Once upon a time, joining a book club meant discussing the themes of a novel with fellow readers over drinks and snacks. For many bookworms like myself, in-person book clubs were a lowkey social outlet that led to new literary takes and more than a few friendships. Now, in the pandemic world, many startups are trying to digitalize the bookworm social scene. There are book sites that are social, like Goodreads and Storygraph, and social sites that have bookish elements (hello, #BookTok and #Booktube).
A third, new crop of platforms are digital book clubs that offer online space for community and discussion. One such platform, Fable, bills itself as a “social reading platform” where readers can join clubs moderated by celebrities, authors, and influencers from TikTok, or start their own clubs. One of Fable’s signature book clubs is hosted by Levar Burton, so the app is clearly wooing those of us raised on Reading Rainbow. I tested the free content on the site to see if Fable is worth joining.
Fable bills itself as an app, but you can sign up on the website or through the iOS or Android app. The basic account is free and gives you access to some of the book clubs, Folio recs, and books for sale through the app. Both the app and the website are sleekly designed with a mix of photographs and whimsical doodles that give the sense that this content is polished, but fun! To access the premium features, it’s $69.99 per year or you can buy access to premium book clubs à la carte, which range from $5.99 to $9.99 a month. At the time of this writing, Fable was not offering any free trials for premium content, so you’ll need to pony up if you want to join Levar Burton’s book club or any of the other “premium” book clubs. I personally was reluctant to part with my cash without a preview, so I decided to test drive the free content.
Once you’re signed up, you can edit your user profile, add a photo, pronouns, and whatever information you’d like others to know to a standard bio section. Your profile also shows followers and following, so other users can see just how influential you are. Given that popular BookTokkers have 100k+ followers, it seems strange that Levar Burton, our shining beacon for this app, has only 437 followers, including me, but I digress. Looking at my public profile, users can see the clubs I’ve joined, book lists I’ve made, and my reviews.
Folios and Reading Guides
This may be a book club app, but the content on the top of my Home Screen is for Fable Folios, what Fable describes as curated “recommendations from tastemakers.” Judging by its prominence on the app and website, Folios by authors, celebrities, and CEOs are a key feature on the app. The first to pop up is “Unapologetically Queer YA” from “BookTok Personality” @LiteraryLesbian. They have four recommended books, including Cemetery Boys and The Henna Wars, with blurbs saying why they recommended the book. You can buy each book through Fable, but strangely, only on their website. If you click “buy” in the app, they’ll send you a link to buy it, with the tag “We know it’s kind of a hassle.” Um, yes, it is.
One of @LiteraryLesbian’s picks, Crier’s War, has “Discussion Prompts” that you can access through the app, a PDF you can download with chapter by chapter questions about characters and plots. All the Folios are free to view, so if you want to know a handful of books David Sedaris or Jasmine Guillory recommend, they’re at your fingertips.
Join a Book Club
Now I’m on to my main attraction: the book clubs. I have the option to join a book club or create my own. The “Fable Featured Clubs” on the home screen are moderated by authors like Mary Kay Andrews, actors like Sean Astin, and BookTok stars like @chamberofsecretsbooks. The book clubs are either free or premium, with many of the celebrity ones (LeVar!) locked behind a paywall. Beyond the home screen, you can “Find clubs” and filter by genre, premium status, and free ebooks, while sorting by trending number of members or last activity. The most popular clubs like the “Romance and Coffee Book Club” have between 3,000 and 6,000 readers.
I decide to join “Chamber of Classic Books,” moderated by BookTokker Cameron Capello, because the club is free and offers the free ebook of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. The club has 307 readers and about a dozen posts, organized by section. It’s here that I discover one of the coolest features in the app — and I do mean discover like some buried treasure because there is no tutorial or anything to point me to it. When I download Persuasion for the app, I can choose to read with the book club, which means I can see other members’ highlights and responses to the discussion questions that pop up in a corner with a “Let’s discuss,” tab. If you don’t mind reading a book on your phone or tablet, it’s definitely a more social way to read. If this feature is available on all the book club books (including ones you have to buy), that is a cool selling point. But as I mentioned, the “social reading” experience, which I think should be a key selling point, isn’t demoed or explained on the site.
While I was disappointed that so many of the book clubs are premium, there are some free ones that look really interesting. For example, the “Authors Guild Banned Books Club” is moderated by the author of the banned book. At the time of writing this article, Fable has Jacqueline Woodson moderating discussion of her novel Red at the Bone. While the topic and author are amazing, the club seems to have the same low participation as many of the clubs I browsed. Despite having 2k members, there are only 20 comments in the “Kickoff” section. From perusing the app, this seems to be the average level of engagement, even for clubs with thousands of members.
I was also left wondering whether the ebook of Red at the Bone came with a discussion guide. Maybe! I couldn’t tell. And while, it probably is very cool to have the read along experience with Woodson, the app is not selling it very well, and there doesn’t seem to be much engagement amongst members.
Create Your Own
Fable also has the option to create your own book club. You can pick one of their “Book Club Ready Picks” like Lily King’s Writers & Lovers, which comes with its own reading guide and Spotify playlist. Then invite your IRL friends, people from your Slack channel, or whoever else you’d like to read along with you. To access the “social mode” reading experience, you’ll have to buy the Fable ebook. If you opt not to buy the Fable ebook, you can still post and respond to comments on the forum and see the discussion guide as a PDF.
Overall, Fable has a slick but somewhat confusing interface. The free content is plentiful, but I don’t think it’s something I’d personally pay for. The user engagement in the moderated clubs seems hit or miss, and even after spending several hours on the app, I’m still not sure if I found all the features. If you already have a bookclub that you’d like to make virtual, creating your own book club on Fable might be a great option, though. Overall, I feel that this slick app holds a lot of promise, but most of the potential is untapped or undersold.