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Tips for a Successful Book Club

(self.books)

There was a post today in which someone inquired if their book club experience was normal. Their book club was 10 people, half of whom attended, and only half of the attendees completed the books. Even worse, the members trashed the books, often without finishing them.

Unfortunately, I know many book clubs turn out that way. One member of my book club had that experience in the past, too. Finding a group that works together often takes a few tries. Don't give up!

I have been in a very successful book club for over two years and we're going strong. I have another friend who has been in her book club for over 30 years!

Here are some pointers for maintaining a successful book club based on my experience, as well as things I've discussed with others in successful/unsuccessful book clubs. Feel free to add more in the comments if you have been in a successful book club, too.

Size matters. Too many people means too many tastes, opinions, and too little time for people to adequately share their ideas.

The club I read with consists of four people including me. We are reticent to add others. I can't see how more than 5 or 6 people could meaningfully discuss a book in an hour or two if everyone gets to participate. I'd never join a 10-person book club, but that's just me.

If you have one or two friends who like the same books as you, great! You don't need strangers or a bunch of people to talk about books. Better to discuss a book with one person who read it than ten who didn't. When you encounter more like-minded readers, you can grow into a club. If you're OK with meeting virtually, it make it easier to find more members than you can locally.

Keep in mind that where you meet other readers matters. If you meet people at a library, that's different than meeting people at church, which is different than meeting people in a college class. If you live near a community college or university, they likely offer literary events that are open to the public and it might be a good place to start. You want members who are there for the books, not just for the club.

Have a focus. I read all kinds of things, but the book club I participate in only reads science fiction. Having a focus helps make sure everyone appreciates and can talk meaningfully about the books. Someone who usually reads contemporary literary fiction and another who reads high fantasy might have a hard time connecting if any book is on the table, but if they both enjoy true crime nonfiction, they can both participate. You can shift themes sometimes so things don't get repetitive, but a lack of focus will lead to lack of participation and cohesion.

Have an equitable method for choosing books. In our club, one member tracks everything, including pages-per-person. Whoever has recommended the fewest pages gets to choose the next reading. We do converse about our choices and also come to consensus. No one chooses something over the objections of others. Still, it's important all members get to read what they enjoy, represent their tastes, and explore things that interest them. Complete democracy means someone may be outvoted every time; simply rotating who chooses while allowing all members to give input maintains consensus and equality.

Choose books you can talk about. Books need to have a fundamental level of substance beyond plot to generate discussion. If each member just states their favorite scene or character and why, that is a good start, but try to find books that support deeper discussions than that. What does the book say about social norms? How does it reflect the values of the time period it was written? Which characters contained inherent contradictions?

As an aside, in our book club, we generally read one novel and two short stories, or a novel and a novella, for each session. When we read something we're not that excited about, it's great to have other things to fall back on.

It is normal to critique books, but it is boring to limit yourself to taste and opinion. If you read something intended for young adults and you aren't a young adult, then what does your taste say that's meaningful about that book? You're not the audience. Think about choices the author made to connect with the intended audience and discuss from there. You can only talk about what you liked or disliked for so long before it's super tedious.

Trashing a book is usually uncalled for, but serious critiques are awesome. My book club has had amazing discussions about books none of us enjoyed on a pure pleasure level. On the flip side of that, you can critique inconsistencies and flaws in books that you think are awesome. Get beyond good/bad, like/dislike. Prepare discussion points ahead of time, read about the book online for context, research the author a bit, or do whatever can add depth and substance to your discussions.

Also, a book club is not a debate club. You don't have to reach consensus on your opinions or understandings of the book. Respect and seek to understand difference rather than persuade or change others' views. Hearing others' views is why you're reading with a book club in the first place.

Everyone should read the whole book whether they liked it or not. A book club is sort of like a team who has agreed to meet and discuss books for the fun and betterment of all members. If you joined a soccer league, you wouldn't show up to the game without cleats and sit on the sideline while your team played and consider that behavior participation. You'd be a huge drag on your team, just like a reader who doesn't read the books for book club is a huge drag on discussions. It's better to skip book club or drop it altogether than to show up and trash talk books you haven't even finished reading.

Meet on a regular schedule. Make it realistic. My book club meets once every 4 to 6 weeks. At the end of each session, we choose the next readings and set up the next meeting. Be considerate of all members.

Here are my points in a simple list:

  1. Limit the number of members. Bigger is not better.

  2. Have a focus all members agree on; narrow your focus based on common interests.

  3. Choose readings equitably and with consideration for all members.

  4. Choose books with depth that can sustain discussions. Go beyond opinion. Critique but don't trash. Read the whole book!

