Book Club 101

Book Club 101

I get bookish questions in my inbox all the time, and a frequent one is this: I want to form a book club but I have no idea where to start. 

I have thoughts, of course, but I was interested in a wider variety of opinions: I polled the MMD Facebook page and quizzed everyone I know offline about what makes a successful book club. These are their answers.

How to form a group

Everyone agrees that getting the right mix of people is key to book club success—with many saying it’s the most important factor—but that doesn’t mean you should start a book club with your closest friends: I was shocked at the number of book clubs that formed through meetup.com!

MMD members in successful book clubs found their groups through:

Meetup.com
• Emailing a broad list of friends and acquaintances
• Soliciting friends and acquaintances from a current group: a mom’s group, yoga class, coworkers
• Attending a meeting run by a local library, bookstore, church, or school

People join book clubs for different reasons: some people want to read new books, some people want to discuss their reading in-depth, some people just want to get out of the house. Happy book clubs made the group’s expectations clear from the beginning.

As for numbers, most of you keep your groups to ten people or less. More than ten (or even eight, according to some) gets unwieldy, and discussions can’t go as deep. But if you can’t gather eight people, don’t despair! Many successful groups began with two friends talking books over coffee—and they gradually added members over time.

Many libraries, bookstores, and community centers run their own book clubs. These clubs are typically run by an employee, who chooses the books. There are pros and cons to such groups: you don’t have to do any planning, but you don’t have much control, either.

If you’re lucky—and many of you are—your group will gel over time. Many of you said your book club members are now your closest friends—even if you started as strangers.

IKEA Borgsjo puffin classics close up

How to decide what to read

Successful groups have a systematic way to choose their books, but those systems vary considerably.

Some book clubs stick to a theme, always and forever: contemporary fiction, prize winners, “the classics.” Other clubs choose a theme for the year (books-into-movies, female authors, mysteries). Some clubs alternate between fiction and nonfiction, serious literature and not-so-serious. Some clubs have general guidelines: no romance, nothing over 600 pages, nothing published within the last ten years.

In some groups, a leader (or committee of leaders) pick the books, but most clubs let the members pick by various ways:

• Members take turns choosing the book, no questions asked.
• Members take turns: the member whose month it is selects several titles, and everyone else votes.
• Members each bring a suggestion and everyone votes.

Some book clubs pick all the books for the year at once; some go month-by-month. (After hearing all your book club stories, I recommend filling up the calendar well in advance.)

Clubs differ on their policies: some will only choose a book if no one has read it, so they can experience reading it for the first time together. Some clubs will only choose a book if someone has read it and can vouch for it.

Some book clubs gather to discuss whatever it is they happen to be reading; they don’t read the same book.

What makes a great book club novel? | Modern Mrs Darcy

How to have a great book club conversation

The most common conversation starter is “What did you think of the book?”—but it’s not a good one! A better conversation opener is more neutral, and won’t draw responses like “I enjoyed it” or “I didn’t.” Nancy Pearl’s favorite opening question to kick off a fruitful discussion is “What is the significance of the title?”

It’s worth noting that a great discussion starts with the right book—not just one that you think is amazing, but one that’s chosen for its ability to generate conversation. Great books don’t always make great book club novels. Great contenders are books that have ambiguous endings, interesting narrative structures, or unreliable narrators.

Many book clubs designate a leader to guide the conversation for each meeting. Some clubs rotate; some draw a name out of a hat. It’s that person’s job to transition the club from socializing to serious discussion, ask the opening questions, steer the conversation back when it goes off-track, and make sure no one dominates the conversation.

If you want specific titles, check out these 40 favorite book club novels.

open book

When and where to meet

Of all the contradictory information I collected, no one disagreed on this: a regular meeting time is essential. Some clubs gather every other week, but most stick to a monthly schedule. It’s crucial to schedule regular meetings, either with a set date (e.g., the fourth Thursday) or whenever the majority can attend.

Most of your book clubs meet at the members’ homes, rotating hostess duties. Food is also extremely important to most groups. Many of you streamline planning: whoever picked the book hosts and provides all the food. That makes for a big month for the host, but the rest of the year all you have to do is show up.

Other groups potluck or order takeout, or even meet in restaurants: no one has to get their home ready, and the restaurant itself guides the pacing of the discussion. (Socializing stops when you place your order; the discussion continues until the plates are cleared; the next meeting is discussed during dessert.)

