Pearson plans social network
Nick Clark

THe publisher Pearson is preparing to launch its own social network to capitalise on the success of a website designed to encourage reading among teenagers.

Pearson, which owns Penguin Books and the Financial Times, set up Spinebreakers as an "online book community for teens" in September 2007 and plans a significant overhaul to allow users to connect to each other before the end of the year.

Anna Rafferty, the digital managing director for Penguin in the UK, said: "We want to develop peer-to-peer capabilities and have plans for a full social network. I would love to have teenagers tagging their favourite books and sharing it with their friends."

She hopes the site will become an important part of a teenager’s social networking portfolio. "We want to allow elegant integration with other sites. For example, it would be good if tagging a book on Spinebreakers would show up in your Facebook newsfeed," she said.

Penguin launched Spinebreakers after discovering that its books aimed at teenagers had little way to reach their target audience. At the time, teen magazines had either reduced their content or removed their books pages altogether, Ms Rafferty said.

She added: "We talked to heads of content of social networks in the UK. We were hoping to do for books what they had done for games and music. They weren't interested."

So the publisher decided to set up a site where teenagers had a forum to discuss books. "Normally we go where the community is, but in this instance no one wanted to do it," Ms Rafferty said. "People said teenagers don’t like books. We knew different, and had to find a different way of bringing it to market."

The site was almost branded "I am not a fish" before teenagers settled on Spinebreakers for the launch of the website aimed at "any story-surfing, web-exploring, word-loving, day-dreaming, reader, writer, artist or thinker aged 13 to 18".

The site is run by a core editorial team of 10 teenagers, supported by 100 contributors from across Britain. The content includes written, video and audio reviews of new releases, and offers users everything from drawing their own jackets for books to their own blog posts. Recent authors the editorial team has interviewed include Andrew Rawnsley about his book The End Of The Party and Richelle Mead, author of the Vampire Academy series. Ms Rafferty said: "This is about letting the teenagers know what is being released and what's hot. Bookshops are not always their natural habitat.

"Teenagers are passionate, political and opinionated and as a society we tend to underestimate them. Hopefully, Spinebreakers doesn't fall into that trap."

To prove the point, she said that in the first editorial meeting for Spinebreakers, panellists rejected the light fiction the publisher had offered and asked instead for copies of The Atomic Bazaar, William Langewiesche’s study of the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

The website has become established, with between 10,000 and 15,000 visitors per month, and a total of 90,000 last year. For a second time, Spinebreakers will provide a panel of shadow judges for this year’ Orange Prize for Fiction.

Beyond moves into social networking, the site is looking to expand its reach and already has a partnership with Island Records called Breaking, designed to allow teenagers to discover new music. So far, Spinebreakers has not moved into school textbooks or classroom aids. "We deliberately haven't gone down the educational route," Ms Rafferty said. "This isn't about literacy. Although it may be something we consider in the future."

While the initiative was launched by Penguin, the books featured are not exclusively from the publisher, and it has had discussions about the site with all of its rivals. Pearson believes everyone in the industry benefits if interest in reading is encouraged.

Spinebreakers is not a sales site, Ms Rafferty insisted, because most teenagers do not have their own credit cards. Yet she believes there is a correlation between titles that are highly rated on the site and their future sales.

"There were real commercial reasons to do it. But reading has grown into a cultural position that it doesn't drop off," she added. "It is not an insignificant investment, but in comparison with something like MySpace it is a bargain."

— By arrangement with The Independent