Interview: Books on the Underground founder, Hollie Belton

Kindles and the Metro – that’s what people read on the tube these days, isn’t it? Hollie Belton is trying to change that, with her scheme, Books on the Underground.

Books on the Underground

Books on the Underground

It’s as simple as it sounds. She, and a number of others around London, leave books on the Underground for others to read, share and enjoy. She puts her own stickers on the front to stop them getting thrown out, and leaves them in stations and on trains for others to take a look.

“Think of us as your local library, but without the late fees. Just remember to put them back when you’re finished.”

Founder and creative art director at Leo Burnett, Hollie Belton, spoke to Natasha Clark about where the idea came from, and her thoughts for the future.

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The idea came from living in Dalston and commuting to West Kensington. I used to cycle to work because I lived in Hackney and that was amazing. I loved it. Then I thought, I’m fine cycling, but I probably can’t do it every day in case I kill myself! So I started getting the tube and it was a very long commute. Reading was very enjoyable. I used to be reading a book a week or every two weeks, now I’m normally falling asleep!

I thought, it’d be so cool to just leave books, like people leave the Metro, like a surprise for someone to find there. I had a book which I really enjoyed called The Book Thief, and I thought I really wanted to leave this. But I figured… where’s it going to end up? It’s just going to go nowhere. I thought, I’m going to try and create something. I wasn’t very inventive, I came up with Books on the Underground, keeping it pretty simple!

The Book Thief

The Book Thief

I made the stickers and the Tumblr and Twitter and just started stickering up my own books from my shelf and leaving them. Then one girl found one on the train, I  remember getting the tweet and thinking “Oh my God! This is so exciting!” Everyone that heard about it really liked it, that was nice. I think for about a month and a half it was just me leaving books and tweeting to myself with my ten followers!

My boyfriend knew someone at London for Free, they do Dalston for Free, Hackney for Free Facebook pages, and asked them if they’d be interested in writing a post. They said they were interested, and they’d definitely do a post. I uploaded a photo of me outside Old Street with Of Mice and Men and a put link to my Twitter and it got shared 500 times, loads of likes… all of a sudden I had so many followers! I was getting so excited. That did make it take off in a way.

Books on the Underground

Books on the Underground

Then a blogger from Time Out got in touch saying could I just answer some questions, so I did, they blogged about it, and then, from that one piece, it just spiralled from there. Currently I’m on about 3687 Twitter followers. [revised from the time of writing] I really hope no one’s unfollowed me…

I just kept doing it, then the publishers got in touch. At first, Mills and Boon got in touch. Obviously they’re very well known for being a bit of a cheap read but to be fair, I go on the tube everyday and I see a lot of people reading that sort of book. How many people ride the tube? I can’t go and decide what people would want to read. I mean, how many people read 50 Shades of Grey? I’m sure some people would love some Mills and Boon. I emailed them asking to tie it in with Valentines Day, thinking we could do a mini-campaign, call it ‘Love on the Underground.’ They loved it, and that got a lot more followers.

Books on the Underground

Books on the Underground

They sent the books, and at this stage I paid for everything. I redesigned the pink heart sticker. I looped the authors in on Twitter and they were all retweeting. Loads of their fans saw it. I started finding them all and asking for retweets. That really helped, and lots of authors asked me to take their books.

I’ve never charged authors but I now I do get them to cover the costs of the stickers. I’m definitely still in debt from all the millions of stickers! People contact me for stickers still. There are people who apply for them and tweet them, but a lot of people don’t get in touch, which is a bit odd, as they’ve gone to the effort of emailing me. I don’t always get a lot of interaction. I would say the main hub is Twitter.

Books on the Underground

Books on the Underground

One girl tweeted me next asking if I needed some help, she did the website and she now is my Head of Distribution and Social Media. She also helps me with the Twitter. She works with a web company and is really great with the SEO and knowing what to tweet.

Now, I have a few more people helping me too. Publishers have sent me a batch of 100 books to leave. That’s a lot! I split them between us and that makes it easier.

Books on the Underground

Books on the Underground

I never said it’s rocket science, anyone could have done it… but they didn’t! I do have one guy who has definitely copied me and redesigned the sticker, Northern Line Novels. The sticker was uncannily twitter. He started it a few months after I started mine. I emailed him, but he said he’d never heard of me… even though he tweeted me! I asked him if he wanted to work together but he never replied. A bit odd. You can’t own an idea like Books on the Underground.

I’ve always enjoyed reading, and read what I wanted. Anything good! Sometimes trash, sometimes good. I did read 50 Shades… it was awful. I thought it must be different, but it really wasn’t. My friend gave me all three, but they’re down the side of my bed…

My friends say that “Everyone wants a Christian Grey, right?” Does everyone want a selfish, possessive boyfriend? I’m not so sure…! I don’t think I’ll put it on the Underground, there’s already so many people reading that already.

books 50 shades

50 Shades of Grey

I don’t really have any rules about what I put on there. I can’t say what other people are going to like. The aim is obviously for others to have a good read, you want it to be entertaining.

