A book club can be an enriching, fulfilling way to develop new friendships and an appreciation for reading. Or it can be a big, fat fail. The direction it takes really depends on how it's planned and managed.
"I was in one and it seems the whole purpose of the club was to get together to drink wine and barely talk about the book," recalls Erin Scott, of Savannah, Georgia.
Whether you're currently in the throes of a long-running book club, or are planning to set one up, here are some excellent tips from experts and book club members to making it a great experience for everyone involved.
1. Is This a Book Club or a Wine Club?
Right out of the gate, talk with potential members about what they want from a book club. If their interest is purely social, think about forming a group to do social activities together, instead. You want your book club to be more (or at least as much) about the book as it is about drinking wine.
Davina Morgan-Witts, book club expert at BookBrowse, conducted a survey in 2019 of thousands of book club members. In that survey, BookBrowse found that the longer a group spends talking about the book, the happier they were in the club. In fact, 81 percent of those in book clubs that generally discussed the book for 75 minutes or longer marked themselves as "very happy" (the highest level) compared to just 55 percent in groups that discuss for 20 minutes or less!
"It's not that they say social time is unimportant but it's secondary," Morgan-Witts explains. "It's because of the open discussion and the sharing of opinions that the friendship forms."
If you want to discuss books without all of the small talk, she suggests turning to a public library group. Those tend to be much more focused on book discussion, rather than the social element, she says.
2. Choose the Right Number of Members
The number and types of members have a huge impact on the success of a book club. "My book club includes an amazing group of diverse women," says Tracy Weir, of Kennesaw, Georgia. "They make me really think."
Indeed, a book club isn't necessarily something you want to do with all of your besties, but can be an excellent way to branch out and hear perspectives from different types of people.
"It's often better if they're not good friends," says Los Angeles-based book club facilitator Julie Goler. To start off the process, she suggests choosing five friends who are solid readers to participate. Then, ask those people to identify a couple of other candidates.
Most of Goler's groups are within a 10-year range of each other. "But what I really like is when it's a multigenerational group," she says, noting that life experience can truly affect people's insights to literature. If possible, aim for people of different political, social, economic and cultural backgrounds to really enrich the discussion quality.
That said, some people deliberately will seek out (or form) a club dedicated to reading mysteries, romance novels or African American fiction. Or they'll join a mother-daughter or couples book club. These "specialty" clubs are often successful because the participants already have something in common.
In terms of hard numbers, Goler prefers a membership of 12 to 15 per group because, "that ensures eight to 10 in attendance." Morgan-Witts concurs. "Eight to 10 [in attendance] is the sweet spot in terms of having enough different perspectives and time for people to express themselves."
3. Have a Facilitator
Book clubs are wise to take a cue from workplace meetings, which always have someone running them. Either hire a professional facilitator, like Goler, or designate someone within the group to be in charge of keeping things on track. It could be the same person always, or you could rotate the job at each meeting. "We find that discussion groups that are facilitated tend to have higher levels of happiness because they stay on topic better," Morgan-Witts explains.
Of course, that facilitator needs to know what sort of parameters to mind. What is considered "off-topic" for your group? Is it anything not to do directly with the book? The facilitator (as well as the rest of the group), should know how closely the discussion needs to stay to the book at hand, and feel empowered to rein it in, Morgan-Witts says. "If somebody starts talking about their lives too much as it relates to the book, I'll tell them to bring it back to the book," Goler explains. "In a leaderless book group it can be dicey."
The facilitator should also make every effort to encourage everyone to get involved in the discussion. This can be a serious issue in groups with one or more dominant personalities. "The facilitator should be quieting the loud and calling on the quiet," Morgan-Witts says. "People get frustrated that they can't get their thoughts out."
4. Keep Meeting Times and Locations Ultra-Convenient
"Most book clubs meet once a month, but there's nothing in the rule book that says you have to," says Morgan-Witts. Some clubs meet every two or even three months, because the members are so busy. Consistency is really the most important thing, she says. In the beginning, select a day that generally works well for the member base, such as the last Monday of the month at a specific time. Obviously, you can adjust as needed. Some groups opt not to meet during the summer months, or to turn an end of December meeting into a book or gift swap earlier in the month.
Goler also suggests keeping the location ultra-convenient. "Nobody wants to drive 30 minutes to get to their book group," she says. "I think the key to staying power is to keep the radius tight." Also, the location should be somewhere quiet enough for a lively discussion to occur. Goler says that homes are ideal, but if you don't want to impose the stress of hosting, a private room at a restaurant, cafe or library works.
5. Determine How Best to Pick the Books
The point of a book club is to stretch one's mind, not read the same tired content. Weir says her book club opts for "interesting book choices [that] force me out of my comfort zone."
Some groups vote on books, but others offer suggestions and then the facilitator makes the final call. Some groups have a monthly theme to naturally impose different genres, like science fiction, young adult, historical fiction or best of the previous year. Figuring out a system that works for your group is ultra-important. "Of those people [surveyed] who left a book club due to dissatisfaction, book choice is a major sticking point," Morgan-Witts says.
That said, it's unrealistic to expect every person to be wowed every time. "They're not going to love every book but the commitment is to the group and the process of reading," says Goler, whose groups primarily choose fiction titles, with the occasional memoir thrown in for good measure.
Both Goler and Morgan-Witts suggest identifying book selections at least two or three months ahead of time. "This allows people the time to get the book, circulate it amongst themselves, etc.," says Goler. Some groups plan the schedule a full year in advance, but Goler cautions against that. "That's way too much for a group, in my opinion," she says. "I don't read for what I'm going to be teaching or discussing a year in advance." Not to mention books may come out during the year that your club may wish to read instead.
Although every member is bound to miss occasionally due to illness, or emergency or whatever, encourage regular participation to foster a truly cohesive book group. "The commitment to the book group is not about the book; it's a commitment to the process of reading and the other members," says Goler, who encourages members to show up to meetings even if they haven't finished the book. "You'll still get something out of what the people have to say."
6. Keep the Discussion Lively
The facilitator should always be armed with a list of thought-provoking questions, although they're not always necessary. "Be prepared, but be flexible," Morgan-Witts suggests, noting that you can just let it go if the conversation is flowing naturally.
When prepping questions, Morgan-Witts suggests checking out a publisher-produced guide first (available online or sometimes at the back of the book), then honing the questions from there. "Pick out the topics of interest and abbreviate if necessary," she says. "Be ready to move those into discussion if things are going off topic."
Questions that develop the reader's appreciation are key, Goler says. "You're asking driving questions that are discussion questions, rather than quick answers," she explains.
7. Rein in the Conversation Hogs
Occasionally, controversial or painful topics will come up at book club. Or someone hogs the conversation. Or two people get into a heated argument, often over politics.
"Not everyone sees things the same and some people have a hard time separating themselves from a character or subject matter and take comments/criticism of a book entirely too personally," says book club member SJ Burnley.
"The most common challenge is overly dominant personalities," says Morgan-Witts. "They're not being mean, but they can impact book choices and also the discussions themselves."
Remind people on the regular to keep everything friendly and respect differences of opinions. If someone becomes overly argumentative or rude, have the person in charge chat privately with them about why they're causing trouble.
"Most people aren't doing this out of maliciousness," Morgan-Witts says. "Don't sit on it, don't allow it to fester. She may think she's having a robust conversation, not an argument." If the behavior continues, politely cut the member loose to protect the greater good. That should be the last resort, however.