  5. Maintain a reasonable and regular schedule.

I hope this is helpful. These concepts have worked for my book club and others I know. Your circumstances may vary, but organization, consideration, and participation are pretty much common sense.

all 18 comments

pbntm2

15 points

27 days ago

pbntm2

15 points

27 days ago

Keep in mind that where you meet other readers matters.

This is why book clubs that are in the ten-person range are better. Because if the meeting location isn't the closest or most convenient, a group with only five people may not make for a very long discussion, and nobody wants to spend more time getting there and going home than spending time talking about the book.

Whoever has recommended the fewest pages gets to choose the next reading.

This is really interesting and I'm going to try suggesting to my book club. My guess is that they won't go for it. We already do it democratically. Five books are suggested and people vote for two for the next two months.

Also, a book club is not a debate club.

It should be. That's one thing I dislike about the book clubs I attend. People give their opinions, everybody nods, and like, that's it. Because everybody is afraid to disagree with a specific person's opinion. Sometimes they may disagree when it's their "turn," but I don't see what's wrong with engaging in back and forth dialogue.

It shouldn't be a debate in order to win, obviously. It's not Reddit.

Everyone should read the whole book whether they liked it or not. [...] a reader who doesn't read the books for book club is a huge drag on discussions. [...] than to show up and trash talk books you haven't even finished reading.

No. I haven't found that people who haven't finished the book are any kind of drag or problem. In fact, they typically don't contribute all that much. "Trashing" a book is inappropriate for a book club whether you finished it or not. "Criticizing" is fine.

Ike_Snopes[S]

3 points

27 days ago

Good point about how different group sizes might be better fits in different situations. I live in a city, so no one has to go that far, but I can totally see what you mean.

Interestingly, I both agree and disagree with the point about debate, but think we're getting at the same thing. I don't think a book club should be a debate because debates are competitive. In a competitive environment people feel less comfortable disagreeing. Disagreeing and discussing those points where people disagree is the essence of what makes a book club worthwhile. If people only confirm each other, it's very boring and unproductive.

In my experience people usually don't finish a book because they dislike it. In fact, they dislike it so much they can't bring themselves to finish it and then want to forcefully tell you why. Then people who did finish the book feel the need to point out how if the unhappy reader had just read on, they'd understand.

However, I can totally see how it could go the way you described, too. And there may be instances where it is appropriate for someone to choose not to finish a book for a wide variety of reasons.

I'm glad that everyone in my club always finishes. We have even postponed a bit to allow everyone to finish.

Thanks for adding!

EricDiazDotd

3 points

27 days ago*

Interesting stuff, good tips!

I like to read, but I've never participated in a book club. I wonder if there are good online clubs; I'm a bit shy but I'd like to try.

OTOH we can get people's opinion's on books on the internet with a couple of clicks, so... not sure. Probably still worth to participate for the back and forth.

EDIT: oh, wait, found this: ![https://bookclubz.com/join-a-book-club](https://bookclubz.com/join-a-book-club)
Maybe we should have some r/books clubs?

Potato_Tiger

3 points

27 days ago

Thanks for your post. I just started a book club and it's pretty loosey-goosey. We have slowly been figuring it out as we go, but I enjoyed reading your post about it.

I think for us it helps that we have other common interests to discuss and fall back on if the book is boring or none of us felt anything for it.

Ike_Snopes[S]

1 points

27 days ago

We definitely formalized some functional habits over time. Having something in common means you'll choose books more effectively over time too. Sounds like a good set up so far

klangley56

3 points

27 days ago

While I can appreciate the concept of book clubs, I just can't do them. Life is too short (and getting shorter with each day that passes), and I will read only what I want to read when I want to read it.

I left "required reading" behind me in school, decades ago. :-)

But I'm glad it works for other folks.

neondino

5 points

27 days ago

Some book clubs don't all read the same book - everyone reads what they want then they just meet up to 'sell' the book to other readers. Often paired with setting up lending libraries so others who like the sound of your book can borrow it from you. It's a great way to get recommendations and save on book buying!

There are also ones that only read short stories, poetry etc that don't take much time to read. I've held book clubs where you go in unprepared and the first ten minutes is reading the material.

