Topics to Discuss When Starting a Book Club
So, you've found a few like minded people and you've decided to start a book club. What next?
There is no right way to run a book club - book clubs come in every shape and form. But the one factor that is consistent is that happy clubs are those whose members discuss and agree expectations. Thinking through the questions on this page will give you the best chance of creating a happy and cohesive book club that enjoys meeting to discuss, and disagree about, books in an environment where new friendships can be made and existing ones can be strengthened.
Many of these topics are also good to consider if you're joining an existing club, or your book club is having problems.
Specific Things to Discuss
- When will you meet and for how long?
Most groups meet for an hour or two. Some meet during the day, over the weekend, or for breakfast. Workplace book clubs often meet at lunch time.
Suggestion: Select the time that fits most of the group - and stick with this once chosen (e.g. 1st Tuesday of each month, 7pm), that way everyone knows that this isir book club time and can plan their lives around it, and you don't have to spend time coordinating calendars every month.
For a relatively relaxed meeting aim for about 2 hours. For example: Arrive at 7pm (meet, chat, eat - if food is on offer - and discuss any book club issues such as what to read next). 7.45pm open the book discussion. By 8.30pm close 'formal' discussion allowing for plenty of time for discussion/chat outside of the group before the meeting ends at 9pm.
- Who do you want in the group?
Do you envisage your book club being all women, all men, or mixed? How about 3-4 couples getting together, or mothers with children. Do you want people to be about the same age - or how about mixing different generations (such as a mothers and daughters book club)?
Suggestion: Either look for people with some common ground (e.g. all women, all couples, all 30 somethings) or make a point of mixing things up so that there isn't one individual who stands out. At first glance a homogenous group might seem like the best plan, and many groups do all share common ground, perhaps having met through their children's school, but groups that have a mix of men and women of different ages often say how much they appreciate the varied perspectives of the members.
- How many people?
A very small group is cozy but could fall apart if a couple of members drop out or can't make a meeting (or turn up without reading the book). A very large group can work but needs to be run on a more 'formal' basis in order to be sure that the conversation stays on track and everybody gets a chance to contribute.
Suggestion: About 8 people is a good size to aim for. It's a small enough number to fit inside most homes or around a table in a cafe, and gives everybody a chance to voice their opinions; and if one or two members can't make it to a meeting, or drop out altogether, there are still enough people left to form a good discussion.
As important, is the number who actually attend the meetings. Most book clubs expect members to prioritize meetings. A big source of angst in many book clubs is when regular attendees get frustrated when others rarely show up. The reasons for the stress are that the no-shows are blocking the opportunity for others to join, that their absence means there are too few people to form a good discussion, and (often) that the group dynamics change when the no-shows do turn up because they have not invested the time in the group that the regular members have and thus the regular members don't feel comfortably talking openly.
When starting out, when there's likely to be just a handful of you, it may seem silly to worry about your group size - 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 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 group first?)
We discuss the size of book clubs in more detail in our blog.
- How important is book discussion to your group?
On the face of it this question might seem odd, after all you're getting together to form a book discussion group. But differing expectations in this area are probably the leading cause of book club strife. If one person is expecting to spend the entire time in deep discussion, while another signed up thinking there would be token book discussion plus lots of chat somebody's going to be disappointed! Other areas of disagreement come from members having different opinions on whether it is okay to come to a meeting without having read the book.
Suggestion: Find a happy medium. For your club to work, members need to make reading the books and attending the meetings a relatively high priority - but if somebody can't attend from time to time or doesn't finish the book, it isn't the end of the world.
Most book clubs socialize first and then get down to book club discussion. Decide what will be best for your group and try it for 3-4 months, and if it doesn't work try something different. Aim to discuss the book for about half an hour to start with and see how it goes. Keep an eye on "off topic" conversations but don't be rigid - many of the best books allow us to reflect on aspects of our own lives and these can lead to very interesting conversations.
Whether the group is large or small, encourage all book club members to read the book and attend the meetings regularly. This is particularly important with small groups as it is very discouraging to find barely enough people turn up to form a conversation, or too many have not read the book making it difficult for those few who have to discuss it. If you find that members are regularly not reading the books, then perhaps book club is not for them or your group need to reconsider the types of books you're reading.
- What to Read and How to Choose the Books?
Some groups only read a particular type of book - in our interview section you'll find examples of these, but most groups read a wide variety of genres.
Suggestion: For the first couple of books, choose established book club favorites. There will be time later to expand your horizons. Most book clubs read fiction the majority of the time - novels that explore contemporary issues and historical fiction being favorites, but the great majority of clubs read across a variety of genres at least occasionally - from nonfiction to poetry, fantasy to mystery. If you want to set a theme, 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 female leads, etc. Many book clubs require the person recommending a book to have already read it - which is a very good rule! More on this under Choosing Books.
