Goodreads for Kids (but better): An Interview with Toppsta Founder, Georgina Atwell
In November, we caught up with Georgina Atwell, founder of Toppsta. Toppsta aims to help children find books they’ll love. Like Goodreads for kids (but better), their website allows children to review the books they’ve read and to see what others have recommended. Toppsta also has a wide reach across Facebook and other social media platforms, where they run giveaways and share great titles with parents, teachers and librarians.
How did you come up with the idea for Toppsta?
I was made redundant on my first maternity leave back in 2008. I knew that I always wanted to run my own business, but I had absolutely no idea what it would be. When my son was about ten months old, we went to visit some friends and I realised that, unless you’ve got kids of the same age, you have no idea what a ten-month-old is interested in. So, originally, [Toppsta] was a books and toys website. I started setting it up and then I got a call from Apple. I had turned down a job there a few years previously but had said to them if you ever have an eBook store please call me, thinking nobody actually follows up on that. What really appealed to me though was the editorial control – there's no paid-for placement on iTunes. It’s all editorial choice and that was so liberating. I just thought I’ve got to give it a go or I’m going to regret it.
I had four fantastic years there. I was the single point of contact for every single UK publisher which was something else because I know the Kindle team is considerably bigger. It was certainly a demanding job and it became clear that it was very much full-time in the office or that’s it basically.
And so I thought now’s probably the right time to go back to [Toppsta] and give it a try. For me it ticks so many boxes – yes, it’s about literacy but we don’t do it in a worthy way. It’s all about having fun, about the excitement of getting a book in the post, knowing that your opinion matters, of seeing that opinion published on a website, sharing it at school. But also, for me personally, I get to do it around the kids and I still get to work with all the UK publishers.
How did Toppsta grow from that initial idea?
I literally finished on the Friday [at Apple] and started on the Monday, picked up the phone and said “it’s me again. I know your list really well, and I think there’s a piece missing. You’ve got the sales piece but you’re very reliant on retail marketing and that’s a very small shop front.” If you think about how much variety there is from a baby to an eighteen-year-old, for kids’ books it just doesn’t work. And I know that people want recommendations, but it was also difficult for retailers to provide that editorial curation.
I’d watched with interest the indie authors in eBooks do the most incredible, sustained social media campaigns. They were just on Facebook and Twitter, talking about their books, doing giveaways, having promotions with multiple links to retailers. It was really agnostic. So I spent a year on Facebook, really listening. I’m a big fan of the cheap start-up – you come in with an idea, it’s very basic, and you say to your customer: “what do you like? What do you not like?” I really understood they wanted things like “was there anything to be worried about in the book?” They wanted to know what books children of the same age were enjoying, they wanted to have curated lists, they wanted to share their opinions with each other and they wanted it really to be more than a blog. A blog was a very linear process of what’s being reviewed this week and they were looking for something a bit more like a John Lewis e-commerce where you could filter by genre or age of child or when it was published or school subjects. So that year was really my R&D year, collecting information to then create a website.
The industry was on Twitter, but the parents were on Facebook, so we really focused on Facebook. Now, on Twitter, we have upped our presence there because there are a lot of teachers and they’re fantastic. Different kinds of books work on Facebook vs. Twitter vs. the website, so we have to pitch carefully. The website is really where we get engagement with kids. And what we do when we work with a publisher is ask them “who are you targeting?” and then we would adapt the campaign depending on those objectives.
What do you think the impact of Covid has been on Toppsta and on children’s books and their engagement with reading?
I think parents have really enjoyed choosing and reading children’s books. This time last year we were saying we have 65,000 people coming to the website every month and that’s now 165,000. We were growing before lockdown but definitely this year it’s just absolutely spiralled. I’m very grateful.
Our traffic is up more than 100%, our newsletter subscribers have increased substantially – I think 50% or so – and engagement on social media is up too. But I know we are reaching beyond what we might call ‘traditional readers’ as 90% of our community are outside London and that’s really important to me. These are often communities where the schools have lost their libraries, and parents and teachers are keen to keep children reading but don’t know where to go for recommendations. I honestly think there’s no better recommendation than from another child, and it’s amazing to see Toppsta becoming the place for peer-to-peer recommendations.
But, absolutely, this time last year we were getting forty to fifty new reviews every day, now we’re getting ninety to one hundred. Children are reading more; they’re sharing their recommendations more. I think the kids’ reviews are just the most important. We all think our opinions matter, but they don’t really. It’s the kids. And it’s so interesting what they enjoy – stuff that I don’t think is picked up in the adult media.
We don’t really promote the bestsellers, they have much bigger campaigns that are in multimedia and on TV. We’re not in that field. We are able to help give promotion to the midlists, the debut authors and the series, and all those parts of the children’s lists that I think are really hard to find a promotional place for. But we have a reading community who are desperate for recommendations.
We have a lot of submissions for picture books, but actually it’s that stage after picture books where parents have the most questions. And there’s where we really want to be able to help, to say these are the books your child could start reading – you know, start with Claude, then move onto Horrid Henry etc. But equally, don’t be restricted in terms of what you’re reading to the child. You can stretch them and let them sit back and lap up Malamander and just enjoy the tale for what it is. Their reading won’t be advanced enough for that, but their innate sense of wonder and curiosity will be, so we help them at that fork and what you see later on is that it comes back together again. Their reading and what they’re listening to is one and the same.
Is there a project that you’re particularly enjoying working on at the moment?
We have a reading record we create, and that’s something that KS1 and KS2 children take between home and school for several months and they record the books that they’re reading, including any new words and which page they’re up to. We send 30,000 copies of that for free to schools and we get a lot of press for that. These schools rely on it, and a lot of them came back and said now we can use the budget for buying books and we’ve looked at recommendations in the reading record, so that’s very important to me. It really is part and parcel of what we do. We have a social goal at the heart of the business. We’re not a literary organisation, we’re not a charity, but at the same time that is what we’re doing in many ways and to be able to do that funded by many other projects throughout the year is something I’d like to be able to continue doing, Covid or not.
Do you have a favourite children’s book?
I actually have lots because, first of all, I like variety so there are things like Peepo, which, for me, was the book I read every night to both my children from the day they were born. I love the lilting rhythm of it. We can all recite it by heart, and I’ve still got my original copy. But I’ve also loved The Hate U Give. Actually, I think that should be essential reading in secondary schools in the same way that I think The Boy at the Back of the Class should be essential reading in primary schools – and possibly all adults all over the world, so it’s very hard. I can’t pick one. That is the joy of publishing, there are a lot of books.