison Trowbridge, Founder and CEO of Copper
Allison Trowbridge’s journey to starting her company began with an epiphany: She was publishing a book while finishing business school at the University of Oxford and found the process of promoting her work exhausting. While Trowbridge jokes that the experience made her never want to publish anything again (her book, Twenty-Two: Letters to a Young Woman Searching for Meaning, came out in 2017), it also helped her understand how difficult it is for the vast majority of authors to successfully launch and market their books.
Combining those insights with knowledge of the way people turn to book clubs to socialize, Trowbridge launched Copper, a two-way marketplace that allows authors to grow their audiences while helping readers build community with authors they admire and each other. (The company is still in beta; there's a waitlist for early access to join the Copper community.) “As a writer, I love that someone can read my book and it’s like they just spent eight hours with me in a very personal [way],” she explains. “A book club allows people who’ve had this same, very intimate shared moment [to] create an opportunity to have conversations about [what we read].” On Copper, authors can build real-time connections with readers. Meanwhile, readers can curate book lists and give or receive recommendations, plus get direct access to authors they love. To Trowbridge, it’s a win-win.
Book Recommendation: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Details: Free to join.
Jessica Ewing, Founder and CEO of Literati
Literati’s origin story begins with founder and CEO Jessica Ewing moving forward with “the stupidest thing that anyone could have ever done:” Leaving a successful career as a product manager at Google to become a writer. That move, however, showed Ewing that there was massive room for improvement in the book space—and neither the literary establishment nor Silicon Valley were entirely equipped to handle it. There was the traditional book industry, which could offer up great stories but was in desperate need of modern, efficient updates to the publishing process, and there was the tech world, which could automate book marketing easily, but in the process, sacrificed a bit of craft.
Enter Literati, a book subscription service that curates both children’s books and adult reads, the latter of which are personally selected by public figures like basketball icon Steph Curry and Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai. Visionaries often pick books around central themes, and may host book talks or virtual events with the authors. For example, Megan Rapinoe focuses on "human stories" that "galvanize readers toward meaningful action." (For September, she picked Tarana Burke's Unbound.) "Literati is, for me, really the marriage of these two sides of myself that have always been in conflict,” Ewing explains about merging art and tech in one company. “The failure to disrupt books has been people not really understanding art and the artist and what art is. We’re trying to create a more human experience around buying and reading books.” That desire to go analog has paid off: The business, which launched in 2016, went from 20 employees at the start of the pandemic to more than 140 people in just one year.
Book Recommendation: The One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg
Details: $9.95 monthly membership and book delivery fee for the kids box plus the cost of books they keep. The adult book club starts is $20 a month for an annual subscription ($25 if you pay monthly), which includes shipping and access to the Literati app where discussions take place and where members can talk about the month's selection directly with each other, the author, and the book club leader.
The original version of this article listed the book club price for Literati as $9.95. That price reflects the kids book club pricing. The adult book club pricing has been added.