I love books. I love the feel of books, I love the smell of books, I love taste of books (kidding). I love reading books. Hell, I even love reading about books (thank goodness for Goodreads). As such, I also love talking about books. It makes sense, then, that I’d love book clubs as they are the intersection of reading and discussing.
Over the last decade, I’ve been a founder and/or member of a handful of book clubs. Some have been with friends, others with strangers. Some have had wonderfully clever names (Bibliophiles Beets Battlestar Gallactica Book Club–circa the years of Dwight and Jim’s hijinks), others have been more to the point (Corpus Christi Book Club). Some have worked well, others have failed. Sometimes a successful meeting will consist of only three members. Other times, it takes a whole room of people to get the conversation going.
If you’ve ever participated in a book club, you may know just how difficult it can be to get one started in earnest or how hard it is to keep the momentum going.
Because I could talk about how much I love book clubs forever, I’ve decided to reflect on what it is that works well and, just as importantly, what doesn’t when forming and maintaining a book club.
Building That Bibliophile Base
Starting a book club is exciting. You love to read and you probably have a few friends who love to read. So why is actually making a book club happen so difficult?
- Do start small. Invite a few people you know who love to read and expect to build your club membership over time.
- Do add diversity. Yes, even close friends have unique perspectives to bring to a club. In my experience, though, a diverse group of ages, genders, or even just circles of friends makes for the best discussions. The love of books is a powerful relationship binder even when you have not much else in common.
- Do schedule your first meeting. A month or two out, go ahead and start turning the wheels. Act as the first host, figure out what kinds of books people want to read, choose the first book (I suggest starting with a shorter book so as to not scare would-be members off), then just pick a date that works for people. If you have a lot of people trying to chime in, I suggest using an online scheduling tool like Doodle. As far as the location goes, if you don’t want to host in your own home, a local coffee shop (with enough seating) works well, too.
- Do figure out who you are. Are you a genre-specific book club or will you read across genres? Fiction, non-fiction, or a mix? I’ve admittedly only belonged to the variety camp because one of my favorite things about a book club is that it encourages people to read outside their comfort zones. One member recently told me that joining our book club has made her enjoy fiction for the first time in years. She said she never would have realized she liked it had she not been in the club because she never chooses fiction for herself. What a compliment!
- Don’t be afraid to remind people. After you determine your first date, create a calendar invite (Google Calendar, Evite, etc.) to actually get it on everyone’s calendars. Even after that, ask people if they’ve started reading. Engage your members in teaser discussions to help build excitement for the meeting. Remind them of the date a few times so you don’t have a meeting of no-shows. This may sound like overkill, but trust me, it’s not.
- Don’t come without some discussion questions. Sometimes a book is so thought-provoking that people come armed with questions or discussion topics. Other times, the conversation may be slower to start. This is totally normal. As the host, though, it’s never a bad idea to have a few ideas in your back pocket. You can easily browse the title of the book with “discussion topics,” but I’d also suggest looking at LitLovers for some thoughtful questions.
- Don’t be too formal. A book club is supposed to be a fun hobby. No one wants to participate in one that’s rigid. Even if you don’t know people well, help foster a warm and welcoming environment and invite everyone to participate without calling on anyone. Similarly, don’t freak out if someone hasn’t finished the book. This will almost inevitably happen to you at some point too. Our book club’s rule is that we will discuss the ending, so if you come to the club, you should expect spoilers. That said, you’d be surprised how captivating a conversation can be even when only a few people have actually finished.
- Don’t forget to choose the next host. Even if you decide to have each meeting take place at a neutral location, I suggest designating a different host for each one. In my most successful clubs, the person who hosts is responsible for choosing the next book (or, if they have no preference, opening the floor for suggestions). They will also be responsible for meeting reminders and discussion questions. Rotating hosts helps everyone feel responsibility and ownership for the group and keeps it from becoming a burden for one person.
- Don’t forget to schedule your next meeting. Before you leave your first meeting, you should decide when you will meet next. In fact, you should determine the cadence with which you plan to meet (e.g., monthly) and, ideally, the timing (e.g., the third Sunday of each month at 3:00 p.m.). This helps people set their calendars ahead of time (knowing that some months will need to be more flexible). Regardless of what you choose, I’ve found that waiting to poll people on their availability after the meeting ends often means the next meeting will be delayed. Be respectful of the people who took the time to come and cater to their needs first. Anyone else will come if they can.
Keeping Up with the Book Club-dashians
You’ve had your first, maybe even second or third, meeting! Now what?
- Do encourage people to invite others. It’s a great problem to have if your book club is expanding enough that you need to break up into smaller discussions because there are too many people for one. Tell people to invite their friends, coworkers, or anyone who would be an interested and respectful addition to your club.
- Do take advantage of social media. Facebook has been a great tool for my book club. The host posts the meeting information each month (date, time, location, and book) and tags anyone who has specifically expressed interest to make sure they see it. We also share relevant links with each other (like “20 Books You Can’t Put Down” or “The Andrew Luck Book Club“). Other clubs I’ve been in have used tools like Meetup, which is especially helpful if you want an open invitation to anyone in your area.
- Do reflect on what works for your club. If monthly meetings become too stressful or the books you’re choosing are too long, it’s time to evaluate and change something to make the club fun. If you’ve determined that you don’t want to just read science fiction, try a new genre. Nothing you decide has to be permanent. Experiment a little until you find what works best for your group.
- Do be flexible. Sometimes, especially over the holidays, people are too busy to meet and it is easiest and least stressful for everyone to just push back the meeting by a month. Just make sure to get the next date on the calendar as soon as you can so you don’t fall into a cycle of delays and cancellations.
- Don’t be afraid to let people go. Book club membership will wax and wane. That’s just how it goes. Sometimes people lose interest, become too busy, move, or just fall out of the reading habit. It happens and you just have to move on. It’s most likely not personal.
- Don’t be too bummed when people flake. Similarly, sometimes you choose a book that everyone is excited about and a bunch of people RSVP yes only to have only two or three actually show up. Life sometimes gets in the way! Just remember that a conversation between two people can be equally engaging as one with seven.
- Don’t forget to include food and drink. Remember, book clubs are social events. If you host a meeting at your home, I encourage you to do a little potluck with food and drinks (alcoholic or non). A little chitchat is fun and healthy. These people may become good friends of yours, so you’ll want to allow yourselves time to catch up, have a drink, and grab food before you dive into your book discussion.
Remember, a book club is supposed to be FUN! They shouldn’t cause you to stress or hate reading. Instead, they should just fuel the fire that is your love of all things books. Now get out there and join an existing club or start one of your own!
I’m happy to answer any questions you have regarding my own book clubs, but I’d also love to hear your dos and don’ts in the comments.