How to start a cell phone book club—for your library, school, neighborhood, workplace or other purposes

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Related: How to read e-books on a $20 cell phone and a young African-American novelist’s essay on the benefits of cell phone book clubs and LibraryCity's in-depth explanation of the cell phone book club concept. Also see more on the clubs' benefits for K-12.

littlefreelibraryI love the Little Free Library movement where neighbors put up wooden boxes full of paper books to share.

Now here’s another grassroots possibility—cell phone book clubs that you could start for your public library, school, neighborhood, workplace, traditional book club, place of worship, sports team or other purposes.

What’s a cell phone book club, minus any extras?

It’s just a way for phone owners with shared passions to work out the technical details, discover and enjoy books on their phones, discuss the books together, and perhaps get guidance from librarians or teachers (earlier thoughts  here).

In fact, libraries could launch full-strength cell phone book clubs (complete with videocasts through Google+ hangouts), described here in detail.

LibraryCity has also mentioned the club-related possibilities for schools, where students so often learn better together.

But why not informal, do-it-yourself cell phone book clubs as well? The tips below even include advice for people without cell phones right now, or the usual WiFi connections. Book-capable phones running the Android operating system can sell for less than $20 without shipping.

A way to expand reading choices, not replace neighbor-to-neighbor book swaps

Cell phone book clubs are not substitutes for the charms of Little Free Libraries or other book swaps, just tools to multiply the number of reading choices.

Scads of free book are online for the entire world to enjoy, and library e-books are now available in most U.S. communities. Not to mention the ever-expanding collections of Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble and the like.

“Besides,” I’m fond of asking, “what are you most likely to carry with you, almost always?” Yes, a cell phone—just like your keys and your purse or wallet.

blu2The cell phone book club idea is timely right now. Salon has even published an article titled “War and Peace” on the subway: How your iPhone is saving literature. A headline writer can dream, right? Still, the potential is there in less dramatic form. Most U.S. teenagers own smartphones, capable of displaying e-books. And phone screens keep getting bigger and sharper. Apple is expected to introduce a phone with a 5.5-inch screen, and companies like Samsung sell six-inch models.

Double- or triple-click on the photo to the right, of the screen of a Blu Life Pure phone. If you’re viewing this with the right software and hardware, you’ll appreciate how sharp the words can look on a modern cell phone screen.

The nuts and bolts: 10 steps

Step by step, here’s how you can start a cell phone book club—whether you’re in a posh Manhattan neighborhood or a poverty-stricken hamlet in Mississippi or Arkansas. I’ll beseech the well-off  to skim over the pointers for people who must scrimp.

1. Determine who your audience is and find out if there’s interest. What kinds of books do they want to read? How many of them own Android or Apple phones? Just about all can display e-books. Windows phones can, too, although, because of limited software choices, you may want to avoid them right now.

2. Check in with your local library, school or other organizations that might help one way or another and ideally even serve as sponsors. Some local libraries give out book club kits of paper books. The DIY cell phone club idea is just a new twist on the kits. The library here in Alexandria, Virginia, has posted a great little page telling how to start your own book club and use the kits, and many of the thoughts there would also apply to the cell phone variety of club. Also pick up ideas elsewhere.

Figure out such book-clubbish stuff as who’ll be the moderator or moderator(s). And who will get get the word out about your club within your organization and perhaps the world at large. And where will you meet? A room at the local library, if available, would be one obvious choice.

Via Google track down the publicity departments of publishers of your favorite books in case any of their authors come your way and you want them as guests.

Here’s a related idea. Some authors may even be willing to do Skype sessions of two-way video, so they can entertain and enlighten your club without leaving their offices or homes. Go here for a list of interested writers. And here’s another list—of authors who’ll do video with schools for free.

3. Find out from the library what books of interest to club members might be available from such services as OverDrive. If an OverDrive client, your library can show you how to use the service and also see if arrangements can be made for club members to access copies of the same books simultaneously. Besides, there’s nothing wrong with reading books on paper, through library kits or otherwise.

Also consider public domain titles. You can legally make as many copies as you want, and keep books on your phone forever. Project Gutenberg is a leading source of free classics and other books. Feedbooks and the Internet Archive are other public domain sources, and Amazon offers some classics at no charge.

If you’re after kid’s books, go to author Jason Boog’s Born Reading site and especially check out the pages on getting library e-books for young kids, his list of Best Children’s Book Treasuries and related information on Goodreads and on the Kindle Chronicles site. The Kindle post includes a link to a podcast with him. He is the author of Born Reading—which, besides being a Web site, is both a paper book and an e-book. It could be an excellent title for your club to start out with. Maybe your library can order copies.

OverDrive even offers an eReading Room for Kids or Teens. 

4. Tentatively decide how to promote your club. You can try everything from the Web to word of mouth, bulletin boards, leaflets, notices on Little Free Library boxes, and publicity in the local newspaper (partners, maybe?). David Lee King, the digital services director for the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library, has written Face2Face, an excellent guide demystifying Facebook, Twitter, blogs and other social media. To reach neighbors, consider organizing a Nextdoor site, a “private social network” with e-mail notifications, a Web version and also smartphone apps for Android and Apple devices.

face2face2You really should be working backwards, just as some people at Amazon do in coming up with press releases before they design their products. If you can’t figure out a good way to sell the club after consulting with friends, you need to go back to the drawing board.

