VALUE YOURSELF. Start a Patreon account EARLY! Your work is worth being paid for. If you’re a content creator, there is absolutely nothing wrong with creating additional content for your community members that crave it and will pay for it. You should be encouraged to support yourself through your work, not turned off by the idea of asking people for money. If you have great content, they will come.
Aspart of our series about young people who are making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mackenzie Newcomb.
Mackenzie Newcomb is the founder of Bad Bitch Book Club. Originally from a coastal town in Massachusetts, she moved to New York City to pursue a career in beauty and fashion. To her surprise, it was through books that she found herself most easily able to connect with others. She started the book club in 2018 and has been so pleased to see it take off in 2020 with big names in the book world joining the meetups, including some of Newcomb’s favorites — Brit Bennett and Christina Lauren. When Newcomb isn’t busy running Bad Bitch Book Club, she works in influencer marketing and can often be found spending time with her husband and rescue dog Sophie.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
Igrew up in a working class beach town called Marshfield on the South Shore of Massachusetts. I spent my summers working 9–5 on my sandcastles at the beach, cruising on my family’s 13 ft Boston Whaler and learning how to surf and scuba dive. We were far from rich, but my childhood was definitely charmed! Both of my parents are entrepreneurs that started their businesses as adults with children, so as a kid I was extremely aware of our fluctuating financial situation at all times. I knew how risky it was to start a business, and even more so when you have a family to provide for. Still, I had the entrepreneurial spirit, and having my own company has always been Plan A.
You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
Bad Bitch Book Club was founded in spring of 2018 as a traditional (virtual) book club that focused exclusively on books written by women. I was inspired to start it after accomplishing a 2017 New Year’s Resolution to read 50 books in one year. It was never meant to become a business, but as it continued to grow over the last few years, members of the community wanted more. They wanted merch, IRL and virtual meetups, and additional programming. In March of 2020 we experimented for the first time with virtual meetups to help people through the early days of quarantine. Soon we made it official and started inviting authors to our meetups, I was shocked by how many of our members were interested in attending. The more programming we added, the more people showed up. Now we meet 2–3 times per week to discuss a variety of books spanning many genres, from feminist non-fiction to romance, and it’s not unusual to have 50 people in a meeting. My initial goal was to encourage people to read more books written by women, but it’s really evolved into helping people find community during a really challenging time.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
I was never a particularly “good student” and always identified as someone who wasn’t much of a reader. This was a limiting belief of mine that prevented me from realizing one of my greatest passions in the world. In 2016 I read 3 books and roughly 3,000 articles on the election. I needed something to take my mind off of what I believed to be impending doom (was right about that!) I threw myself into reading and never stopped. I realized I didn’t have to read the classics or pretentious favorites in order to be a reader, I could read celebrity memoirs and women’s fiction (hate that term) and it didn’t make me unsophisticated or less than those who think Jack Kerouac is king. Reading can reduce stress by up to 68%! I knew how much peace reading had brought me, and I wanted to share that peace with other people.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
I’ve always been an “internet person” and have been blogging off-and-on since 2011. When I started Bad Bitch Book Club in 2018 it didn’t feel like a huge deal, it was just a Gmail newsletter and a Facebook group. The first “Aha Moment” came for me last year when I finally branded the club and saw huge growth (over 100%) in the first two months. I realized that I was certainly on to something. But it wasn’t until this year when Bad Bitch Book Club secured some seriously huge names like Brit Bennett and Elin Hilderbrand to come visit us that I had my “oh sh*t” moment when I realized this was my future, and I better renovate my website to help with the influx of membership!
Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
I knew that we needed to have a really strong brand identity right off the bat, even before we had a website and merch. There had to be strict rules to ensure that the book selections were premium and that we’d have strong member retention. Every book needed to be written by a woman (though we have since expanded to non-binary and gender queer folx as well) and needed to be favorably reviewed online. The reason we’ve been so successful is the consistency in our choices. Once I finally did meet with our brand designer (Michelle Wintersteen of MKW Creative) I knew that I already had people who would be sincerely interested in our products. The brand itself just rolled off the tongue, I knew exactly who the Bad Bitches were. Then this year when we moved towards more of a virtual meetup model, I brought on my friend Lily Herman who is probably best known for her election coverage for Teen Vogue and Refinery 29. She became an advisor for me on how we could expand BBBC within the confines of 2020. We were really lucky that we already were in a really good place at the time, 50% of our book selections had been written by WOC, we hadn’t had any scandals or been called out for insensitivity, but we wanted to take it a step beyond that. Together we worked on the programming for BBBC to ensure that it was the most inclusive spot on the internet.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
This summer we were lucky to secure Elin Hilderbrand to come visit our book club. For those who aren’t familiar with her, she is a NYT Best Selling author with dozens of novels published, most of which take place in Nantucket. As she was telling us about a new book she was working on, which is about a writer, she said that she wanted to include our book club as an anecdote in the novel. We had about 200 people on the call and I think she was blown away. That was amazing.
