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Can you tell us a bit about Alexi? What brought it all about?

Alexi is a book discovery and reading app that reimagines the answer to ‘What should I be reading next?’ Music and film have been transformed by digital access and expert curation, and now Alexi is extending the revolution to literature, offering our members a handpicked library in the palm of their hands.

As former literary agents and publishers, we know that personal recommendation is the engine of the book world. Alexi gives readers, wherever they are, access to the books that the world’s most admired writers and cultural figures are pulling most eagerly off their own shelves. Each book we make available to read on Alexi in its own way illuminates, challenges and makes better sense of our complex world.

Man Booker prize winners John Banville, Julian Barnes, A.S. Byatt and Peter Carey and other great writers such as John le Carré, Kamila Shamsie, Bret Easton Ellis, Ali Smith and Mohsin Hamid have all contributed to Alexi and are joined by many others in recommending books that have inspired them and inspire them still.

Ayesha Karim, co-founder and COO of Alexi, explains how the service enlists the help of authors and other cultural figures to recommend books to readers

Why is it called Alexi?

Alexi is a mash-up of the Library of Alexandria and ‘lexis,’ the Greek word for ‘word’ or ‘the totality of words in a language.’

How is it different from ebooks available on Kindle or other platforms such as Goodreads? What do you need to access Alexi?

Alexi is a membership service — a digital book club, if you like — so for a small monthly fee members have access to over 300 handpicked books a year accompanied by expert curation and recommendation, that are all available to read at no extra charge on any iOS device such as an iPhone or an iPad.

Ebooks on Amazon’s Kindle have to be bought individually at a charge anywhere from £2-£15 or more and Goodreads aggregates peer-to-peer recommendations rather than expert advice and links through to Amazon or other retailers where you can buy the book, but does not offer the books itself.

Do you think there’s a real market for such a service? What about places such as Pakistan where Western subscription rates might be too high and bandwidth an issue?

We have successfully grown a dedicated following since our launch with members from London to Hong Kong, Sydney to Cape Town. Access to music, video, film, news and games has been transformed by digital platforms, and we believe that access to books should be equally easy, all over the world.

Since ebooks require a tiny fraction of the bandwidth needed to stream music, games or film, we are able to deliver a large amount of content over minimal bandwidth or cellular networks. Our service costs as little as £2.99 a month (around Rs 400) which is pretty competitive even by Pakistani standards. For example, Alexi members can read new titles such as Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie which costs Rs 1,135 at Liberty Books or Commonwealth by Ann Patchett which similarly costs Rs 1,325 to buy in Karachi, or they can dip into backlist titles such as Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid and Helen Fieldings’s Mad About the Boy which cost Rs 800 and Rs 945 at a bookshop in Karachi.

How does it work — would Alexi only be curating books from well-established publishing houses or will it also be actively looking for unpublished work as well?

Alexi is curated by well-known, prize-winning writers, and our editorial board that is composed of literary critics. We have deals in place with a wide range of publishers — both the well-established and the small and independent — in order to bring whatever books they choose to our readers. In due course we will also be offering original content on Alexi.

A complaint one hears all the time is that people, at least in Pakistan, have stopped reading. Or that people’s attention spans have become too short. Would you agree with this?

There has been a steady decline in people reading or attending cultural activities, plays, exhibits, drama since the 1980s with the adoption of home video — the VCR — and this trend has continued with Netflix. But with changing attitudes over the last few years towards fitness and lifestyle, physical and mental health, we see a new movement pushing back against the fast, processed and short-form: people who hunger for deeper engagement, whether it be ‘slow food’ or ‘slow vacations’ or ‘slow reading’.

Also, we see that people are tired of computer-generated marketing and with Alexi we are offering them a way out of the algorithm rabbit hole. Good books are one of the best antidotes to the distortions of the echo chamber, and we’ve combined the best of analogue and digital to create a new way of bringing them to people.

Then there are people who still prefer holding a paper book in their hands and smelling the scent of a new book. Alexi’s not going to satisfy fogeys like them, is it?

It depends how you define fogey! A significant proportion of our members are book lovers aged 55 and above, who’ve taken very readily to digital reading (not least because it offers them control over print size). We’ve also experienced a number of members who read in both formats, buying a physical copy for when they’re tucked up in bed at night and using Alexi when they are on the go.

And of course, ultimately since it is a mobile platform, Alexi is about access to a great selection of books wherever one may be, whether travelling on holiday, waiting for a doctor’s appointment or having a pedicure, so that instead of spending one’s time scrolling through social media or gaming on a phone or tablet, we can stimulate and enrich our minds by discovering a new book or dipping into one we have always meant to read.

How did you get into this venture? You were working as a literary agent with a well- established firm. Was that not satisfying?

It’s not that we weren’t satisfied in our jobs. It’s more that both my co-founder and I are passionate about access and discovery and helping readers find good books in as many different ways as they can. So we created Alexi to open up a new channel that would be available equally to everyone, everywhere. Also, we both like starting new things. My co-founder, Andrew Kidd, launched a new literary prize — The Folio Prize — a few years ago, and before I worked in publishing I worked in Silicon Valley.

Is Alexi only for readers or does it have any plans for writers as well, as in connecting potential writers with publishers?

We are very much for writers as well as readers, in that we want to help the former find more of the latter. But we don’t have any plans to play an ‘agenting’ role, no. However, we do plan to publish titles ourselves in due course.

How open is Alexi to becoming a platform for writers from Pakistan? Would it have separate feeds for different regions?

Anything is possible. Our dream would be to establish ‘bespoke’ versions of Alexi for different parts of the world, and as Pakistan is near to my heart I’d of course especially love to help its writers and readers find each other.

What are your ultimate goals or hopes for Alexi?

To excite as many people in as many parts of the world as possible about the power of good books to illuminate the human condition, and to enrich and even change us.

The interviewer is Dawn’s Editor Magazines

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 1st, 2017

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