In February 2020, Spain’s leading newspaper, El País launched its metered paywall and subscription. Readers get 10 free articles a month before being prompted to subscribe for €10 per month.
El País closed out 2022 with more then 266,000 paying subscribers — 227,000 of whom opted for digital-only subscriptions, according to the paper’s parent company Prisa.
More and more news outlets continue to turn to their readers for support, and that often means diversifying offerings beyond just the news. With the intention of building community for its subscribers outside of journalism, last November El País launched its first reading club. In five months, the club has grown to more than 1,100 members scattered mostly throughout Spain and Latin America.
Any paying subscriber can join the reading club. They get added to the subscribers-only Facebook group where they can talk to El País journalists, the authors they’re reading, and each other.
According to Andrea Nogueira Calvar, the editor leading the Facebook group, staffers at the paper’s culture section and its weekly arts and literature supplement Babelia had been kicking around the idea of a reading club for several years. But the demands of the daily news cycle and the day-to-day needs of the newsroom always pushed the idea to the back burner.
Reading or book clubs are hardly a new concept, though who did it first is debatable depending on the parameters you use. Some of the first records of American reading groups date back to a ship heading to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634. Today, reading groups exist in a variety of formats (hello, BookTok and Bookstagram) and can be organized by genre, location, or other shared values, identities, and interests. In the United States, having your book chosen by Oprah Winfrey and Reese Witherspoon’s book club is a near-guaranteed way to become a bestseller. National news outlets like the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and others all have their own book clubs and reading communities.
In Spain, reading clubs gained prominence in the 1980s amid a new investment in public libraries. Blanca Calvo, who was the director of the Library of Guadalajara in Spain at the time, launched a reading club as a way to attract new public library patrons and encourage reading.
When the pandemic first forced people to stay home in 2020, Nogueira said an overall trend emerged of people reading more in their newfound free time. El País had hosted events and gatherings for subscribers before, but launching the reading club in 2022 was an experiment that proved that not only had the reading habit stuck, but that people were also looking for a forum to slow down and to connect with others over literature.
“Two things came together,” Nogueira said. “We have a very active community that highly values the culture section and Babelia. And after the pandemic, the need to stop and dedicate time to oneself was reclaimed. It’s also about dedicating time to reading and to the analysis of reading, because in the end what the club gives you, as a reader, is support from other readers.”
About once a month, a team of El País editors, led by Babelia editor-in-chief Guillermo Altares, announces what the next book will be in the Facebook group. They take into account the members’ interests in certain genres, the themes of the book (so as not to repeat the same themes in different books), the availability of the author to participate in the Facebook group and the in-person events, and accessibility of the books in both Spain and Latin America.
For book club members in Spain, they can enter a raffle to attend an in-person, interactive event with the book’s author. Then, twenty raffle winners have three weeks to read the book before the event (finishing the book is heavily encouraged). Readers outside of Spain or anyone who didn’t win a raffle ticket can watch a livestream of the event in the Facebook group. Each event is held in a different Spanish city at a local FNAC, a European bookstore chain. El País also publishes its own story covering the event the following day.
Throughout the month, members of the group can post discussion points, questions, and their own thoughts about the readings, and talk to each other. The team announces the book and shares some supplemental articles, but Nogueira has noticed that the members do their own research and share it with the group. In five months, the club, despite its growth, has managed to foster a tight-knit community that encourages critical reading.
“We were reading a book that was a bit complex in terms of structure and plot,” Nogueira said. “Sometimes there were readers who got lost and then would share it in the group, and some readers would help others to follow. One would say to the other, for example, ‘Hold on a little longer, you’ll soon understand everything.’”
With the hunch that the reading club might take off, the team’s first pick to kick it off was a risk: poetry.
It’s not the most popular genre, Nogueira said, but the star power of the author may have helped reel people in and kept them reading. The first book the club read was Un año y tres meses (One Year and Three Months), a book of poems by Luis García Montero, a renowned Spanish writer and the president of the Cervantes Institutes, which promotes the study of Spanish language and literature. The book is based on the last few months of the life of his wife, writer Almudena Grandes, who passed away in 2021.
“Poetry gives us answers that we need beyond technology or science,” García Montero told the reading club in November. “That’s what I’ve been looking for in this book.”
The reading club is now on its fifth book, Roma soy yo (I Am Rome), a narrative biography of Julius Caesar by Santiago Posteguillo. The event with Posteguillo is slated for March 30 at an FNAC in Valencia.
Nogueira said one of the project’s challenges is keeping as many members happy as possible. With every book, she said, there have been readers who weren’t interested in the subject, found the reading too difficult, or gave up.
“I believe in not disappointing the readers and offering them what they expect from us,” Nogueira said. “When we [as people] decide to join a book club or a group or a community like the one at El País, we all go in with illusions. The difficult thing is to maintain that illusion over time so that we are not disappointed. That is the biggest challenge — to keep surprising them with the books and living up to what they expect to be offered.”
And like any other attentive, engaged readers, El País book club members are quick to point out grammatical errors, whether they’re in the readings, El País stories, or in the Facebook posts. But, it comes from a good place, Nogueira said.
“They are very demanding, which is fine, because I think that happens when you really feel that you are part of something, you feel you are in a position to make demands,” Nogueira said. “I think it’s great because we’ve managed to create a community that feels part of El País, which I think is the goal of any newspaper.”