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Advice to bookclubs: The First Meeting

The First Meeting of a New Book Club

Why It's Important

At your regular meetings you may not need one person to lead the group. However, at this first meeting you (and here I'm talking to you, singular, the person who's decided to start up this group) need to take the lead! Keep in mind that, just like the chairman of the board, the role of the moderator/group leader is not to make all the decisions but to ensure that:

  • The discussion stays on track.
  • There is a reasonable degree of consensus within the group.
  • Everyone feels that their voice has been heard.
  • No one person's voice is heard too much (and that includes your own!)

At your first meeting the group won't have a specific book to discuss so this is the perfect time to talk about your expectations for the book club, listen to what others think, discuss books in general and the types of books members have read or would like to read.

The key purpose of this meeting is to ensure that everybody is on the same page (pun intended!) before you move ahead with regular meetings. There is much less chance of trouble down the road if you take the time now to make sure that people agree on how things will be run and what types of books you'll be reading.

However, unless you already all know each other, before you even start discussing what sort of books you want to read and how your book discussion group will run, spend a little time getting to know each other. One way is to simply go around the group saying who you are, why you want to be part of a book club and what your expectations of the club are. However, if this feels a little intimidating you might wish to enjoy one or two Games to Break The Ice before you start any serious discussion!

Specific things to discuss:

  • How will you choose books and what specific books are you going to read first?
    Will your group have a theme - perhaps focusing on one author for a few books or on one particular genre? Do you want one person to be responsible for selecting all the books or take it in turns to bring suggestions?

    Suggestion: For the first couple of books, choose well-known books and/or popular book club favorites that all or at least most of you have heard of and can agree on. There will be time later to challenge yourselves with more esoteric titles. If you want to set a theme from the start do so for a maximum of 2-3 books and review after that. The range of themes is endless - books in the news, award winners, South American authors, books about travel, books with strong women leads etc. In the long term rotate who selects/shortlists books - see Choosing Books for more on this.

  • How will you ensure that everybody gets their say?
    Do you need a moderator (not all groups do)?
    If you do, then are you going to appoint one person to lead all the meetings or rotate the responsibility with each meeting?

    Suggestion: If the members of a group are used to listening and speaking as part of a group appointing someone to chair each meeting maybe unnecessary or even a hindrance. However, if you feel that it would be best to have one person to guide the conversation and ensure that everybody gets to voice their opinion, then having somebody in the role of moderator can be a good thing.

  • Do you want to choose books with 'official' reading guides?
    A few book clubs actively avoid discussion guides, some are never seen without one, most are somewhere in the middle using discussion guides as a useful tool for generating interesting discussion topics but not worrying when there is no guide available.

    BookBrowse offers hundreds of free discussion guides sorted by title, author and theme (including genre, country of setting, time period and a wide variety of themes). Not every book has a formal discussion guide, which is why we also provide BookBrowse's DIY Reading Guide suggestions if you need inspiration thinking up discussion questions.

    Suggestion: Choose books with prepared reading guides for the first couple of meetings and then leave it up to whoever chose the book or is due to moderate the meeting to bring a discussion guide if they feel they want one. Do remember that a discussion guide is intended to guide your conversation not control it - if you're going to use one, use it to get the conversation flowing or to redirect the conversation if you think a topic has been exhausted - it's not necessary to work through the questions one by one!

    Do not read the discussion guide before you read the book, because the guides almost always include plot spoilers.

  • Are you planning to buy or borrow books?
    If you want to read the most current titles then you're going to have to buy hardcovers or chat with your local librarian to see if he/she can get enough copies in for you and your group. If you're going to buy books, do you want to try to put a cap on the costs? Paperbacks are obviously cheaper, but usually follow the hardcover by about a year, so if you want to read very current books you'll likely be reading hardcovers.

    Suggestion: How you handle this depends on your group. Some groups only read hardcovers and don't have a problem spending $20 on a new book every month per member, some only read paperbacks, most read a mix. If you set your schedule far enough ahead it's quite possible to share books between book club members, or even borrow books from the library - many libraries have special programs for book clubs; if you haven't already got to know your local librarian it's well worth a visit!

  • What are the expectations of each person?
    It's very important that you agree up front how seriously your group is going to take the discussions. Can a member come to a meeting if they haven't read the book? What's the policy on skipping meetings? These may sound like rather officious topics for discussion but the majority of discord in book clubs happens because of different member expectations - e.g. one member thinks of the book club as an optional thing to turn up to when time allows, while another would never consider missing a meeting; one thinks they're coming to chat with friends under the ruse of discussing a book, while another wishes to engage only in erudite literary discussion, etc.

    Suggestion: Find a happy medium between being too serious and too relaxed. For your club to work, members need to make reading the books and attending the meetings a relatively high priority - but if somebody slips form time to time and hasn't read the book, or can't make a meeting, is it the end of the world?

  • How many people do you want in your group & how do new people join?
    At an initial meeting, when there's likely to be just a handful of you, it may seem silly to worry about the group getting too big - but what if each of you invites a friend, and then they invite friends? Before you know it the group could be too big to be manageable - so take a few moments up front to agree what the maximum optimal size for your group is and how new people can join (e.g. can somebody just bring a friend along, or do they have to consult the other group members first before proferring an invitation?)

    Suggestion: Agree a maximum size of, perhaps 15, which should result in about 12 attending the average meeting. The policy on inviting potential new members is a little more tricky - in a perfect world we would all live in harmony and be open to having anyone who wants to attend at our book club meetings, but realistically it would probably be safest to send a quick email to other members before inviting someone to join your group!

  • Will there be food at your meetings?
    Do you want food to be an integral part of your meeting, or a low-key or even non-existent element? In some groups, everyone brings a dish, others have one person provide the food, and another bring the drinks, others have the host provide a simple snack for the group. How about themed food - e.g. if discussing a book set in Italy bring Italian foods? Some people like to meet in a restaurant - if so make sure you book a large enough table in a quiet corner, and that the restaurant doesn't mind you chatting long after the meal has finished!

    Suggestion: Keep the food simple (if any) and serve it at the beginning of the meeting so people can do their socializing first.

  • What's in a name?
    Your group doesn't have to have a name - but choosing a name is fun and brings with it a feeling of belonging.

  • How will you contact members?
    Do you want to provide a list of names, addresses and telephone numbers to all members or is it easier for everybody to communicate by email? If you are strangers to each other you might wish to exchange email addresses only to start with until you're sufficiently comfortable with each other to share your home addresses. Do you want to encourage discussion outside of your regular meeting times? If so, sharing email addresses would be a benefit.

    Suggestion: At the first meeting, pass around a piece of paper and have people write down their contact information clearly - then type it up and mail/email a copy to each member after the meeting, or distribute it at the next meeting. A list of some sort is essential to you as the organizer of the group and also to group members (especially those, like me, who are terrible at remembering names!)

    Incidentally, if you do decide to share only email addresses and meet in public places to start with because you don't know the members of the group (as suggested in Getting Started), there is no need to make a big issue of this - just meet in a public place until you feel comfortable, and then, if you wish, offer your own home for the next meeting.

By the end of the first meeting make sure you all agree

  • How often you'll meet, where and for how long?
  • What you're going to read at your next meeting (preferably next 2-3 meetings to allow people time to read ahead)?
  • How future titles will be selected?
  • How the meetings will be run - will you have a consistent moderator, rotate the job or allow a 'free for all'?
  • How to contact each other between meetings?

If a new member joins an established group, remember to update your contact list; and take a few minutes at the first meeting they attend to introduce everyone and run through the basic tenets of your group (or discuss these beforehand).

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