Spying on CoverSpy

In October 2009, after the opening of Greenlight Books, the idea for CoverSpy was hatched. Soon “a team of publishing nerds” were running around New York, chronicling the city’s public reading habits.

For a little over 3 years now, everyday this group goes incognito onto subways, through streets, and in parks and bars to get a read on the our literary thermometer. Using Tumblr, Facebook, and Twitter, they deliver the results almost in real time.

Here Book Boroughing speaks with two of CoverSpy’s founders about the project’s origins, who’s reading what on which subway, and the best books they’ve ever spied.

How would you describe CoverSpy at a party?
A: CoverSpy is a project where we spy what people are reading on subways and around the city and report what we see on our website. Sometimes, especially at publishing events or hanging with fellow book nerds, we mention CoverSpy and people already know about us or maybe even follow us on Tumblr, which is an awesome feeling.

How did you come up with the idea?
T: We were at a bar with some colleagues from Slice magazine, talking about the number of ereaders and Kindle ads we were seeing on our commutes. This was in 2009 when e-readers weren’t yet as common as they are today. We talked about our fears of someday looking around a train car and only seeing cold ereader screens, not beautifully worn book covers, and not being able to tell what the person next to us was reading.

A: We wondered if there were something we could do to encourage people to keep reading books, so the idea to create a website where we posted what people were reading, sort of Missed Connections–style was born.

Has it grown since you started?
A: In the beginning, there were just two of us spying and we had a whole 8 followers for months before our friends started sharing the site with their friends and it got attention from GalleyCat and SwissMiss and then (boom!) we grew from there. We currently have about 15 secret agents spying for us and have over 12,000 followers on Tumblr, a few thousand more followers on Facebook and Twitter.

You’re on all three major social media platforms, I’m interested in how you use these.
A: CoverSpy began with a Twitter account where we tweeted the title, author, and a brief description of the reader. At some point we began adding photos of the covers and then expanded to Tumblr, which was the perfect platform to showcase the range of covers we spy each week.

CoverSpy and Tumblr seem like a natural fit. What have been some of the format’s benefits?
T: Tumblr is great because of the ease with which people can reblog and comment. Watching people get excited about the books we post is one of the coolest things about this project. People talk about whether they loved or hated that book. They recall reading it. They comment that they’re in love with the person we’ve described reading it. It’s hilarious.

What about Twitter and Facebook?
A: With Twitter we have the ability to engage in conversations by @replying to authors whose books we’ve spied and communicating with people who want to begin a CoverSpy outpost in their city. But the nature of Twitter is that tweets show up in a stream and then disappear rather quickly, limiting the amount of interaction people have with our posts. We started a Facebook page to keep people informed about our events, like I Like Your Glasses and other literary happenings they might be interested in.

Since Book Boroughing people like to go to literary events, can you explain “I Like Your Glasses” for those who aren’t familiar. It’s a great idea.
T: Last year we teamed up with Alikewise (dating site that matches people by their book tastes) and threw a series of informal soirees at Housing Works Bookstore called “I Like Your Glasses.” The idea was inspired by people’s comments on some of our CoverSpy posts–their comments along with our posts read like Missed Connections, and we thought it’d be fun to throw a party to get people mixing and mingling! It seemed like that’s what they wanted to do.

“I Like Your Glasses” isn’t just for singles looking for relationships. People show up who are looking to connect with other readers, listen to the readings, or drink the three-dollar Sixpoint beer. All proceeds go to Housing Works Bookstore, by the way, so it’s also a benefit.

You’ve been doing this for a few years now, you must see trends. What are a few you’ve noticed?
A: When a book is on the NY Times Best Seller’s List we often see it being read around the city for months following. From Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin to Stieg Larsson’s novels, they are very popular for a time and then are read less and less, replaced by the next big hit. People on the Q train love Malcolm Gladwell, people on the F train love Jonathan Lethem and are usually carrying either an NPR or Strand tote bag. There are more self-help books on the L train.

T: People love it when we post a children’s book. They love it even more when it’s an adult reading one–like Sweet Valley Twins. That got a lot of comments.

Do you have a favorite train for cover spying?
T: Everyone’s reading on the F train, so that makes it easy.

A: The covers on the L train tend to be the prettiest, most highly designed which I appreciate. But I think the G train is my favorite because of the range of books read on it. I’m often introduced to authors I never knew existed on that line more than others.

I’ve always wondered, you also feature ebooks, how do you know what people are reading? Do you ever ask?
T: Oftentimes when we spy an ereader we don’t say what they’re reading, because we don’t know. If anyone ever does post what book is on someone’s ereader, I think they’ve leaned over and read the running head on their screen. We don’t typically ask people what they’re reading, because that would compromise the agent’s cover.

Are there any thoughts to growing CoverSpy? I hear people in other cities are starting to create their own local sites.
A: In the past we’ve made connections with people in other cities and helped them start sites in Washington, DC, Buenos Aires, and London. It is such a fun thing to share this project with people all over the world, connecting over a shared love of books. Sometimes people begin their own versions of the project without being in touch with us; we’ve seen them pop up in Denver, Kiev, and in Japan. Although we prefer if people contacted us before using our name, that feels outside of our control. In the end, it’s cool that people are inspired by what we started.

Best book you’ve ever spied?
T: It was some steamy romance novel being read by an off-duty MTA worker—can’t remember the title.Or maybe the guy who was holding one sunflower and ten pink balloons. Again, I don’t remember which book it was. Sometimes it’s the people that stand out.

A: I get a lot of joy out of spying kids reading on the subway, so pretty much put a kid in front of me with Beverly Cleary or Harry Potter and that’s my favorite.

What was the last great book you read?
A: Not many books in the world can top Simon Van Booy’s The Secret Lives of People in Love, although Nicole Krauss’s The History of Love comes close.

T: Ha. That’s funny because I was going to say that I just finished Simon Van Booy’s Everything Beautiful Began After. And it was pretty great.