Some groups meet in libraries and bookstores and coffee shops. (My local shops and libraries will reserve tables or rooms for your book group.)

My favorite offbeat example was the fair weather “walk and talk.” A small group can meet at the park and walk laps while discussing their book.

What has your book club experience been like? I’d love to hear your best tips, or lingering questions. (We have lots of readers who would be happy to help…)

What you need to know to get your own book club up and running.

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66 comments

  1. Courtney says:

    Perfect timing! I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the past week because we’re getting ready to move from a major city to a small town. One of things I’ll lose by the change is my monthly book club, which I really enjoy. I haven’t been able to find one in our new area, so I may need to be proactive and try to start one myself!

    A regular book club has been great fun for me, and I’d recommend to anyone to give it a try. I’ve ended up reading some interesting books I wouldn’t have picked up otherwise. I can also usually get the books from the library, which makes it an enjoyable, and also free or cheap, activity. 🙂

  2. Arenda says:

    Our book club doesn’t have a fixed date for meeting (we meet every six weeks or so), so we use Doodle to schedule – works like a dream! And I totally agree with your line “great books don’t always make great book club novels”! Looking forward to hearing your best book club picks! 🙂

  3. Julie says:

    My book club meets in a restaurant, which we try to match to the book (elegant places for princess books, dirty little diners for a detective book). The opening discussion is always what the characters would order off the menu.

  4. Kelty says:

    Book clubs are the greatest. I think you become great friends with these folks because books give you a platform for effortless conversation on deeper life issues. Sharing that kind of stuff makes you close but can be more awkward to come by in day to day conversation.

    I was blessed to be a part of my first book club several years ago when my husband was in flight school for the Army in Ft Rucker, Alabama. I went from barely knowing this group of ladies to having friendships that have spanned nearly a decade without even being in the same state. We’ve all been moved to different places but recently started back up via video chat. We literally span the US, from WA to NC, SC, NY, AL, LA, TX and even HI. We met regularly in Alabama, but this time it actually works a bit more fluidly with less of a regular meeting time. We just do it when we can. It’s been such a joy to have the excuse to reconnect with these dear ladies on a semi-regular basis. And bonus! You don’t even have to get a babysitter if your husband is out of town. 😉

    • Anne says:

      “You become great friends with these folks because books give you a platform for effortless conversation on deeper life issues.”

      Yes!

  5. Ana says:

    We meet every 6 weeks on average. We rotate hosting, and the hostess gets to pick the book and decide where to meet. We generally do Sunday afternoon. It can be a restaurant, coffee shop, picnic in the park, your own home, wherever you choose—if the book has a cultural theme we may meet at a restaurant that fits with that theme, for example. I actually dislike the random-ness of it. I wish we had a set monthly meeting, in the evening, at someone’s house, with food & wine. I wish we picked books a few months at a time instead of one at a time—sometimes I put my book on hold at the library the DAY its picked and still don’t get a chance to read it. I dislike when someone picks a restaurant as the venue 2 weeks before the date and I have to find room in my budget for it. I LOVE the friendships I’ve formed in this group though, and I’m not planning on dropping out, but if I was queen…

    • Ana, you must be a J on the MBTI 🙂 I’m an ESTJ and I was thinking reading the post and comments, “this loosey-goosey business would NOT work for me”.

      My friend belongs to a book club – first Sat of every month and that’s fixed.

  6. Carey Mitchell says:

    Thank you, Anne! This is a great post and will definitely get us ready for our book club’s start up meeting on March 31st. I think I’ll send your link out to the members so they can read it before we meet!

  7. AnnieM says:

    I started a book club 13 years ago with a desire to (in order of importance)
    1. Have adult time with the women in my neighborhood as we all were in thr throes of raising kids.
    2. Read more books
    3. Drink wine and eat snacks 🙂
    One rule I have had from the beginning is: come whether you have read the book or not! (See #1, above)
    Our social time together is just as important as the book stuff. Period. Yes, we ALWAYS discuss the book, but we have lots of fun and don’t get too serious. We all have busy lives, and who am I to exclude someone for not have the time, energy or motivation to start our book?
    We choose books in the fall for the coming year–everyone brings lots of titles & descriptions to suggest and then we vote. Top 12 get distributed by me over the next 12 months. We use Bookmovement.com which is an awesome site to keep everything organized. Our local library gets several copies of our book so no one has to buy a copy, but lots of us have e-readers and purchase the books when Amazon has a Kindle sale (the big advantage of picking books a year in advance).
    Anyone who is thinking of starting a book club–go for it! Ask WAY more people than you think might come. Take turns hosting, and keep things easy. Just provide plenty of wine and decaf coffee! 😉
    Over the years we’ve had members come and go, but we always welcomed new members, and old members who may have taken time off. No pressure, no judging. One thing that is very important is to have one person who keeps things organized, sends out emails, etc. Preferably someone (like me!) who enjoys doing it!
    Good luck!

