The KU Big Read encourages all new students to feel part of their university before arrival through the shared reading of a single book, produced in a bespoke printed edition and sent out once required entry grades are achieved.
The Pigeonhole (founded 2013) is a digital book club platform, delivering content in daily instalments via readers’ mobile apps and allowing participation in a collective reading experience, including an innovative marginalia commenting system.
In June 2016, The Pigeonhole contacted Kingston to see if there were possibilities for collaboration.
By the time they got in touch, our chosen book – Matt Haig’s The Humans – had already been produced and circulated, but both parties were keen to experiment. The Pigeonhole were particularly eager to explore the appeal of digital access among students. Kingston appreciated the potential project extension but also spotted useful research to support existing studies run by information and library services around resources to support study.
We went ahead. The Pigeonhole secured permission from Haig’s publishers (Canongate), and both author and agent, to make the book available without charge via their app and web reader. The associated editorial decisions were interesting: how many extracts, released how often, over how long a period – and for how long should it be available afterwards? Involving our MA Publishing students in this extended their university experience as they prepared for employment. We opted for ten instalments, each of about 25 pages, and released every other day over two weeks before the start of Kingston’s Welcome Week.
Digital availability was announced on social media and prominently advertised at the Freshers’ Fayre, as well as the author’s various events and through handouts at reception areas and libraries throughout Kingston’s five campuses. Library stock of The Humans was stickered and inserted with information on The Pigeonhole’s launch, and the opportunity to take part in a digital reading project was reiterated during Reading Week (October).
Alison Baverstock, Director of The Kingston University Big Read, author Matt Haig and Sarah Ream of The Pigeonhole
The most successful outreach was Freshers’ Fayre, but while 65 students signed up for a digital edition, many passing the stand reported they were happy with their existing physical edition, and did not need another.
Overall there were 126 sign-ups for The Pigeonhole edition; 35 people added comments to the platform as they read. The Pigeonhole’s website recorded 386 unique visits with the majority classified as ‘referral traffic’ (click-through from social media and other websites). Direct traffic (for example from flyers and university screen advertisements) made up 24% of site hits; a further 8% came from ‘organic traffic’ such as ‘googling’. The page conversion rate (those who hit on the landing page and explored further) was 33%, which is very high – normal expectancy would be 5-10%; probably due to existing familiarity among Kingston students.
As to how involved those who signed up really were, Pigeonhole analytics show relatively consistent levels of digital reading continued throughout the ten staves; clearly they had found committed readers.
Surveying those involved afterwards, responses were positive, with the preferred features being access to a social network, the additional content made available and reminders about what was coming next. Those reading were mostly already regular digital book readers.
The most common place for reading staves was while commuting/during general travel. This is a good match for Kingston, with around 50% of our students commuting daily.
What we learned
1. Were we comparing like with like? The first physical item received by new Kingston students was a physical copy of the shared book. The emotional response quickly seen online – chat about feeling ‘welcomed’ and ‘expected’ – was arguably in response to the branded item from an institution they were about to join. Post-scheme user surveys revealed that while the project joined up the community, and the book was widely discussed, not everyone involved had read it. The Pigeonhole likely extracted the keen readers – and those already engaged in digital reading.
2. Timing is everything. Legal sign-offs, and the preparation needed to turn the book into a supported online read, meant that the digital version was not available until just before the start of term. Earlier notice might have prompted wider involvement. International students regularly reported leaving their pre-arrival book at home due to weight restrictions; earlier availability of a digital edition could have enabled them to continue reading as they travelled.
3. Beware marketing options that exist but are not available. Although technically the University was able to send every student a digital link to The Pigeonhole site, in practice the content of all pre-arrival emails had been signed-off long before, and could not accommodate last minute additions. This was based on broad organisational research concluding that pre-arrival emails should be simple and unencumbered by additional embedded links. By contrast, The Pigeonhole have found management recommendation generally leads to more involvement in digital shared reading.
4. Students were generally reluctant to share their observations of reading the book online, but this is perhaps understandable among newcomers unwilling to make a ‘wrong impression’ before they arrived.
5. The availability of a digital reading experience can enhance the pleasure that comes from owning a physical text, enabling it to be used in new ways – not all trackable. It is notable that not everyone who used the book digitally responded to the survey, or read the full text within the prescribed period.
Comparisons with Kingston’s ongoing monitoring of library usage are interesting. In 2016, and for the first time, feedback from the Kingston’s Library User Survey showed that students were keener to access and read digital material than print (56% of students preferring the e-book version/happy with either the e-book or print version as against 44% of students preferring the traditional paper copy). Stressing digital availability of The Humans, in the period immediately prior to surveying, may have been a significant variable influencing a wider process of change.
Looking forward, we hope to repeat the experience in 2017, announcing a digital edition sooner, and involving our project partners at Edinburgh Napier too; thereby doubling our research population. We think the collaboration, and resulting data, has a particular relevance to wider multi-formatting initiatives within publishing. For example: the bundling of a print edition with poster/download/supplementary album/slipcase, all of which promote stronger value perceptions among consumers and hence permit improved monetisation. Such initiatives also help promote both better communication and community engagement – and more reading for pleasure, with undoubted associated longer-term benefits.