Books That Won’t Ever Let You Down

Better Reading’s Cheryl Akle and the power of story

If you ask any expert what makes a lifelong reader, they’ll tell you the best way is to grow up surrounded by books.

Which is why Cheryl Akle’s story is so remarkable. The founder and director of Australia’s foremost online reading community, Better Reading, didn’t see a book until she started school.

“We didn’t have them in my family” Cheryl says. “They just weren’t a thing for us.’ But the first time she held a book in her hands, she was hooked. “I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was. Just to hold it and smell it, I thought it was very special…”

Cheryl pauses, and laughs. “It’s so funny speaking about myself” she says. “I spend so much time speaking with authors about their experiences. It’s strange to have the tables turned!”

Cheryl is also the voice behind Better Reading’s podcast series, Stories Behind the Story , and thanks to her unique ability to put people at ease, it’s a smash hit. Authors feel comfortable opening up to her; one week she may be speaking with Isabel Allende about her joyful approach to feminism, and the next it will be C.J. Tudor speaking about interviewing movie stars.

Underpinning it all is Cheryl’s belief that good storytelling transcends race, gender, class and culture.

Silver linings

Cheryl’s empathy and warmth might be symptomatic of her own experiences overcoming cultural and social barriers. Like so many children born into migrant families, she arrived at primary school unable to read, or even speak, the official language of her adopted home. “I’m Lebanese–Australian” she explains. “English was a second language to me. I didn’t learn to read English until I was six or seven. But I couldn’t read Arabic, either.”

“When the teachers found out, there was a lot of pressure to pick it up. And I remember feeling very embarrassed about that.’ Cheryl was determined to crack the code.

“So I threw myself into it. I wanted to learn to read so much. So I did. And loved it.’ Her family was supportive, although her mother and father didn’t understand her obsession with the printed word. “We were very poor, so I was expected to pull my weight around the house. My mum and dad didn’t think reading was very productive.”

But anyone who’s seen Cheryl enthuse about a favourite book in Better Reading’s Book Club knows that she’s all about the silver linings. “Things were tough for my family. But it was fun!’ she laughs. “We grew up in a tiny house with six kids and two adults, and I shared a bed with my sister until I was in my teens. But I had a great childhood!”

That positive experience was fostered by a mother who urged her daughter to find ways of fitting in with a community that didn’t understand the culture Cheryl was born into. “My mother wanted us to assimilate. So I threw myself into everything. And I made heaps of great friends.”

Not that it was always easy. “We lived in inner-city Glebe. It was a totally
Anglo environment … and I was going to school with falafel sandwiches! Can you

“I remember going to a friend’s house for a sleepover. My friend’s mother
asked my mum what I liked to eat, and she told her chicken soup. So she served
soup for dinner, but it was chicken noodle soup out of a packet! I couldn’t
find any chicken at all! I was horrified!”

Ahead of the curve

Books, and reading, were a comfort to young Cheryl. “I had a beautiful life,” she says. “But books were an escape for me. I’ve also realised as an adult that it was a form of acceptance. It opened new worlds for me, and helped me fit in.”

Cheryl’s adventures with the printed word sparked an evangelical desire to help others find salvation between the pages of a book. It’s this motivation that has seen her build Better Reading into a business that reaches more than half a million book lovers every day.

It grew from the mortal remains of a groundbreaking government initiative, Books Alive, which aimed to promote the joys of reading and tempt Australians to pick up a book. After a career that began in Marrickville Library, then picked up pace at Dillons Booksellers in the UK and culminated in appointments as national buyer for Dymocks and Myer and marketing manager for Random House Australia, Cheryl was the perfect pick as program director.

In 2009, it was estimated that Books Alive had generated the sale of more than 1.4 million books across the country, with over $12 million pumped into the local economy. Despite that, the Abbott government decided to pull the pin on the initiative. But Cheryl didn’t want to see all her good work go to waste.

“It was defunded overnight” she says. “We just got an email, and that was it.’ Cheryl’s eyes blaze with fury at the memory. “So I said, “No! I’m not shutting it down! I’m going to take it on myself, and turn it into a business!”

Cheryl knew there was a demand for what was on offer. “People invest so much in reading” she says. “For many of them, it’s a hard gig just finding the time. And it’s not cheap. They don’t want to spend thirty bucks and not get the satisfaction they’re looking for.”

The first challenge was working out how to generate revenue. The business was a social media–based enterprise. But users were accustomed to getting information online for free, unlike with legacy media where people were happy to cough up for a newspaper or magazine.

That meant Cheryl needed publishers to buy exposure on the Better Reading platform. And at first, that was an uphill battle. “When I started, there was a lot of push-back because I was asking them to pay for something they used to get for free from Books Alive.”

At the same time, she knew publishers had to start thinking laterally about how to market their books. The same social media platforms that were drawing readers’ attention away from traditional sources of advertising were also superseding book reviews in newspapers and magazines.

And with the 50,000 Facebook followers she inherited from Books Alive, Cheryl had the makings of a formidable digital book business. “It was small” she says. “But we did have a ready-made audience.”

Cheryl also knew she was ahead of the curve. “It dawned on me at the Stella Prize. There was Susan Wyndham from the Sydney Morning Herald writing notes. I just got my camera phone, and a minute later, I had a report out on Facebook Live. Susan’s article came out a week later.”

“I thought to myself, you guys need to get moving. And I think that’s where we have the advantage over traditional media. We get to bring book news to people very, very quickly. And although Facebook is, by far, our most important platform, we’re on all of the socials. We have to be.”

