The Book Club Health CheckWhen you think about your book club--the interpersonal dynamics, the level of organization, the quality of discussions--would you say that your group is happy? Do you consider your book club to be healthy?

Even in the strongest book clubs, issues, whether big or small, are likely to emerge at some point. But, as it turns out, how your group proactively deals with issues is a key factor to your book club's long-term happiness.

In BookBrowse's research report, The Inner Lives of Book Clubs: Who Joins Them and Why, What Makes Them Succeed, and How They Resolve Problems, we see that, understandably, when issues arise, some people choose not to address them directly and, instead, opt to look the other way. After all, book clubs are often comprised of friends, neighbors or co-workers, so a confrontational situation could potentially affect other aspects of the members' lives. But while sometimes problems resolve themselves, they often do not. The tension that builds around unresolved issues can fester and can lead to members leaving the group or, worse, the dissolution of the book club.

Luckily, there are things your book club can do to proactively manage conflict, or even prevent issues arising in the first place. Just as many of us have an annual checkup at the doctor, an annual book club "health check" can help prevent a group from stagnating or prevent unexpressed tensions from reaching a breaking point.


Set aside time regularly for the group to discuss how things are running, and provide a forum to raise issues and new ideas

62% who left a book club because of dissatisfaction stayed with the group for a year or more before leavingThis is important even when things seem to be going smoothly within a well-established group! While there is truth in the old adage "if it ain't broke don't fix it," the purpose of regularly carving out time to discuss how things are going is not to make change for change's sake but simply to give people the opportunity to share ideas about what is working well, and what might be improved. Interestingly, in our research, we saw that among those who left a previous book club due to dissatisfaction, 62% stayed with the group for more than a year, and 37% stayed for more than three years. It makes one wonder how many of these people might still have been in their book club if there had been a regular forum for discussing issues.

"We have a planning meeting in January of each new year to discuss how we all feel about how we structure our meetings. We also exchange ideas on how to improve our get togethers."



Set expectations to prevent problems

Agreeing on the core objectives of a group will help prevent problems from happening and make resolving them easier when they doOften, book club issues arise because members have not discussed and agreed upon the basic expectations of their group. For example, it will be difficult to have a harmonious book club if some members think of meetings as an excuse for a fun night of catching up on local gossip with a few minutes spent on the book if time allows, while others anticipate an in-depth discussion of the book. Both are valid ways to run a book club, they're just not compatible expectations for members in the same group. Discussing and agreeing on the core objectives of the group will help prevent problems from happening, and make resolving them easier if they do. A simple set of guidelines, made together, can work wonders for keeping the peace.

"The facilitator passes out rules to each new member which essentially say no interrupting, no side discussions, and no attacking for differences of opinion, every opinion is welcome."



The Book Club Health Check

Download a one-page version of The Book Club Health Check

Here is a list of possible topics, both logistical and interpersonal, to consider discussing with your group. It's best to keep the opening topics broad so the discussion can flow in the direction most relevant to your group. Thus, the notes under each topic heading are not intended as an exhaustive list of questions to ask; instead they are provided as possible discussion prompts if you feel the conversation needs direction.

  • What is the first word you would use to describe your group?
    This can be useful as a quick calibration of the group's feelings and as an ice-breaker so that everyone has a chance to speak.
  • Are the meeting frequency, time and location(s) working well for members?
    E.g. Most groups meet monthly but some find it better to meet more or less frequently, or skip certain times of the year.
  • Are there any issues to discuss relating to attendance and reading the book?
    Topics that might come up include: Is it okay to frequently skip meetings? If somebody is going to miss a meeting, do they need to let the group know? If so, how? Is it okay to come to the meeting without having read the book? If yes, is it fair to ask others not to discuss spoilers?
  • Is the group happy about the types of books being discussed and the process for selecting them?
    Topics that might come up include: Is the process of selecting books working for the group? If not, how can it be improved? How far ahead should the group be picking books? Are the books that are being chosen sufficiently challenging/interesting? Are there different genres of books the group would like to be reading? Are the voices of everyone who wants to be involved in the selection process being heard?
  • Is the size of the group working well?
    Topics that might come up include: If the group is relatively small, would members like to grow the group? If so, how to go about finding new members? If the group is large, would it be good to consider breaking into separate groups for discussions? For private groups: What is the group's policy on new members - e.g. can people just bring friends with them or do they have to check with the group first? Do new members have to be approved by all/some of the group?
  • Is there a good balance between discussion time and social aspects?
    Topics that might come up include: Is the amount of time the group spends discussing the book working for members? Would people like to spend more or less time? (It's interesting to note that most people we surveyed who were dissatisfied with their group said they would like more, and more focused, discussion time, not less). If the group isn't getting as much time to discuss the book as they would like, how can meetings be restructured to allow for this? Is the level of hosting asked of members (including food) fun or stressful?
  • What about the discussions themselves?
    Topics that might come up include: Are meetings structured so that everyone interested in contributing has an equal opportunity to speak? If not, how to improve this? Is it okay to go off topic, and what does the group consider to be "off topic" in relation to a book? What about side discussions? If the group has trouble staying on topic, what can be done to respectfully steer the conversation back to the book? (According to our research, about three-quarters of groups designate someone to facilitate the discussion, often rotating the role). Would the group be interested in varying the discussion format, e.g. every now and then, instead of discussing a single book, all read books on a particular topic and discuss that; or watch a movie adaptation and compare film to book, etc.
  • Is the group's overall organization and communication working well?
    Topics that might come up include: Does anyone feel that they are carrying too much of the organizational load or, conversely, would like to be more involved (e.g. organizing meetings, finding book club resources, hosting duties)? Are communications sent between meetings effective? If a member consistently breaks the group's rules and/or is disruptive, how will this be handled?
  • Is there anything not already covered that members of the group would like to start or stop doing?
    For example, some groups like to organize occasional special events such as themed dinners related to the book, or inviting authors to meetings. Others enjoy going together to author readings, getting involved in the community at large through charitable work, or going on trips together. Equally, some groups may feel that they are doing too much and would like to cut back to the basics of book discussion.

Next steps

Having taken the time to discuss these issues, make sure to agree what, if any, changes your group is going to make, and keep a note of the key points for future reference.

Research

We asked 2700 book club members about some of these issues, and whether they had discussed them in their group. Here are the results: 


Which of these logistical isssues has your book club discussed?

Don't be afraid to talk about it!

Effective book clubs are built on active listening, respect and compromiseBook clubs are as diverse as their members, and there's no single right way to run a group. To find the best way to manage your unique book group, it's important that you communicate honestly with one another, treat each other with respect, and be willing to compromise when problems arise.

If your book club chooses to cultivate an environment of non-judgement and open honesty--a place where people respectfully listen to one another--discussing these topics as a group should provide real opportunities for growth and long-term book club health.

Download a one-page version of The Book Club Health Check




For more on this topic see BookBrowse's The Inner Lives of Book Clubs, pages 25-40. Also, BookBrowse's book club advice pages include useful advice including topics to discuss when starting a book club and tips on handling difficult book club situations.

You will find other articles based on our Inner Lives of Book Clubs research at bookbrowse.com/blogs/editor/index.cfm/Inner-Lives-of-Book-Clubs-Research. And stay tuned for our upcoming series of posts in which we look at how real book clubs have handled these problems, and the advice they give!


If you're looking for an expert on book clubs for interview, please contact us!

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The Inner Lives of Book Clubs