How To Start A Book Club
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I am a little too excited about today’s post. In fact, I apologize in advance because it began as a list of 5 tips and then somehow turned into a full-on comprehensive manual. But that’s because we’re talking about one of my favorite things in the entire world:
Yes, if you follow this blog or my Instagram, you will know that I’m a mega fan of my book club. I have been a part of it for 4 or 5 years now, but the group has actually been meeting even longer than that. It’s pretty much the best, if you ask me. And instead of fizzling out over the years, as I know happens to too many book clubs, ours somehow seems to keep getting better and better with age.
Part of the “success” (i.e. longevity and general awesomeness) of our book club is due to the fact that it is simply filled with some truly remarkable women. They are a smart and curious and interesting bunch who happen to love books and talking about books. And they also happen to be some of my closest friends. But I have to say that I think part of the group’s success is also due to a few simple tips we have learned along the way about how to sustain a large book club. And better yet, how to even make it thrive.
So for any of you readers out there who have asked about my book club over the years, who might have had one fizzle out, who might be looking to start one, or who might currently be a part of one and would love to just see how others work, this post is for you.
Here are my 5 tips for how to start a (stellar) book club…
5 Tips For How To Start A (Stellar) Book Club
1. Find a great group of people
Let’s be real. The people in a group will either make or break your book club. So find good ones!!
I highly recommend starting with friends you already know. Even better, find friends who you respect, and trust, and can be open with. Because talking about books (and the personal things that good books stir up) can be a fairly vulnerable experience at times. So it’s important to have friends in your circle who will encourage you to be honest and open and share your thoughts.
That said, I know that many book clubs begin with sign-ups from complete strangers. And often those strangers turn into good friends! So if that’s the route you take, it can definitely work. I would still encourage you to be open, and hopefully the trust and friendships will build over time.
The one thing I don’t recommend is starting a group with 100% like-minded people. Find people who are different! And can bring different perspectives to the table! Trust me, your time together will be all the richer for it. If my book club was filled with people who had the exact same political, social, theological, moral, artistic, and even culinary views, things would be ridiculously boring. It’s our differences — even those that may cause disagreements or make us squirm — that stretch and teach and challenge us to become more thoughtful readers and people, and make book club nights all the livelier.
So, bottom line, give some thought to the people you invite to be a part of your group. Because if things go well, you might be together for a long, long time. :)
How My Book Club Does It: We began our group with a circle of friends who had a love for books, and have expanded it over the years to friends of friends who love to read.
2. Make some important decisions together before you begin
As you’re talking with friends about possibly starting a book club, there are a few important things to evaluate (preferably) before you begin:
a. What kinds of books you want to read
It may seem like an obvious question, but it’s worth clarifying with your group beforehand.
Do you want your group to primarily discuss fiction? If so, do you prefer lighter (“beach reads”) or deeper (“literary”) books? Classical or modern? Long or short? Novels or mysteries or sci-fi or historical or humor or short stories…or a nice mix of everything?
Do you want your group to primarily discuss non-fiction? Is there a certain genre you prefer?
You can always mix things up once you get your group rolling. But it’s probably best to have at least a general idea going in.
b. How often you want to meet
As someone who has been a part of a many small groups of sorts over the years (book clubs, business groups, church small groups, etc.), I’m a big believer in the importance of groups meeting regularly. And if possible, fairly often. If you space out your in-person gatherings too far apart, a group can lose momentum, especially if someone misses a meeting or two.
Whatever you decide, though, stick to it. Even if just two people show up, stick to it. Demonstrate to one another and yourselves that you’re serious about the group. And hey — you’ve hopefully read the book, right? So you’re going to want to get together to talk about it!
The other important thing? I recommend scheduling your meetings at least a month or two in advance. Everyone has busy schedules, and this will help ensure that your book club meetings are on the calendar early.
How My Book Club Does It: We always meet once a month, generally on a Saturday evening from about 6:30 until late, and schedule our meetings about 3 months in advance.
c. Where you want to meet
Some book clubs that I know meet in coffee shops. Some meet in bars. Some meet in workplaces. Some meet in churches. But most seem to meet in the homes of group members, which is the case with ours. And I love it. I love getting the chance to spend time in my friends’ homes and get a context for where they live. I love how cozy and comfortable it is, even when we’re all squished together in a living room. I love getting to eat the random smorgasbord of snacks and drinks that we bring to share. And I love how our group, specifically, shakes it up by rotating to a different group member’s home each month.
Wherever you decide to meet, I would recommend keeping a few priorities in mind:
–Find a place that can fit your entire group. If you meet in a restaurant or coffee shop, be sure that someone arrives early to reserve a table. If you meet in a person’s home, be ready with whatever is needed to host your size of group.
–Find a place that’s relatively free of distractions. The whole point of a book club is being able to talk. If a restaurant is too loud, or if there are roommates or family members poking their heads in every few minutes, it can be a little distracting. So wherever you meet, try and carve out an uninterrupted space for at least a few hours for the group to focus on their time together.