I haven’t read them all, I get sent so many now. I keep my favourites to read though. Man Booker sent me all of the shortlist books and two copies of everything. Parting with them was hard! The Luminaries is like a doorstep, it’s going around the office and then on the tube. I’m doing Wonder now. I tweeted them with a picture asking if I could have a copy and they just emailed me! It was anti-bullying week in November so they sent me a hundred copies to tie in with that.

Books on the Underground

Books on the Underground

After I emptied my bookshelves, I went to Dalston Oxfam. They’re 99p, it’s the best charity book shop in London and I love it. If it’s popular, it’ll be in a charity shop. I don’t have any space now, my wardrobe is piled up and every morning I take another one to leave on the tube.

I love recommending a book. If I enjoy it, I will tell everyone. I have a desire to get people into reading, I got everyone in my family to read A Thousand Splendid Suns, even my Mum who thought it was so depressing.

A Thousand Splendid Suns

A Thousand Splendid Suns

I thought about setting up a Books on the Underground book club, but I’m getting involved in the London Book Club. I’m going armed with stickers to spread the word. Everyone seems so enthusiastic and I think that’s the way forward.

I think I’m trying to reach anyone. The diversity of the books is great. But mainly, anyone who commutes daily. It’s a large target audience. We’ve recently done children’s books, which I wasn’t sure about at first but I left them during half term and at places I think kids will go through.

Not a fan of kindles. I can’t do it! I know if I buy one I’d love it… but there’s something about a book. I love physically knowing you’re halfway through, or knowing you have so far to go! I have to love books. People ask me if I’m going to start leaving Kindles on the tube… I don’t think so!

Books on the Underground

Books on the Underground

People also ask me what happens if someone steals the book? I can’t really control that. As long as they pick it up, they have a new reader. You’d have to be pretty heartless to do that! It was for free anyway… I’m not really concerned.

I just love books! Why would you pick up the Metro?! It’s the kind of person you are… you either read a book, a Metro or a kindle. It’s hard working in digital advertising and not being a fan of kindles! I’m supposed to embrace all things digital, but it does put a lot of people out of jobs.

Books on the Underground

Books on the Underground

I get sent books all the time, publishers and authors email me every day. There’s hundreds of books in the system – maybe around 2000 now? One person donated 400 at a time… it’s getting big. I even heard some people on the tube talking about it once, which was so nice. I used to spy on people and as they picked up the books too! It’s exciting.

I didn’t get TfL’s approval, but I did try. I emailed them, they didn’t get back to me. I did meet them, my friend wrote to the Mayor, they passed it back to them and told me they were going to try and stop me. I was having nightmares that they were going to fine me! The guy I met though was really nice, and tried to help me, getting something signed off internally. They briefed cleaners not to throw away the books with my stickers.

Books on the Underground

Books on the Underground

I’ve seen some books in very odd places, people running with books even! The best thing was when Ricky Gervais re-tweeted when someone picked up his wife’s book. That’s when I knew I’d made it! I need to find some authors with some famous partners now… After that we got an influx of followers.

I have some ideas for the future of Books on the Underground, I’m speaking to people to try and get some more funding. It’s quite an epic job, but my idea is to publish someone’s first novel and launch it on the tube. It would be an opportunity for up and coming writers. I can’t physically do something like that by myself, so I’m trying to get in touch with other people, putting proposals together.

Someone’s running Books on the Subway in New York, they contacted me who were super enthusiastic about doing it there too. I redesigned the sticker for them, she loved it, and she’s taken it on.

Books on the Subway

Books on the Subway

I’ve had so many people email me, one lady wants to start it in South Africa. One lady in Brisborne has started something very similar too. I want it to be global.

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If you’d like to get involved in Books on the Underground, email Hollie and she’d love to send you some stickers to place on your own books. Get involved on Twitter, or if you’re an author or publisher looking for some extra eyes on your work, give her an email at booksontheunderground@hotmail.com or @Booksundergrnd.

All photos except book covers are courtesy of Hollie Belton, and Books on the Underground.

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This entry was posted in Culture and tagged , , , , , , by Natasha Clark. Bookmark the permalink.

About Natasha Clark

Digital journalist for The Times - Red Box. natasha[dot]clark[at]thetimes[dot]co[dot]uk Previously @TwitterUK, @politicshome and @thesundaytimes. Previously freelance for the Guardian and the Independent. I also work for What's New in Publishing and co-editing Wannabe Hacks. Previously I was Editor @ The Boar, the University of Warwick students' newspaper. I am a graduate of History and Politics from Warwick, and of Newspaper Journalism at City University. Ginger and proud.

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