5. If you and your prospective members lack cell phones, figure out how to get them.

With millions of phones discarded each year in favor of newer models, perhaps libraries should encourage people to donate their older phones for shipment to poorer neighborhoods and cities. In some cases, maybe local chambers of commerce and other civic organizations could help. And tech companies could start recycling  programs at the national level. What a way to promote literacy and be eco-friendly at the same time!

Yes, you can use a recycled Android or Apple phone or a new one to read books even if you lack a subscription plan. The phones can still pick up WiFi signals used to download e-book reading programs as well as the actual books and other items. In addition, you might also investigate the possibility of a USB connection to copy books directly from your desktop if USB is available.

Speaking of hardware, you can also check out Craigslist and other sources for used smartphones, which can cost less than $20. eBay is one place to look for used and new phones at bargain prices. So is Amazon.

If you’re cash-strapped and want actual phone service, an LG  Optimus Android phone could be one way to go. It works with the TracFone service. Price as of this writing is as little as $18 new and $5 for shipping from ShopCell Deals by way of Amazon. The screen is 3.2 inches, hardly in the iPad class but not that much smaller than the ones on the early iPhones, 3.5 inches.

I’m curious how FBReader and the OverDrive library app and the others run on the phone ShopCell offers, the original LG Optimus Android, not to be confused with newer Optimuses. So I’ve just bought this econo-model to review for LibraryCity. My wife and I may use it as a backup phone, then eventually give it away. Meanwhile I’m a mere $23 poorer. Stay tuned.

I am Optimustic about the LG’s e-book capabilities—pun intended—if I add just a few apps rather than overburden the limited memory. I would recommend such econo-models only as a last resort, but they’re certainly better than no way to read e-books at all.

Keep in mind alternatives. You may also want to read on a desktop or tablet if available. And used Kindles can cost almost as little as second-hand phones. No law exists saying you need to use a cell phone to participate in a cell phone book club.

But unlike a phone, a Kindle or typical tablet doesn’t fit snugly in your pocket, ready for use at any time. Nor can it make phone calls.

What’s more, once you know how to download books in a hurry, you can use the built-in wireless of a TracFone to get books when WiFi isn’t handy, a capability that the very cheapest Kindles lack. With this app, you can watch your phone bill, and with this one, you can “refill” your account.

6. Decide what software to use for e-booking. Services like OverDrive and 3M let you download their own software, and the former even offers an app for Windows phones. Go here for software tips on reading library e-books and perhaps even conjuring up text to speech.

For public domain books—the classics and others, without anti-copying technologies known as Digital Rights Management—you can use other programs.

I especially like FBReader and Moon+ Reader. FBReader is available for Android and in a more primitive version for Windows devices, and Moon for Android, and Marvin works with iPhones, iPads and iPad Minis. FBReader and Moon+, at least in Android flavors, even come with a way to search for free books and bring them directly into the e-reading software. So you don’t have to mess with a Web browser (FBReader is the most convenient in this respect).

What’s more, FBReader and Moon offer the option of all-boldface text on all fonts. and Marvin lets you use Arial Rounded, which is bold to begin with. Bolding can make books easier to read on the least expensive smartphones such as the older Optimuses. 

Voice Dream, an iPhone and iPad app, is my favorite for text to speech (TTS) on nonDRMed books—letting you hear books while your exercise. Mantano’s Android version enables you to use TTS on many library books.

7. Check out the WiFi situation. In most cases,  this will be a nonissue for your club members. But if it is one, don’t give up hope. Here in Alexandria, the library branch near me offers robust WiFi. May everyone be so lucky!

If WiFi is a concern and your local library has a slow connection or, in some cases, none at all: Check out local businesses, especially chain hotels and fast-food establishments like McDonalds, to see if they offer WiFi. You could download books to enjoy away from the the wireless connection.

Also see what free books might be available on DVD or CD from sources such as Project Gutenberg; here are the relevant PG-related links. Greek and Roman classics, the plays of of Shakespeare, Huckleberry Finn, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, Alice in Wonderland, and the Wonderful Wizard of Oz—Gutenberg has them all and plenty more. You could set up a LibraryBox and let people download Gutenberg books and FBReader or other Android e-reading software from it without any Internet connection needed. And if you lack the technological smarts for LibraryBox and other solutions, see the next item telling where to look for help.

But before giving up on the usual Net-connected WiFi, check with local businesses, city and county governments, colleges and universities, and military bases (with security in mind, I’m not sure about the bases, but it’s worth a try).

In most areas, it’s hard for any business beyond a lemonade stand to exist nowadays without Net and WiFi connections. Sharing connections and tech expertise with club members on occasions would be good PR.

8. If you’re not tech-savvy, find out what technical help might be available near by from the just-mentioned organizations. Your chamber of commerce or United Appeal might have ideas. And don’t forget science club members at the local high school. If they don’t know e-book tech for cellphones, they just might be willing to go on the Net with desktops and learn. Sites like MobileRead offer friendly forums where newcomers can ask questions.

9. Don’t just view the Web as a way to promote your club. Make it an integral part of it, perhaps, to bridge the gap between the physical and the virtual. Think ahead to the time when you or your library might start a blog or Website devoted to the activities of the club—just make sure it will display well on phones.

You might also start a locally oriented section on Facebook or on the Goodreads book site, just as the BiblioTech library in Bexar County, Texas did. BibloTech is also broadcasting on Google+ Hangouts, and even records the sessions for YouTube—including interaction with club participants checking in from home. Not all cellphones can do justice to the software for sending and receiving videos. But this just might be something to experiment with if you and other members think that your phones are robust enough.

10. Decide who’ll be responsible for the cookies or pizza.

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