  8. Thora says:

    I have had a book club that I founded where I live for the last six years. We’re moving in a couple of months, and I am sad to leave it, but at least I know I can start another one after we move. I had no idea on how to start one, or have it run well (and it has had some hiccups, where we went a few months without meeting), but for the most part it has been a regular, lovely thing.

    What I did is invite any women from my church (although any other women were welcome as well, it was not a closed group), and although we seem to get a lot of people who show up for our yearly planning meeting, in the end it is usually four women who are faithful at it and come every month, and then another two to four who come some or much of the time. When I founded it I specified that I mainly wanted to read fiction, and not “light” fiction (ie, not Twilight, or something else – I wanted the kinds of books that work well to discuss with a group). We have done a fair share of non fiction over the years, and I even broke my own guidelines once and picked Half the Sky because I wanted to discuss it that badly with people, but I would say usually our best books are the fiction ones.

    We have a regular time to meet every month – we do every second Friday, and the woman who hosts also provides the food and leads the discussion. We plan one school year at a time, and because we all have young kids (and we meet during the day), we don’t do Summers because it becomes too many kids running around. (I’ve always been open to meeting at evenings, but the only working women in our group have flexible schedules, and there are enough husbands that travel for work overnight that it has worked best to do daytime meetings).

    I like to pick books that come recommended, but that I haven’t read. Those have been kind of a wild card, with some with good discussion, and some not (even if they are good books, like I capture the castle). Another member in our group always picks books that she has read before, and her books are always solid, great books for discussion (whether everyone likes them or not).

    Some of the favorites we have done over the years (with the best discussions) are: Gilead, Cutting for Stone, My Name is Asher Lev, Half the Sky, Poisonwood Bible, Crossing to Safety, Hannah Coulter, In the Time of the Butterflies and more that I can’t think of right now.

    Anyway, sorry for the long response, but I just really, really love having a book club. I always wanted to be in one, and I just kept waiting to move somewhere that had one, or find one, but starting one myself has made me realize that you don’t have to just happen into a great book club, you can start one yourself (although it takes time to really gel as a group, of course).

    • Sarah Ronk says:

      You’re club has read some of the same ones ours has read and loved! And some that are on our never-ending list of books to consider! 🙂 We meet the 2nd TH of each month… which now we call #bookclubThursday …the best TH of the month! 🙂

  9. Beth says:

    My bookclub meets online via google hangouts. We’re all friends from college and 8 of us keep in touch through our book discussions. At the beginning of every meeting we decide on the next meeting date (always Mondays usually 5-6 weeks between meetings), and we vote on new books using a private group facebook page. If everyone is busy or most of us weren’t able to read, we’ll still meet and just discuss what we’ve been reading lately and catch up. It’s an easy way to keep in touch and all we have to do to prepare is read and turn on the computer for about an hour.

  10. Jeannie says:

    I chuckled at the “What did you think of the book?” question; a former member of our group always used that line to start; sometimes we still jokingly say to the discussion leader “You can always ‘pull a James’ and ask us what we thought!” (Note: he is a former member b/c he moved away, not b/c we kicked him out for asking that question :-))

  11. Sarah Ronk says:

    I look forward to book club every month!! I started our club in 2008 and and it’s evolved over the years as we find what works best for us in this stage of life (most have young kids, (or are still having babies), homeschooling, and just the general busyness of family life) I hope someday our monthly meetings involve more food each time, but for now we have a few special events each year (tea party, summer picinic, dinner party, & Christmas party) The rest of the months it’s light snacks as we rotating facilitator and host.

    Our purpose statement is: “Discussing great literature from a Christian world view with the purpose of broadening our horizons.” This helps us as we select our books, which now happens at our annual book club retreat weekend in October. (!!!) This is also when we read a book flight!! (Thanks for the tip Anne!)

