Startup reads market for book club app during pandemic

Bookclubz offers a mobile app and web platform for book clubs to organize their activities. (Courtesy Lighthouse Labs RVA)

Book clubs appear to be having a moment and a startup with Richmond ties is riding the wave.

Bookclubz, a free-to-use app and website that allows book clubs to communicate, manage membership, schedule meetings and engage with authors, has seen a surge in traffic since the start of the pandemic.

The three-year-old company, which is participating in the latest class of local startup accelerator Lighthouse Labs, saw a 30 percent month-to-month increase in users from March to April. It’s on track to have 100,000 users by September, said co-founder Nancy Brown.

The program supports both in-person and online book clubs and has seen a shift in its usage as well over the last few months. Pre-pandemic, clubs averaged seven members and generally met in-person monthly. In recent months, the clubs have increased their average size to 13 people, and it’s common to see virtual clubs meet bi-weekly.

Brown said some people grew tired of binge watching TV shows as the pandemic wore on, and they latched onto book clubs as something that satisfied their craving to be sociable in an activity that translates well to a virtual setting.

“I think it’s long been a staple activity for people to have meaningful connection and engagement and the pandemic has really energized that,” Brown said.

That heightened interest comes as Bookclubz is making moves. In March, the company closed on its first capital raise of $125,000. It plans to aim higher with a larger funding round in September. It’s also in line for $20,000 from Lighthouse Labs, which kicked off its three-month virtual program this week.

Bookclubz launched as a formal business venture in 2017 with CEO Anna Ford, Brown and founding CTO Ian Campbell.

The idea was born two years earlier as a solution to Ford’s own difficulties in managing a book club of about 30 members. Campbell had been learning how to code, and the friends put their heads together to create an early version of the program exclusively for Ford’s book club. They brought Brown aboard to leverage her background in the publishing world. That’s where the company looks to make its money.

“She thought there was a marketing opportunity with publishers, whose most voracious readers are in book clubs,” Brown said.

Bookclubz’s product is free for both book club creators and members. It earns revenue through sponsorships with publishers, sales linked through Amazon, Apple, Bookshop.org, and Libro.fm, and donations through Patreon, an online membership and subscription platform. The company is currently generating $5,000 a month in revenue.

The seven-person company is fully remote. Brown is based in Richmond, while Ford and Campbell are based in Maine. The founders work full-time at Bookclubz.

Brown said that it is estimated that between 6 million and 10 million people in the United States are in a book club. Clubs often use email or social networking sites, though there’s been movement away from social networks as book club members look for a more focused experience. Bookclubz is positioning itself to be that alternative.

“We are seeing a trend of conversions away from them, less distraction and noise. Other clubs just used text or email. We are working to get the word out to them that a streamlined organization platform just for book clubs exists,” Brown said.

Bookclubz aims to have 1 million users in the next year. The company wants to serve larger entities (such as college alumni groups, schools and companies) that desire book clubs. The company also has an interest in offering its service for other types of groups.

“Long term we see our technology being applied to community organizing for other types of clubs and groups, beyond just book clubs,” Brown said.

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