Zuckerberg’s no Oprah: His book club is a dud

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

It all started on Jan. 2, 2015, when Mark Zuckerberg shared one of his New Year’s resolutions with the world. He wanted to read more books in 2015. So he set up a Facebook Group called A Year of Books and quickly had over 200,000 likes overnight. He was going to be the next Oprah, TechCrunch reported rather breathlessly.

It hasn’t quite turned out that way.

His first pick, Moisés Naim’s “The End of Power,” was also posted on Jan. 2, and the paper version of the book instantly sold out in many stores. Zuckerberg explained that he would give readers two weeks to read each book selection, then would host a chat with the author on his FB group. The book sold over 13,000 copies, according to Publishers Weekly.

The book club conversation took place online two weeks later on a Tuesday afternoon and resulted in only 175 comments. A number of commenters mentioned that the Facebook Q&A format wasn’t a very good way to host a book club.

So out of 200,000 likes, where did all the readers and book buyers go? I love reading long books, but even I didn’t have time to finish the book in the first two busy weeks of 2015. I hoped the next book would be shorter. No such luck.

On Jan. 18 Mark announced book number two, all 832 pages of it.

The pick was a win for a hometown hero, Harvard professor Steven Pinker, whose book “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined was published in 2011. The New York Times reported (via AP) that the book did jump from No. 6,521 on Amazon to No. 501, but there were only only 178 comments the day book was announced. Things with this book club seemed amiss.

On Zuckerberg’s A Year of Books Facebook page, he originally said readers could take a full month to digest the 832-page book. A day later, that posting disappeared and the book club scheduled an author Q&A with professor Pinker to take place only nine days after the book was chosen.

Again, the small group of readers noticed this and posted some complaints that it was just too short a time to read such a long book. On Jan. 27, there was an announcement reminding followers that Pinker would be Zuckerberg’s guest to talk about the book the next day. But many readers never saw the announcement in their feed, complaining about it in comments and missed the author event completely. Apparently even Zuckerberg can’t manage to get his posts delivered to 100 percent of his followers, thanks to the mysterious algorithms Facebook uses for limited delivery.

Now he’s picked his third book, “Gang Leader for a Day” by Sudhir Venkatesh, which at 320 pages is slightly more manageable. In the meantime, Zuckerberg has come clean and admitted he’s still trying to finish Pinker’s 832-page doorstopper. I know Oprah actually read her book club books, it was a point of pride. So what was going on exactly?

I asked some tech folks around town if they were reading the Zuckerberg books and what they thought about the book club. The response I got was lukewarm at best. Paul English at Blade told me something I can’t quote here, but let me paraphrase. He said didn’t give a hoot what Zuckerberg was doing. Dave Balter, the CEO of Smarterer, who I happen to know is a big reader, dodged the question. “I only read Judy Blume books,” he joked.

Bettina Hein, the CEO at Pixability, isn’t reading the Zuckerberg books either. “We have our own book club at Pixability to promote one of our culture code tenets we call Master Your Field — we want people to invest in themselves and become better at what they do,” she said. She points out that they don’t just want people to read books at Pixability, but to write them too: about 10 percent of the Pixability staff are published authors. Right now, their current book club pick is “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman.” Sorry Zuckerberg.

None of the books he’s selected have enjoyed sky rocketing Oprah-type book sales yet. As AP reported, “Sales immediately following his previous choice, Stephen Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” were virtually unchanged from the week before, according to Nielsen BookScan. Perhaps three is the charm and “Gang Leader for a Day,” which was originally mentioned in the bestselling Freakonomics, will be a winner. There have been enthusiastic comments on the group page about this new pick, but only 97 in total so far since Feb. 2.

In fact, the impact of Zuckerberg’s book club is minuscule when you consider he has 23,597,334 followers. Oprah’s show, which aired the book club from 1999 (with some breaks) until the show ended in 2011, had 6 million to 8 million viewers. In that time, she selected 70 titles resulting in over 55 million books sold. In 2012, she returned to books, but in an online version of her club called Oprah’s new Book Club 2.0. Update: This afternoon, Oprah announced the fourth title in her online book club, “Ruby,” the debut novel from author Cynthia Bond.

I have to figure Zuckerberg has something else in mind here, since the book club is such a paltry effort. Perhaps he doesn’t really care about launching a book club, but wants to read books that will help him build out a political network? All three books so far are about changing the world and who wields power. Are we seeing Act 2 of Zuckerberg’s strategy for world domination after his political advocacy group FWD.us hit some bumps in the road last year? I guess we’ll just have to keep reading to find out.

Halley Suitt Tucker is an author, entrepreneur, TechStars alum, and two-time successful Kickstarter campaigner. She lives in Arlington.
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