Facing off against Facebook

Although these days Better Reading has a loyal Facebook following generating 280,000 likes, and its online newsletter goes out to 74,000 readers, it certainly wasn’t an overnight success. “In the early days, I was borrowing against my house” Cheryl recalls. “It was really hard.”

She also experienced, first-hand, the perils of running a business that exists only in the digital domain. “I got a text from one of the girls at work at 6.30am. And she said, “Cheryl, I can’t find our Facebook page.”

“This was our first or second year of business, and someone had hacked our page. It was a disaster.”

But Cheryl tackled it with her signature determination. “Of course, there’s no way of contacting Facebook. So I found an address for them in Sydney, and went and stood outside the building until I heard an American accent, and I just followed them up in the lift.”

“When I told them at reception that my Facebook page had been stolen, all they could say was that it happens all the time, and that there was nothing they could do.’ But Cheryl wasn’t deterred. “I told them I wasn’t leaving until they fixed the problem. So I stood in that foyer for hours.”

“Eventually, someone came out and gave me a woman’s business card and told me to email her. So I did. And she said, you’ll have your Facebook page back in a couple of hours. It worked.”

Cheryl Akle is living proof that that persistence pays off. And that if you try hard enough, you can find a human being at Facebook.

Digital business

Better Reading is nothing without its readers, which is why its Facebook page going down was such an existential threat.

Cheryl does still grapple with the ephemeral nature of her business. “Early on, I’d wake up in the morning and think, “Oh, my God! What kind of business have I got?” Because I can’t touch it.”

And that means she has to adapt. Constantly. “You can never sit still” she says. “It goes against everything I learnt about business, which was that you’re meant to know exactly where you’re going. Of course we’re planning and strategizing all the time. But the nature of social media is that you never know quite where you’ll be in twelve months’ time.”

With a business model that now encompasses everything from an online book club to book reviews, live-streaming events and the landmark Better Reading booklists, Cheryl is always on the lookout for the next big thing.

“That’s how the podcasts came about’, she says. “I was in San Francisco, and everywhere I went, people were listening to podcasts. This was in the very, very early days. My instant thought was, “Wow, get me onto that!”

“But I had to work out what people could get from it that I wasn’t already giving them. And then it struck me. You finish reading everything an author you love has written. And then you want to know more about them, their life, the story behind how they began writing.”

“It really hit a note with my readers, and we’re up to 650,000 downloads now. Every single day, I hear from someone who says that listening to one of our podcasts has changed their lives.”

Cheryl’s relationship with Better Reading’s audience is deeply personal. When she speaks about the people she describes as “her readers’, there’s no disguising the pride in her voice. “They’re all voracious readers” she says. “And they’re all different … some read literary only, some read commercial only, and some cross over. But they’re at Better Reading because it’s a safe place. We very rarely get trolled. People are respectful. And that’s great.”

Wherever her readers go, Cheryl knows she has to follow. With the social media environment in a state of continual flux, is that a challenge? “Oh, my God,” Cheryl laughs. “Yes! I can’t get my head around it. But that’s why I hire young people!”

It also means she can’t afford to be slow on the uptake. “After I decided we needed to get into podcasting, we spent about $3,000 to get it up and running. It took about a week. And we launched it. You can’t afford to wait.”

Format friendly

The other thing Better Reading doesn’t do is pass judgement on format. Cheryl is unequivocal. “How you get the story is really up to you” she says. “Audiobook, e-book, print. It makes no difference.”

“I remember being at a Sydney Writers Festival event, and Emma Alberici was saying she had so little time for reading, she listened to audiobooks. And the person sitting next to me said, “Oh, my God, that’s cheating!” I just don’t even understand that!”

“I’m consuming so many audiobooks myself now. One of my favourite things ever is being read to. And it’s so convenient now with digital downloads.”

For Cheryl, all that matters is the story. She wants to introduce her audience to the wonders of reading, in whatever form suits the reader best. “I want authors who are unknown as well as the big brand authors” she says. “There’s nothing more exciting than introducing people to debut authors. So I make sure I keep costs low for the publishers so they can afford to take a risk on an exciting newcomer.”

Helping hand

The onslaught of the pandemic hit Australia’s book industry hard. Cheryl knew how traumatic it would be for authors, with book tours cancelled and launches put on ice. So she did what she does best. She rose to the occasion. “I like to think we’re responsive, rather than reactive. And one of my first thoughts after COVID hit was “What can I do to help Australian authors?”

“So any author who had a tour cancelled, or who just needed a voice, we offered an opportunity to speak to our reading community online on Wednesday nights for free. And it just went off.”

Besides the feel-good motivation for Better Reading’s staff, the initiative has been a huge gift to readers living outside urban areas. “We’re going to keep doing them” Cheryl says.  “Because so many of the people who tune in are in rural and regional areas, and would never have gone to live events anyway.”

As for the future, Cheryl’s just enjoying the moment. “Every single day, I feel like I’ve won the jackpot. I’ve got great people at Better Reading. We’ve got a really lovely environment in the workplace. I just love it.”

She no longer feels she needs to apologise for her business’s runaway success. “We’ve been criticised at times because we’re too popular, and there was a time when I wasn’t very comfortable with that” she says. “But now when people say, “Oh, you’re too popular”, my response is to thank them. Because we are. And that’s great.”

Any regrets? “Sometimes, I do wish I had more time to read for pleasure” she laughs.

But it’s difficult to imagine this force of nature stopping for long. “For me” she says, “the number one thing I want is to see us keep growing.”

“But there’s no point moving up unless I’m taking the readers with me.”

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