    Mostly our purpose statement means if it’s SUPER popular (b/c we will all probably read it w/o book club to inspire or encourage) or Christian Fiction we don’t read it. 🙂 It’s been fun reading out of my natural genre and finding ones I truly enjoy I would never have picked up! Here are the books we’ve read so far: http://broadened-horizons.org/what-weve-read/ (*ed ones were GREAT for discussions!)

    Now we have about 12 regular members, but we’ve been together for so long, the size doesn’t hurt our discussion. (Plus, not every month can everyone make it. #lifehappens) 😉

    A few years ago I wrote a series on how we do book club. “Reading is Social – How to have an Old-Fashioned Book Club” GoodReads has also been a fabulous resource for our club to stay connected with what we’re reading!

    I love talking book club! Can’t wait to hear others tips and tricks of their club!

  12. Miriam B says:

    I was part of a book club last summer and I just didn’t enjoy it. The books that were chosen didn’t really grab me. And since,I am introvert, it was hard for me to open up to the group, especially since I didn’t know some of them super well and I didn’t care for the books. Some of the more extroverted people seemed a bit offended that I wasn’t talking as much as they were. I think, in the future, I would prefer to discuss a book with just one other person (preferably a close friend) instead of joining a large group.

    • Mimi says:

      I’m sorry that happened to you in your book club experience. Such a drag! I’m an introvert as well. I think perhaps the discussion leader or others in the group could’ve been more attuned to include you. Please try again. I think you had the wrong group and maybe a smaller one would be better.

    • liz n. says:

      I completely understand your point of view on this! It’s especially difficult when the rest of the group loves a particular book that you didn’t like. I’ve tried several book clubs, and stuck with one that was well-run and made up of likeable folks who were open to actual discussion…but then we moved. It was the only club that, thirty minutes into a session, I wasn’t looking for an opportune moment to escape. (“If I pretend to faint, will I be able to convince them not to call an ambulance, and that I can drive myself home?” “How do you fake an emergency phone call from your kids when we’ve all got our cell phones set to silent?” “What if I excuse myself to the bathroom and then climb out the window?”)

      Generally, I do better with one-on-one discussion.

      I kinda like this online book club that Anne’s got going. 😉

    • Sarah Ronk says:

      I’d be the same way! Maybe you can find (or start!) a group that is more introverted. Our group is probably 2/3rd introvers and it really works well for introverts joining in… Like me!!

  13. Mimi says:

    I have read books I would’ve never chosen because of book club. Some I’ve liked, some I haven’t. Sometimes, the books that our club has split opinions on or dislike become the best books of discussion. Case in point: Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward.
    I have found two things to be crucial to the success of a group. 1. Level of commitment by all on reading and attending. 2. Having a group that is cohesive. If a member hogs conversation or has a personality that is difficult for the rest of the group to accept then usually the club fails.

    • Anne says:

      I think you’re spot-on about divisive books making for fantastic conversations (although that title is unfamiliar—off to look it up…)

      • Mimi says:

        Salvage the Bones has some uncomfortable subject matter and most of the group didn’t like it. The book won the National Book Award several years ago. The author is from our state and we wanted to give her a try especially since she won the award. In the book, a hurricane is brewing off the coast and the novel feels like a hurricane brewing as you read it.

  14. Anne says:

    I’ve been in two book clubs. I lost interest in the first, probably for a variety of reasons. The second one is current and is part of a larger movement: Well-Read Mom. One WRM rule is to come to the meeting regardless of how much or little you’ve read of the book. They want you to soak in the discussion and enjoy thinking of deeper issues, stepping outside our everyday lives of motherhood. You read the books they pick, which are usually around a theme, like this year’s The Year of the Spouse. Next up are The Jeweler’s Shop and Anna Karenina. I would also enjoy a book club where the members get to pick the books. I once read on Gretchen Rubin’s site that someone’s book club was more like a book show and tell: bring what you’ve been reading and say a little about it. Kind of like Quick Lit. 🙂 This round up was fun to read, Anne! Thanks!

    • liz n. says:

      The only book club I ever really enjoyed picked books based on authors’ Chinese astrology. I don’t know how our group leader decided to go that route, but it made for a really interesting mix of books! So, if it was the Year of the Tiger, we read books by authors born in the Year of the Tiger.

  15. Breanne says:

    Great post and fantastic comments. I’ve been thinking of starting one in my local area which both terrifies me (strong introvert here!) and excites me (talking all evening about a book!), this gives me a lot of stuff to think about.