- Do you want someone to lead the discussion?
Do you want to have one person take the lead at each meeting? If so, do you want this to be the same person each time or rotate?
Suggestion: Even if your members are used to being part of group discussions and are good at listening to each other, it can still be a good idea to have somebody as a nominal "leader". For many groups this role falls to the person who recommended the book being discussed. The role of the leader is, in part, to make sure that everyone's voices get heard - e.g., to gently redirect the conversation if it goes too far off topic, and the best way to do this is to have new topics ready to discuss - which brings us on to an important role of the leader - to come to the meeting with some thoughts on what topics would be good to discuss, so if the conversation starts to run dry in one area, the leader can redirect to more fertile areas. For more on this see Leading Meetings.
- How many books do you want to read and how often do you want to meet?
Do you want to meet every week, once a month, every quarter? Do you want to discuss more than one book at a meeting?
Suggestion: Most book clubs meet once a month for most months of the year (maybe taking a month off in the summer and doing something different in December such as a book exchange or get-together with significant others). And most book clubs discuss one book at a time. Your group needs to decide what is best for you but it's wise not to be too ambitious so probably best to start with once a month and one book at a time, and keep the early books to around 300 pages or less. If you do want to discuss more than one book at a time later on, a good way to do this can be to read on a particular topic - such as all read about President Lincoln, but half of you read a biography and the others a novel, and then you can compare the two approaches as part of your discussion.
- Where will you meet?
Do you want to always meet in the same place, either somebody's home or a public space such as a room at the library or a coffee bar? Or do you want to rotate around each other's homes or meet in the same home?
Suggestion: If the people in your group are already known to each other, then meeting in someone's home maybe the easiest option, but keep in mind that some people may not want, or be able, to host a meeting at their own home, whereas for other members - e.g. those with small children and no babysitter - it might be the only way they can attend. Therefore, be sensitive and flexible to each other's needs.
If you're starting a new group and some or all of you do not know each other then you may want to meet in a public place until the group is well established and you are all comfortable with each other. There are two key reasons for this. The first is that this allows your group to get to know each other as individuals without being weighed down by the preconceptions that come from visiting a person's home. The other is simply a matter of basic safety - you wouldn't invite a blind-date to pick you up from your house, so don't invite a group of strangers into your house until you know them well enough to be sure you want to continue to meet with them.
Meeting in a public place has advantages that nobody has to clean house or prepare food - which can keep things simpler. What you choose very much depends on what works for your group. But if you are looking to grow your group, other than by friends inviting friends, you may be best meeting in a public space such as a coffee bar, as it tends to be less intimidating for a new member than knocking on somebody's front door. If you want your group to be a mix of men and women then you might also want to consider a public place as half of the men we have surveyed who are interested in being in a book club but are not currently in one say they would prefer to meet in a public place - only 15% preferred to meet in a home.
- Does your group want to wait to read in paperback/cheaper ebook format?
Most book clubs wait for the paperback to publish, but even before ebooks were widely read most would make an exception and read in hardcover occasionally.
Suggestion: Whatever format you decide to read it's best to plan your schedule at least a couple of months ahead so members aren't scrambling to find and read books at short notice (40% of book clubs plan at least 4 months ahead). With a few months notice and access to a reasonable size library, it is possible that most members could get their hands on a hardcover copy at no or relatively low cost - either by borrowing from the library or buying a book and sharing it (and, of course, a great many book club members read e-books these days which opens up other possiblities - as of 2015, half of those we survey say they read ebooks regularly.)
Having said that, waiting until the paperback is available (which also tends to coincide with a cheaper e-book version) tends to take the pressure off. There will likely be less demand for copies in the library and those who buy will be paying less. So, we recommend planning ahead by at least 2-3 months and usually waiting until the paperback is available.
- 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 that meet in homes, 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. Some enjoy 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 table in a quiet corner, and that the restaurant doesn't mind you chatting after the meal has finished!
Suggestion: In general, keep the food simple and serve it at the beginning of the meeting so people can do their socializing first. More on this.
- How will you contact members?
At one time it would have been necessary to share addresses and telephone numbers for correspondence. These days most groups run on email.
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 email a copy to each member after the meeting. There are also online resources that help book clubs coordinate information and share book ideas. For example BookMovement.
Overall, aim to have a structure that your book club agrees on, but allow flexibility within this. What works for others may not work for your group. Stay focused on making the group a fun and interesting place to be and whatever format it takes it's sure to be a success!
That's a lot of things to be thinking about! But, here's one more thing! Unless you already know each other very well, before you even start discussing what sort of books you want to read and how your 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. If this feels a little intimidating try one of our Games to Break The Ice.