Friday, October 3, 2014

Four Ways to Structure a Successful Book Club

I belong to three book clubs. (I sometimes attend a fourth if they're reading something interesting or something I've already read and enjoyed.) I've tried and abandoned at least two more, and one I joined never got off the ground.

It never occurred to me to join a book club until I read MWF Seeking BFF and realized that it was the most obvious possible way for me to meet people. I love reading and I love talking about books, and if I'm looking for someone with common interests, where better to find them?

So I tried out a few local book clubs and found one I liked. Shortly thereafter one of my online communities decided to start a virtual book club. And then, a few months ago, the local chapter of an organization I'm part of decided to read the executive director's book and discuss it, and we liked doing a book discussion so much we've been doing it every month since.

Being in multiple book clubs is feasible for me because I read 2-3 books a week, so I'm able to get through all my book club reads plus some of my own picks every month. I like that book clubs introduce me to books I probably wouldn't have read on my own, and hearing other people's perspectives on a book helps me to see it from new angles. I also like having the chance to introduce other people to some of my favorite books and hearing their thoughts on it (though this can be really nerve-wracking!).

My three book clubs (plus the fourth I sometimes attend) are all structured very differently, so I thought I'd give a brief overview of each of them for anyone looking to create one of their own or evaluate their available options.

Book Club #1:
  • Group makeup: This book club has been in existence for probably over a decade now, so we have members who have been coming for years but always have some new faces every month. Most of the members are older than me, but lately we've had more folks in their 20s and 30s attending.
  • Organization and meeting setup: The book club is organized via We meet at the same time the last Sunday of every month, in the same location, although we recently had to move after the restaurant whose back room the club had been using for years closed down. We usually have 10-20 attendees. It takes about half an hour for everyone to get settled and get food or drinks ordered, and then we spend about an hour discussing.
  • Selecting books: Every two months the organizers open up a forum thread on the Meetup site for book nominations, then close it and open up a poll where everyone can vote on the next book to read, with the top two vote-getters as the picks for the next two months. It used to be that the only rule was that you could nominate anything but romance novels, but recently a new rule was instituted that books need to be around 350 pages or less because people were having trouble getting through super-long books in a month. We sometimes have special themes, like July is Classics month, and for November everyone gets to bring in two favorite books to share, which you then pick from for your January read. Also there used to be a rule that you couldn't nominate a book you hadn't read, but that has since been abandoned.
  • Discussion format: After one of the organizers gives a brief introduction, we go around and introduce ourselves. Then the person who nominated the book starts off the discussion by saying why they nominated it and what they thought of it, and then we go around the circle so everyone has a chance to share their thoughts. After that, if there's time remaining, we open it up to general discussion.

Book Club #2:
  • Group makeup: This book club has been around for a little over a year now. Because of the online community it came out of, we're all in our 20s (as far as I know) -- at least the people who have actually attended the discussions -- and almost all women. We have attendees from all over the United States, plus one in the UK and one in Ireland who sometimes attend.
  • Organization and meeting setup: We use a closed Facebook group for organization and use Google+ Hangouts On Air for our discussions. The group went from Open to Closed because 1) we had a ton of people join and vote on books but never attend the discussions and 2) we had a person join the Hangout one time who just wanted to harass people and had to be quickly banned. Now you can join only if someone personally invites you to the group. We use a Doodle poll to find a time for our discussion each month, though we quickly narrowed the standard options down to the first two weekends of the month following when the book was read. Generally 2-4 people join the Hangout; I think 5 is the most we've ever had. The discussion lasts for about half an hour up to an hour.
  • Selecting books: We have a document on the Facebook group that anyone can edit to add new books to the list. (We recently added the requirement that you have to put your name next to your nomination.) Every two months the organizer uses a random number generator to select five books from the list and puts them in a poll on the group page, and the top two vote-getters are the books for the next two months. We don't currently have any rules on what kind of books can be nominated, except that you can't nominate a book we've read in the past two years.
  • Discussion format: After we find an agreed-upon time with the Doodle poll (which can sometimes be difficult with people who can't figure out how to calculate time zones), the organizer posts a Google+ Hangout link on the Facebook group at the appointed time. Once we're all there (or we don't think anyone else is going to show up), the organizer turns the Hangout "On Air" and we start the discussion. Generally we'll find a list of discussion questions for the book and, after everyone shares their initial thoughts on the book, we'll use the list for ideas about what topics we'd like to discuss.

Book Club #3:
  • Group makeup: So far the meetings have consisted of only me and two other people. We are trying to get more people from the organization to join in, but it's only been a few months, so we're hopeful it will grow.
  • Organization and meeting setup: One of us will pick a local restaurant we want to try (requirements: relatively inexpensive, has vegetarian options) and then will post a notice on our chapter's Facebook group with the date, time, location, and book we're reading. Since there's only three of us right now, we just get out our calendars at the end of each meeting and pick a discussion date and time for the next month, and then we Facebook message each other if we need to reschedule.
  • Selecting books: We read books within a pretty narrow topic field. So far we've just thrown it open for suggestions at the end of each meeting and someone will recommend a book they've read or heard about in this field. We discuss and agree on what to read for next time.
  • Discussion format: We have no specific format for discussion. Generally we end up discussing how the information or stories in the book relate to our own personal experiences, which can sometimes lead the discussion away from the book itself for a while, but that's OK.

Book Club #4:
  • Group makeup: This group is part of a larger Meetup group geared toward young women seeking friendship in the local area, so it's all women in their 20s and 30s. This means it's the best option for me to actually make a friend, which is why I attend occasionally even though I'm not crazy about most of the books they pick.
  • Organization and meeting setup: Meetings are posted on the Meetup page. The group usually meets at the same place every month, although they just decided to move to a new location for next month. Unlike Book Club #1, there are no pre-arrangements made for a separate room at the meeting place (a restaurant or bar), so it can be a little loud to have a good discussion. The few times I've gone there were about a dozen women there, so it was hard to hear people at the other end of the table.
  • Selecting books: At the end of the meeting, the organizer asks for suggestions for books. Ultimately she decides what book will be read next and posts it with the meeting description. This usually means it's just a book she's been wanting to read, which is why I'm not always that interested in the selections.
  • Discussion format: The meetings I've attended haven't had any specific format, although the organizer has a list of discussion questions to fall back on if the discussion peters out.

As you can see, there are a lot of different ways to put together a successful book club! Having experienced so many different ones, I have some opinions about what makes a good book club, but I will save that for another time.

Are you in a book club (or more than one)? In what ways is it similar to or different from these?

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