Alexi: the app that handpicks books for you
The new curated digital book club, Alexi, offers its members a handpicked selection of books chosen by well-known writers, cultural figures and their expert Alexi editorial team. First released as a beta in 2015, the app is currently optimised for iPhone and iPad and offers members from 400+ titles to chose from over the course of a year.
We spoke with Alexi co-founder, Andrew Kidd about setting up the platform, how Alexi differs from other subscription services and how it enables users to go beyond the books everyone else is reading.
Can you tell us a little more about Alexi and the motivation for starting the subscription service?
We started Alexi because throughout our careers – whether working as publishers or agents, or co-founding a new literary prize – our abiding passion has been for helping book lovers to discover what to read next, and for bringing to their attention titles they might not otherwise easily find. If you’re lucky enough to have a great bookshop around the corner then you’re probably sorted. But it’s for readers who don’t have that ready access, not just in the UK but throughout the world, that we created Alexi – to deliver great books into the palm of their hands.
How did you go from concept to reality?
Well, first, we quit our jobs! Then we started to look more closely at what was already out there, and we concluded that while there were some excellent peer-to-peer recommendation platforms, and a number of burgeoining, ‘all-you-can-eat’ book subscription businesses, the dominant vehicles for online discovery were passive, mechanistic and algorithm-driven, and it was a model we wanted to break. So we decided to create an online book service that offers a carefully distilled selection of high quality titles recommended by well-known writers and cultural figures: by people who read voraciously and are immersed in the world of books. While tips from friends are invaluable, as readers ourselves we thought ‘wouldn’t it be great to know which books, say, John le Carré or Ali Smith or Julian Barnes or Helen Oyeyemi or Mohsin Hamid pull most readily off their shelves – and then to make those titles available to read – all in one place?’ After that, we moved swiftly, to build a beta version of the app as ‘proof of concept’, raise funding and then work towards full-scale launch, which happened last month.
Can you talk us through some of the features that differentiate Alexi from other existing book subscription services?
The similarity between us and other services is that – as with Netflix, Spotify, Apple Music, Kindle Unlimited, Scrib’d etc – you pay a fee to have unfettered access to all of the content (in our case books) that are featured on Alexi. The difference is that the others are ‘all you can eat’ services, with a vast array of content to sift through, and in the case of book discovery we see that model as more of a problem than a solution. In joining Alexi you become part of an ecosystem where a light is shone on a handpicked range of quality books, with additional context and insight either from the people making the recommendations or from our in-house team (which includes reviewers and former literary editors from Granta, the Independent on Sunday, the Sunday Times, the Guardian and the FT). Not least, we’ve aimed to create an environment in which people feel inspired to take risks, to read beyond their comfort zones – and based on feedback so far that is definitely happening.
Do you have any favourite features?
We worked with Danish designers to create an app that’s as seamless and intuitive as possible, and also visually enticing, and we’ve been delighted by the response from our members to the ‘Alexi experience’. But the feature most key to how Alexi works is that we offer a new selection of books every week, so that our content is never static. And by the same token, all the titles we highlight are in one sense or another ‘relevant’, taking people deeper into the subjects and themes that really matter to them, and often intersecting directly with what’s happening in today’s complex world (as well as providing ample diversion and entertainment along the way).
In the run-up to launch, you ran a successful Crowdcube campaign to raise capital and fund Alexi 2.0. How was this process?
Raising money is notoriously stressful, apparently up there with moving house and divorce, but despite that we found the experience invigorating. It forced us to really focus on how we communicated with people, and given that many of our investors are now Alexi members, it was also a very effective way of finding our ‘first adopters’.
Today, we’re often overwhelmed by content. How does Alexi enable users to find the book they’d like to read next and go beyond the books everyone else is reading?
There is a vast back catalogue of amazing books that largely go untapped because – for perfectly understandable reasons – publishers, the media and bookshops all concentrate on the new. And while we are as excited as any other book lover to find out about the next big thing, we are also acutely aware that the concentration on a very limited number of books can obscure readers’ awareness of equally, or sometimes more, deserving books that for whatever reason never quite managed to find their way. On top of that, there’s a serious issue with quality control, especially on line. So by engaging experts to handpick the books we offer to our members we aim to overcome both of those obstacles.
What has been the response from users so far?
The response has been fantastic. Our members seem genuinely excited about having all these quality books brought to their attention, and happily for us, they are telling their friends about it. They’ve also provided us with some invaluable feedback, and one of the great things about working with digital is that we are able to act on that feedback more or less instantly.
Finally, what’s next for Alexi?
Next is an Android version of the app, and launching Alexi in the US and Canada (the only two countries in which we don’t currently operate). And of course, most importantly, bringing more great books to – we hope! – an ever-growing number of Alexi members.
Find out more about Alexi here.