Handpicked and home delivered: the book subscription services combating 'decision fatigue'

Laura Brading of WellRead.
‘There’s nothing as valuable as a well-read person who can help you find your next read’: Laura Brading of WellRead. Photograph: Andrew Butler
‘There’s nothing as valuable as a well-read person who can help you find your next read’: Laura Brading of WellRead. Photograph: Andrew Butler

The pandemic reignited Australia’s love of reading – and entrepreneurs are reaping the rewards

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Balnaves Foundation
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Last modified on Mon 15 Feb 2021 17.57 EST

When the global lockdown began last March, many of us made a lofty list of personal development goals: learn French, get a six-pack, read the collected work of Dostoevsky. There’s little evidence to suggest we followed through on the first two fronts but in the latter we have been surprisingly successful: Australians are reading more than ever.

Booktopia, Australia’s largest online retailer of books, reported its best year on record with a 28% increase in new book sales; and Allen & Unwin, Australia’s biggest independent publisher, enjoyed an increase of 34% between May 2019 and May 2020. A research report from the GlobalWebIndex says Australians’ reading rates are up 20% because of Covid-19.

And among the winners of this literary resurgence is a micro-industry: book subscription services, which curate a selection for you and deliver them to your home.

In an era of information overload and a crowded literary market with an often debilitating degree of choice, it isn’t hard to see the attraction of professionals highly attuned to the market – or algorithms catered to your tastes – making the decisions for you.

Meg Stacey and Marissa Piazza, lawyer friends from Melbourne who bonded over their love of reading, launched Literati Book Club in August 2020, and have doubled their customer base every month since. “We started to think about how we could facilitate a community that would bring people together during a really difficult time,” Piazza says.

A Bionic Book Subscription package book and letter
A Bionic Book Subscription package book and letter. Photograph: Bionic

Literati offers monthly book deliveries in the categories of non-fiction, new fiction, and classic literature – or, for the particularly ambitious, a combination of all three to the tune of $87 a month – as well as access to interactive reader Q&As with authors, facilitated over Zoom with writers including Trent Dalton, Rumaan Alam and Victoria Hannan.

Nick Mackay, a Melbourne-based freelance digital designer, launched Bionic Book Subscription in July, having spent the first couple of months of lockdown working on an algorithm that would use readers’ personal preferences to determine which book they would be sent each month.

“I thought it would be too hard to compete with the big book selling companies like Amazon,” Mackay says. “We wanted to offer a service that mirrored the way music streaming services like Spotify use your personal taste to inform what you listen to.” Mackay believes his customers have picked up long-term reading habits – subscriptions are continuing to grow, even as many Australian cities enjoy life post-lockdown. “From our first month, we grew an average of 112% in sales per month until the end of 2020,” he says. “The last three months of the year were our biggest period of growth.”

On New South Wales’ south coast Laura Brading – who previously worked in publishing at HarperCollins and worked as a bookseller – found runaway success with WellRead: a curated subscription service with monthly picks dictated by Brading’s own tastes. WellRead launched in late 2019 but really took off in May 2020, with subscriptions tripling since the pandemic, and Brading sending out more than 750 books each month.

A WellRead package
A WellRead package. Photograph: Frenchy

“There’s so much decision fatigue nowadays, and I really do believe that there’s nothing as valuable as a well-read person who can really curate and help you find your next read,” she says.

Longer-established services are reaping the rewards too. Bookabuy – one of Australia’s largest book subscription services – had its “biggest revenue year since starting the business” in 2020, according to a founder, Chris Tantchev. Angie Reader, a founder of the NovelTea Book Club – the Melbourne-based service which pairs new fiction releases with high-end tea sets – says from the end of 2019 to the end of 2020, it more than doubled subscribers.

Perhaps the drive for a curated reading list has to do with this current cultural moment, too: reading has taken on a somewhat performative aspect on social media, where tablescaped book stacks and micro-reviews flood feeds in what Brading calls a kind of “intellectual virtue signalling”. Perceived literary nous is seen to add a certain level of prestige to a medium often maligned for being shallow and superficial (in the last 12 months everyone from the Duchess of Cornwall to Kaia Gerber have launched Instagram book clubs, for example). In that sense, subscription services also offer a money-can’t-buy service – cultural credibility.

A more jaded person might decry a generation who will only pick up a book when it is delivered to their door – but when, like this author, you’ve already dabbled with a slew of subscriptions – fitness apps, food delivery and even, briefly, natural wine – services that promote and encourage reading seem as sensible an investment as any.