Perhaps even cooler is last month, when we met with Rosarya Pablo Cruz and Julie Schwietert Collazo about the book they co-wrote The Book of Rosy: A Mother’s Story of Separation at the Border. I asked one of our members, Hannah, to co-host and translate the interview in real time with me. Her family is from Honduras and she works with asylum seekers, so it felt like the perfect fit. The interview went so smoothly and our group was able to raise $1.5k for Immigrant Families Together in just 24 hours. It was a really moving experience.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
In the very beginning I chose the first book on my own, without reading it first. Luckily at the time we only had about 20 members, because the book was terrible! It was a series of essays on cultural icons and I didn’t understand about 50% of the references. The following month I started our current model which has allowed members to vote on which book we read, based on a selection I provide. This has been much better because it spreads out the accountability. I also now read the books ahead of time, how could I not? We have 5k members! I also included Riley Sager (a very famous thriller writer) in an early vote because I assumed he was a woman based on their name…..
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
Bad Bitch Book Club is a community, so a lot of my best help and mentorship has come directly through the group. There are a lot of people within the community that want to step up and contribute to its growth and success! My friend Lily, who I mentioned before, was the first person to tell me I should start inviting authors to talk to us. The first time was this April with Lyssa Kay Adams who wrote Bromance Book Club. Once that happened, I felt invincible. Lily really gave me the confidence to make things happen in the group. My sister Taylor has also been immensely helpful, not only does she run one of our several reading groups, but she’s always there to tell me when something is a bad idea.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
There are dozens of people so it’s really hard to narrow down to one, but I will say there is without a doubt a pattern with what I hear from members. Many have struggled to find meaningful connections with other women in adulthood, and this community has helped them find that. Others have been searching for a sense of purpose during quarantine, and have found it through running a reading group, or being an active participant in another way. We even have a pen pal group within our community where people send each other monthly letters! It’s all incredibly wholesome.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Read books by women, specifically women of color. Tell your friends about them, write positive reviews about them on Goodreads or other book review sites. For book publishers, give BIPOC people the opportunity to write the stories they want to tell, even if they don’t fit into the box that you want them to. It isn’t hard to find acclaimed books written by white women, but it’s unthinkably difficult to find stories written by women of color who are experiencing joy. Over the summer I really try to focus on “beach reads”, because that is what people want to read — you have no idea how challenging it is to find books like this that aren’t written by white women or for a young adult audience. They absolutely exist, but you really have to search.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Audiobooks are amazing and listening to a book does not diminish the experience. Had I known this, I would have realized that I could consume content a lot quicker, which would have been immensely helpful when I was stressed out trying to read 10+ physical books per month. This was something I learned in quarantine when I no longer had an hour-long commute to read during.
- Research an author thoroughly before choosing their book, because you never know what kind of scandals are hidden on page 3 of a Google result, and once you’ve suggested people purchase a book it’s awkward to revoke an endorsement. This happened to us this year when we chose If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo. We chose her book for our YA reading group, and it turned out she had abuse allegations against her.
- Virtual meetups don’t have to be awkward or boring. Had I known this, it probably wouldn’t have taken me 2 years to figure it out. Since April we’ve grown 500%, and that is most likely entirely due to our virtual meetups! But they need structure, which we realized early and has really set us apart from other virtual meetups.
- Accessibility is important! Due to my internalized ableism I never thought about having captioning on my Instagram stories, but have heard from members who are deaf that it has made a world of difference to them. I had no idea that being thoughtful and forward thinking in this way would bring so many people such joy. There are so many easy ways to make the lives of other people engaging with your content easier, why not make sure people feel seen?
- In any community people will become emotionally involved and will forge their own cliques. This is inevitable in any digital community, there will be separate group chats and hangouts etc. As the community leader, it’s my job to stay away from the social politics of the group as much as possible, so that I’m always seen as a neutral source. I learned this by watching other communities, so I feel lucky I haven’t had to experience any backlash on this front.
- Extra: VALUE YOURSELF. Start a Patreon account EARLY! Your work is worth being paid for. If you’re a content creator, there is absolutely nothing wrong with creating additional content for your community members that crave it and will pay for it. You should be encouraged to support yourself through your work, not turned off by the idea of asking people for money. If you have great content, they will come.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Go with what feels intuitive to you. For me, encouraging people to read books by women is the best way I can contribute to society. It’s a huge bonus that it’s resulted in community and engagement during a time where people are feeling isolated. If you can find a way to turn your passion into something that benefits society, that is absolutely incredible.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Regardless of what people think of her politics, she is an unapologetic advocate for her community. She uses her femininity and style to her advantage. I used to live in Queens and was so proud to be represented by someone as fearless, passionate and stylish as her.
How can our readers follow you online?
To follow Bad Bitch Book Club you can find us on our website badbitchbookclub.com, Twitter @badbtchbookclub or Instagram @badbitch.bookclub — I am @mackinstyle across platforms!
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!