–Find a place that is convenient. One of the reasons our book club rotates homes is to make the location more convenient for different people each month. We have some members who live nearly an hour away from downtown KC, and some who live right next door to one another in the middle of town. So we switch it up in order to not make the same people always be the ones driving the farthest.
How My Book Club Does It: We rotate meeting at different group members’ houses each month. With 15+ friends in our group, this means that we may only meet at a person’s house once a year or less. Some houses are wonderfully spacious. Some are wonderfully cozy. We love them all, and will sit on chairs, sofas, floors, you name it. If a group member does not want to host, though, there is no pressure to do so.
d. How you want to spend your time together
Actually, this is probably The Most Important Question when creating your book club.
How much do you really want to talk about the book?
Answer this question honestly together. And know that there’s also no “wrong” answer! There are probably three basic categories your book club could fall into:
–The Social Book Club: Some groups that I know use “book club” more as an excuse just to get together, or have a night out, or drink wine, or impress one another with their culinary creations. Maybe that means that a few of the club members will actually read the book, or maybe they’ll talk about it when they’re together for a few minutes, and they love it that way. If the point of your club is socializing and not book-ish, just be sure and set a clear expectation for that before you begin.
–The All-About-The-Book Club: Other groups that I know only want to talk about the books. This can be especially true of groups whose members don’t know one another well to begin with, or groups that actually are genuinely there with the complete intention of talking as long as possible about all things literary. For them, extra chit-chat or small talk is frustrating. So if this is the type of group you want to create, again, set that expectation.
–The Social AND Mostly-About-The-Book Club: This is where my group falls. We literally divide our time together down the middle. We spend the first hour or so of our time doing some serious hanging out. We talk, we eat, we drink, we catch up, and we don’t really talk about the book. But then about an hour (or hour-and-a-half) in, the point person pushes people to wrap it up and we move into seriously talking about the book for at least an hour or so. Then we usually spend an additional half hour talking about what book we want to choose next (so many opinions!). And then after that, everyone usually hangs out awhile longer and just chats. The key for us has been predictability with this model, and always having everyone present for the book discussion, even if they didn’t read the book.
I say this is the most important question because it’s the reason so many friends’ book clubs have fallen apart. If expectations aren’t clearly laid out beforehand about how time together will be spent, people tend to have differing thoughts on where priorities should lie…and get disappointed…and then often quit. Instead, just be sure to talk about this openly and find people who want a similar focus, and you should be good to go.
How My Book Club Does It: As I said, we do about an equal split of social time and lets-get-down-to-business-and-talk-about-the-book time. It seems to be win-win for us.
e. What happens if someone does not read the book
I strongly recommend inviting people to come even if they haven’t read the book. I was part of a group once that asked non-book-finishers to stay quiet during the book talk, or have heard of others that actually don’t allow people to come if they haven’t completed the book. If that’s how you choose to roll, so be it. But our book club has found that those who didn’t finish the book usually still have something valuable to contribute to the discussion, and they probably want to come and hear what others thought about it. So if you can, clearly communicate that everyone’s invited whether they read 0% or 100% of the book. (Can you tell I’m a Kindle-r now?)
How My Book Club Does It: Everyone’s invited! All the time!
f. Whether your group is “open” or “closed” to new members
This decision may change during different seasons of your book club’s life together. If people move or become too busy or just need to drop out for awhile, or if for any reason you have room for more group members, then by all means — open your group up to new people who might be interested!
But also don’t feel badly if you need to “close” your group to new members for awhile. Many groups seem to feel guilt over this, but it’s a natural part of the process for keeping your attendance at a healthy level where everyone can participate and feel known/comfortable. Just be sure that everyone is on board with the decision either way.
How My Book Club Does It: We were “open” the past few years, but reached a point where the group was too large to fit in some members’ living rooms. And it just became borderline too big to allow everyone a chance to contribute to the group discussion. So we’re currently “closed”, but plan to re-evaluate that in 6 months.
3. Choose a “point person” for each book/meeting
Book clubs don’t necessarily need a “leader”. But they usually do need a point person to get things moving and help organize a few things. There may end up being one person who just naturally fills that roll. Or your group may need to appoint someone, or rotate that responsibility between different people.
Job responsibilities of a “point person” might include:
- Send out emails/texts about the details (when/where/book/misc.) for upcoming meetings
- Help kick off the book discussion during a meeting (which can be as simple as, “So, what did you all think about the book?”)
- Set plans for the next book club meeting
- Bring up any book club “business” that the group might need to discuss
- Keep up with any important traditions in your specific book club (ex. in our book club, whoever is hosting that night is the point person, and is also in charge of writing down quotes in our quote book)
Again, most book clubs tend to be self-led. But our group has found it helpful to have someone take the initiative on some things, especially when the group gets large.
How My Book Club Does It: We had a super-awesome point person, our friend Maux, fulfill most of the roles above for years. But we recently transitioned to more of a rotating “point person” system. It’s nothing fancy. Whoever is hosting the next book club is in charge of sending out emails and facilitating the meeting at their house. Additionally, if a specific person in the group has recommended the book we are reading, that person will often naturally be the “point person” to help facilitate the actual discussion of that book.
