This Leith-based book club has two unique selling points: a female-only lineup and a focus on unashamed, inclusive enjoyment.
Rare Birds Book Club is a female-focused subscription book club. For £10 a month, members get a surprise book delivered to them, written by a woman and featuring a female protagonist. They also receive an introduction to the story and an explanation of why it’s worth their time. At the end of the month, readers can log in to the website to see an in-depth review of the book from the Rare Birds team, rate the book, leave their own feedback and join a discussion group.
"The idea is to help make reading feel exciting and accessible," says founder Rachel Wood. "We don’t have any other rules about genre or the style of book we choose, we like variety. A good book is a good book and that’s what we’re interested in offering to our readers. We cover just about everything in our discussions about the books - from how we felt about plot twists to who we picture playing each of the characters in a film adaptation. The whole idea is that there’s no right or wrong way to enjoy and talk about a book."
Wood launched the Leith-based company single-handedly in October 2017. She has a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Edinburgh and a background in digital marketing, working as a copywriter and helping some of the UK’s biggest brands communicate and engage with their customers online.
"When I started Rare Birds Book Club I didn’t have experience in bookselling but I knew I had the skills and the network to build a service that would appeal to the online-first generation," she says. "I wanted to make the thought of reading feel exciting and novel.
"That meant creating a website with lots of personality to capture people’s attention - it needed to look good and be just as easy to use from your smartphone as it was from your computer. I also wanted to give our customers a number of different ways to buy it for themselves and for others, and make the whole process as simple and straightforward as possible."
What's the gap in the market?
Wood admits that the book club model isn't exactly original, but she believes that the focus on female authors is enough of a twist to hook in readers fed up with the same old bestsellers.
"I do think for millennials the way we find things to read is changing," she says. "We love the convenience of shopping online but the volume of choice is overwhelming and reading reviews doesn’t always offer as much insight as you think it might. In my own experience as a reader, the process of finding a good book was tedious at times. I was reading great books that weren’t getting any attention, and I was tired and bored of how a lot of books were being marketed at me, particularly when it came to women’s fiction.
"The feedback I was getting from friends was that they’d make more time to read if they trusted they would like the book they sat down with. Market research backed up my intuition. There’s an appetite for expert curation. People still want physical books, but we want the process of finding them to be a little more special, a little more current.
"So for me it was about providing a digital experience that could complement the physical aspect of reading. I wanted to set up a service that said - look how wonderful reading is. Look how fun it is. Look at these amazing books. We’ll give them to you - we’ll connect you with readers just like you who don’t take themselves too seriously."
Success so far?
Rare Birds tripled its number of subscribers over Christmas, driven by the promising trend of people buying subscriptions as gifts and then returning to buy one for themselves.
"The service is very new so to see the idea resonate and then have readers tell us they’re excited to read fiction again for the first time in years - that’s a really great feeling," Wood reports.
"When there’s so much competing for our attention, how do I make reading and joining an online book club feel like a no-brainer to our customers?" Wood muses. "The book club is deliberately niche, so our biggest challenge is finding our audience, and then when we do, making them feel that what we’re offering is indispensable."
Her solution is to focus on building a super-strong brand. At the heart of this is emphasising the intimacy and personality of Rare Birds as a trusted curator and connector in an industry overwhelmed by choice.
"The reality of selling books online is that we’ll always have a bigger competitor. We can’t do what Amazon does in terms of discounting, but we can offer a special experience that’s curated and offers something of value.
"It’s not hard to persuade our existing customers of that, but when you’re introducing the brand to people for the first time you have to quickly make a strong impression. We can’t just say we know you’re going to love it. We have to make sure we’re giving people a strong sense of who we are and what we’re all about, and in most instances we only have a few minutes to do it."
Wood is evangelical about the need to shift the conversation and challenge some of the negative perceptions around contemporary women’s fiction.
"There’s so much great fiction out there written by women across every genre and a lot of it is being overlooked by readers and reviewers. For a lot of people, reading feels weirdly serious. Something unexpected when we started Rare Birds is how self-conscious some of our customers feel about how much they read or what they like to read.
"There’s room in every reader’s diet for a whole range of stories, from the serious to the superficial. It’s our mission to help people reconnect with how joyful reading can be. To make it feel like it’s fun and exciting, and something for everyone."
Advice to other publishing entrepreneurs?
"Being an outsider isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It usually means you have a different perspective - focus on how you can use that. What you don’t know, you can always learn."