  16. I would LOVE to belong to a book club but there are a few problems: I really don’t know anyone who reads the type of books I read (I think you called it women’s fiction, Anne). Katherine Centre, Liane Moriarty, that type of thing.

    And I’m the type of person who, if I get a bee in my bonnet, has to read a book there and then, not something pre-determined (hmmm a little bit of rebel in there, a la Gretchen Rubin).

    I think I would prefer a bring and share approach to a book club and definitely a fixed time and roster sent out in advance (my J ness is so apparent as I write this).

    • Anne says:

      I think women’s fiction can make for terrific discussions, so I hope you’re able to find a good group. And not every book has to be a book club read, so you can still indulge those rebel instincts. 😉

    • Anne says:

      Oh, goodness, I relate. If I want to read something, I want to read *it* and not something else! Haha! (So maybe the key would be book selection input?)

    • Heather says:

      I knew you’d be commenting on this! That is another example of where we are in sync across the world from each other. I’m actually thinking of trying to put together a book club. I used to belong to one before the kids and it was great. I’m going to take these tips and see what I can pull together. Adding it to my goals for the year!

  17. Allison says:

    I was in a book club at my library a few years ago, it was small – maybe 5 or 6 of us – it didn’t last long. I was confused – do we discuss the subject of the book or do we discuss how the book was written? Anyway, I totally didn’t like the book (by Jodi Picoult) but I finished it, in fact the tone of the book made me angry. I tried to get that across at the meeting but there didn’t seem to be anyone listening to anyone else? Or maybe I didn’t do a good job of getting my point across (I’m an introvert and any speaking in front of people terrifies me) idk it was a while ago, like I said

    • Anne says:

      That sounds frustrating! You’re not the first person I’ve heard say that kind of thing about Jodi Picoult in general, and that for that reason she’s a great author for book club selections. But choosing a discussion-provoking book is only the first step in having a good conversation, unfortunately. Wishing you much better luck should you try again.

  18. Angie S says:

    I’ve been part of an online book club for 3 years; our weekly chat (we use chatzy) is a highlight of my week! These are ladies I know “in real life” though we are scattered across the country. Our club started when one of the women on our homeschool email list asked for people to read through the list in Susan Wise Bauer’s Well-Educated Mind with her.
    There were only three of us for the first year or so (the organizer dropped out during the first book!) but we have gradually added new members when mutual friends hear how much fun we are having reading the classics. 🙂

  19. Amy Patton says:

    Great post. Very encouraging too. It seems like my book club is doing things right- or right for our group anyways. 🙂 Looking forward to Wednesday’s post.

  20. I’ve written about my four book clubs before, which all do things a little differently. For the largest one (can draw up to 20 people, though usually more like 10-12), we go around the table and everyone gets to share their thoughts on the book. Once everyone has had a turn, if there’s still time (there usually is), we open it up for general discussion. This works surprisingly well because everyone gets a chance to say whatever they want and then there are plenty of possibilities for jumping-off points in the general discussion.

  21. Heather says:

    LOL! I just commented on your other post I read first on book club lists. I guess I should have looked at this one first. Thanks for the ideas. I’m going to add forming a book club to one of my goals for this year.

  22. Lynn K says:

    I was part of a book club a decade ago for about 3 yrs. There were 6 of us ranging from 22-40ish. We were a diverse group (half were moms, 1 in college, 2 single) which made for interesting points of view. We read 6 books a year. One month we’d read a book and the next month we’d either have an outing or try some new crafty thing. Over time we made a variety of things like soap, candles, stepping stones and a failed attempt at cheese. The hostess would buy the supplies and we’d all pay an equal amount. We also went places like to the Teddy Roosevelt Museum (after reading Theodore Rex), an art show and to a place in Niagara on the Lake for a real English Tea service (after reading Pride and Prejudice).

    I believe anyone who had a suggestion sould make it and then we’d vote on the book and sometimes the activity so we always knew whar wd were doing 2 months in advance which made it easier for the library readers.

    It was the perfect fit for a while but it got difficult with our family schedule and I had to drop out.

  23. LaJvonna Tarlton says:

    I was a part of a book club but the Army said it was time to move so I have decided to create my own here now. I created a Facebook group and invited a few friends. We will meet once a month, each month will be a different color theme. This month it’s white, so everyone will come dressed in all white. The first 30-45 mins will be social hour. Have some drinks, mingle and food. Second hour will be for discussion. Last 30 mins will be selecting following month’s host, possible book selection, then photos and gift bags. I am super excited to get started again.

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