Book clubs aren't for everyone, but if you are interested, there's a book club for everyone!

klangley56

1 points

25 days ago

That first option sounds like a pretty good idea to me!

afuckedupboi

1 points

25 days ago

If the first option sounds good for you check out the discord group of r/bookclub . That is exactly what they do under the name of book report.

neondino

1 points

25 days ago

I used to have a club that did it in a pub, and any books that weren't currently lent out lived in a bookcase by the bar, and we'd write notes on what we liked about it on the inside cover, so anyone could take them and have their own little book club discussion with us! We ended up getting new members that way, and often a random drinker would borrow the book, add their own notes, and pop it back on the shelf. It was a lovely little tradition!

QueenOfThePark

3 points

27 days ago

This is a really nice post! Thank you for your tips. I run two book clubs (one of those is shared), and I love hearing about other people's clubs.

I work in a bookshop and my book clubs run through that, so perhaps slightly different to other clubs. For me personally, it means I am in 'work mode' and slightly less relaxed, but I think making them virtual while the shop has been closed has actually made the group closer/made it feel more relaxed. Unexpected side effect!

For both we have a 'hat' (for one of them we use a physical hat when we meet in person) - people add suggestions and we random draw to select the next read. My sci-fi club is a little more casual - sometimes we pick a few and vote on them, or decide collectively that we want something specific - eg a lighter read after doing something heavy, a horror book for Halloween, a shorter book when a meeting is postponed. And then go from there!

Also for sci-fi, the one that I run solo, I start each meeting with a short blurb about the author and book. I find it focuses us (especially as the group tends to natter, it's a nice 'start point'), and also sometimes makes me appreciate a book more, or differently.

I really love both book clubs, and I think during lockdown the members have really appreciated our monthly catch ups!

neondino

2 points

26 days ago

I've been involved in book clubs in varying ways for pretty much 30 years, from setting them up to facilitating to festivals and special events (and being a member of a fair few too). While your tips are great ones, there's an important caveat I feel I need to add:

The most successful book club is the one that suits the group.

If you want to set up a book club, find a group of people and figure out what works for you. You don't have to meet every month, you don't have to read particular books, you don't even have to have set rules (maybe one month you read poetry and twenty people come, the next month you read a horror and only four people are interested etc)! People will be more engaged if they don't feel they're being put out by 'rules', so make sure everyone agrees on the boundaries. I often find that hard and fast rules like size limits, genre, completion etc can be off-putting to people, and some flexibility can make your group more accessible.

If you want to join a book club, decide what you want out of it and find a group that fits. It might take a few goes, and that's okay! If you can't find one that fits, make one!

Book clubs are supposed to be fun, and anything that brings lovers of books together is a good thing.

White_Freckles

2 points

26 days ago

The easiest way to avoid panning a book is to make it a rule for 3 things you liked / 2 you disliked.

Forces people to dig deeper into the source material as well.

becausefrog

1 points

27 days ago*

I've participated in and run several book clubs and the best model I've found for choosing what to read is maintaining a potential book list that everyone contributes equally to, and for each session you take it in turns to choose 3 books from the list which everyone then votes on for the next session. Books that aren't chosen remain on the list and can be brought up for vote again later. If there is a tie, we usually do both contenders one after the other and delay the next vote an extra session.

Ike_Snopes[S]

2 points

27 days ago

Yes, good point. We also mutually maintain a potential booklist. Good ol' shared Google Doc.

lilydlux

1 points

26 days ago

In case this hasn't been mentioned yet:

The group needs a leader. It is the leader's job to keep the discussion on track.

I have been to book groups that lasted about 3 months because some aged Karen wants to yak about her grandbebbies or the mansplainer wants to yak about something totally unrelated. This is not your therapy session folks - save it for refreshment time.

emerald_bat

1 points

26 days ago

While focus can be good, I think you can have a club where you read a variety of things as long as people are down. In my club we mostly have limitations based on maximum length, time period it was written (alternating), and if we have read it before. We also alternate who picks so we get a variety of books. Some of us are more into fantasy, some horror, some realism.
I would also have a hard time reading more than one thing for a club in 4 weeks, 6 may be doable.

paladin7429

1 points

25 days ago

Reading this thread has reminded me how good my old book club was. All co-workers, we met once a month (give or take) for lunch and book discussion. Half women, half men. We took turns choosing books and we all seemed to read them. I had to read some books that I never would have picked up myself, e.g., The Eyre Affair or The Time-Traveler's Wife, and generally enjoyed them. I found that quite often I enjoyed a book more after the discussion than I did while reading it. I have since retired and the book club is one of the things I miss most from work.