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:
• 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.
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: 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.
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.
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…)