4. Choose some (hopefully) good books
This is the goal of all book clubs, right? Alas, if only we could predict good books with 100% reliability. :)
Our group aims to choose good books, and have had many successes. But we also still have plenty of duds, disagreements, and do-not-ever-make-me-read-that-author-again books along the way. You can view the full list of books that we have read on the right-hand sidebar on our book club blog. If you are looking for suggestions, a few of our top-rated books have included:
- Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson (my personal favorite)
- Jayber Crow, by Wendell Berry
- Let The Great World Spin, by Colum McCann
- My Name Is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok
- Saturday, by Iam McEwan
- The Devil In The White City, by Erik Larson
- The Elegance Of The Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery
- The Fault In Our Stars, by John Green
- The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- What Is The What, by Dave Eggers
If you are just starting a group and are looking for some good reads, I would recommend asking friends for recommendations and also checking out some online reading lists, including:
- Amazon’s 100 Books To Read In A Lifetime
- Good Read’s Popular Book Club Books
- The New York Times 100 Most Notable Books Of The Year
- TED Recommended Reading List
- Time Magazine’s All Time Top 100 Novels
Bottom line — you win some, you lose some, with book club picks. The good news is that both kinds of books can still make for great discussion.
How My Book Club Does It: We sure LOVE to talk about book selection, and probably spend at least a half hour or so each meeting throwing out various titles that people recommend (often with a show and tell copy to pass around). But when it comes down to it, we usually have way too many options and end up chaotically choosing something on impulse. Sometimes this works out for the better, and sometimes we wish we would have more thoroughly vetted our options. But either way, every book comes via personal recommendation from a group member.
5. And…Get Started! Read! Meet! Create new traditions! Have a bookish blast!
You can plan all day long. But the fun of book clubs is actually getting started!!
Our book club honestly began with hardly any of these details in place, and then we figured things out along the way. So the important thing is just to grab a good book and get started! You will find your groove as you keep meeting and will learn what works for you.
In addition to the discussion of books, I also encourage you to look for ways that you can make your book club uniquely YOURS. Our group has come up with a number of traditions over the years, which you are free to adopt. Some of those include:
1. The Thumb Vote: If you follow the #kcbookies hashtag on Instagram, you will learn that there is a beloved way that we share our feelings about the month’s book pick called the “thumb vote”. If you read and finished the book, you hold up one fist. If you read but didn’t finish the book, you hold up a fist and then a high-five with your other hand. If you didn’t read the book at all, you hold up two high fives. Then on the count of three, those who read at least some of the book turn their fist into a thumb vote, and rate the book anywhere from “awful” (thumb down) to “stellar” (thumb up) rating. Then we pause for a second and oooh and ahh and take stock of the group vote. It’s a great way to kick off our group discussions and see what everyone thought. You can see examples in the photo below.
2. The Quote Book: As also mentioned above, we have a little journal that we bring to every meeting to record — not the wise literary quotes about the book of the evening — but rather the ridiculous and hilarious things that our members somehow say each week. And then we happily reference this book every now and then (and usually have zero context for or memory of said quotes, which makes them all the weirder).
3. The “Last One Finished” Award: We also take a poll at the beginning of each book club to see who was the last person to finish the book. Without fail, someone tends to finish the book within a few hours of book club beginning, which we call #winning.
4. So. Much. Food. Our bookies are also quite good cooks. So each of our meetings usually include a pretty tasty spread of things to enjoy while we hang out at the beginning of book club. I say usually because occasionally there is zero food, which makes us bookies very sad. So then the following month, there is too much food. And the pendulum swings…because we do not like to plan the food.
5. So. Much. Wine. And beer. Or whatever signature cocktail of the evening might be served (like delicious juleps for Gatsby night). Ok not “so much” as in too much. But enough to make the night a little more lively. And the quote book a little more entertaining.
6. Annual Campouts: Once a year, usually in September, we have an annual book club campout. This takes place on our book club night of the month and is held either on a lovely lake or in the backyard of one of our members who lives in an awesome farmhouse out in the country. Book discussions and thumb votes happen per usual. Sleeping outside is not required. And we welcome those who can only come for part of the evening. But it’s always one of our favorite nights of the year, and accomplishes all of that good relationship-building stuff that staying up late and sleeping with the bugs and seeing each other first thing in the morning tends to do.
7. Movie Nights: If we read a book that has a corresponding movie, we will usually have an in-home movie night or make a trip to the theater to see the film together.
8. Our Blog and Facebook page: We also have a blog that we update when we feel like it with random tidbits about the books we read. And we just started a private FB page so that we can communicate with other better between book clubs (instead of endless email streams). Both are fun places to share things that we might not get to during meetings.
More than anything, though, we just have a great time together. And like good wine and good books, it seems like book club gets even better with age. ;)
Welp, that’s how we do it! Probably way more info than you were looking for. But if you’re interested in starting a book club, hopefully at least a few of these tips might help. And if you already have a book club and would to like to share some tips of your own, the comment section is yours for the writing!
A big shout out to all of my fellow KC Bookies for being the inspiration for this post.
Book clubs FTW!