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e-reader revival

September 28, 2011

Book clubs are having a revival in Germany - with a difference. People used to get together with a handful of friends, but book portals are now bringing thousands together online. And there's always someone there.

A woman with a laptop surfing the internet in a cafe
Online reading clubs are on the rise in GermanyImage: PA/dpa

We spend a lot of time reading online - the news, reviews, the weather and even academic papers. But now, more and more people in Germany are turning to a wealth of book portals that have sprung up - to read about reading itself.

It's not just the young who are logging on. Some book portal organizers say the average age of users is about 40.

Take Arno Sanders, for instance - a pensioner who only recently learned how to use a computer. He says his son got him hooked because he had told his father he would be able "to talk to other people about books." And since then he has even made contact with an author online.

Finding what you want

It all started with a group of people who were angry about the state of book reviewing in the cultural pages of Germany's newspapers - it was out of touch with reality, they said, and the selection was too small.

Compared to traditional print media, the Internet offered unlimited space. You could review as much as you liked. And the feeling was that people prefer to get book recommendations from friends and like-minded people - of which there are plenty online.

And so the readers became the critics.

Perhaps it's not the same as professional literary criticism. But the often short and emotional reviews that can be found online are proving very popular.

An e-book reader
E-book readers are changing the way we "commune" with authorsImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Value-added books

In their relatively short existence, e-books and e-book readers have created new possibilities for the ways in which we interact with books as a medium.

The web designer Karla Paul works for lovely-books.de. It's a German book portal that aims to use the latest in technology to "add-value" to books.

The site is heavily networked with the reader community – via existing social media, with authors, bloggers, publishers and online book retailers. It offers extracts from books and pictures. And you can join reader circles lead by the authors themselves. You can get stuck into discussions, get tips and become a reviewer.

But its latest thing is called "Buchfrage" (book question). If you are using an e-reader and you get to a passage that you don't understand, "Buchfrage" allows you to send a question directly to the author.

"This feeling - to be able to communicate with authors from within their book," Paul said, "gives me goose bumps."

A screenshot from literatur-cafe.de
Publishers keep a keen eye on what's being discussed by readers onlineImage: literaturcafe.de

From vampire novels to Thomas Mann

There are so many book portals now that almost every genre is covered. And you can usually tell which is for you by the way it looks - some look cold and factual and others have fantasy-styled greetings, featuring knights on horseback and damsels in distress.

Lars Schafft is a former computer programmer who has built a series of book portals that are all linked by the word "couch." There is kochbuch-couch.de for cookbooks, kinderbuch-couch.de for children's books and histo-couch.de for historical novels.

Schafft says specialist book sites are the dominant trend.

"We reel in the readers," said Schafft, "who are looking for very specific things. We're generating a pool of experts so that we're not only able to offer information but also receive it."

But for the people who use these sites it is not just about reading. It is also about social contact. They debate and argue about books and they make new friends.

Wolfgang Tischer, founder of literatur-cafe.de
Tischer criticizes portals that sell adverting space to publishersImage: Wolfgang Tischer

New marketing opportunities

Publishers have started to watch book portals closely.

Carsten Sommerfeldt, a press officer at Berlin Verlag, is glad it's now possible to reach readers directly.

"We used to send press releases out into the world," said Sommerfeldt, "without really knowing whom we were dealing with."

But he says it is now possible to position a book perfectly.

"No advertising is as powerful as people talking about books and this is exactly what these book portals reflect," Sommerfeldt said.

But not everyone is happy about the development.

Wolfgang Tischer, the founder of the literatur-cafe.de, says book portals have lost their innocence. He's annoyed that lots of sites present authors as part of special campaigns, without telling their users that these spots are bought by publishers.

"People are often oblivious to the fact that certain books are only on a site because its publishers have paid money," said Tischer.

But readers are only tricked once. If the book is bad - despite its special treatment - word gets around in the reading groups. German readers may have become more calculated in their choices through social networks, but they have also just become a lot more powerful.

Author: Sabine Korsukéwitz / za
Editor: Cyrus Farivar