BookBrowse interviews How do you meet with your book club when your members are scattered across the country? Ann Kramer shares her story and tips for meeting online via web conferencing, no matter where your friends live! about all aspects of their book club.

Book Club Interviews

How do you meet with your book club when your members are scattered across the country? Ann Kramer shares her story and tips for meeting online via web conferencing, no matter where your friends live!

Can you tell us a little about how this virtual book group got started, and how it works?

Our book club "met" online to discuss The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics, by Riane Eisler. I was the catalyst and all these women were friends of mine from around the country - though none of them knew each other. Since I have a Microsoft Live Meeting account (I see a lot of my counseling clients online), I had us all "meet" there - I could upload information, we could write ideas out on a "whiteboard", and even do a little anonymous surveying during our discussions. We talked via a conference call number, which allowed those who were traveling or not able to log in via Live Meeting to participate. It worked out great, and allowed me to connect with a group that I knew would love this book and want to get deep into discussing it - something I didn't have in my local area.

Can you describe a meeting for those of us having a hard time imagining how it actually works?

Well, imagine that you've all agreed to meet at 8 pm on Wednesday (now, since we had folks on east and west coast, we had to figure in that 3 hour time difference, too). The "moderator", which was me (because I have the Live Meeting account) then "invites" all of the members of the group through email. On the day and time of the meeting, they go to this email invite and click on the "join meeting" button. This takes them out to an "entrance" page, they type in their name and that takes them to the screen I've posted - usually I would have a "welcome all" as an opening screen.

At the same time, I had everyone call in on a conference call number which was also noted in their email. So, at the same time as we're logging into the Live Meeting site, we're also calling this number and then we can all talk to each other. (Live Meeting does have a conference call capability, but everyone has to be logged in. Since at a few of our meetings we had members who were traveling or not able to log in - but they could call in to the group - we did this external conference call number instead).

Once everyone is either logged in at Live Meeting and/or called in on the conference call, we would begin the book group. And just like most book groups, we'd have the sort of social check in and updating, and then we'd get to the book discussion part of our gathering. I had created a list of questions to get us started -- and then, as is true in so many book groups, the discussion went wherever the group led it! It was fun and productive.

Can you tell us more about the technical aspects of the Live Meeting application for our readers who may not be familiar with it?

It's an online "conference" meeting system that enables you to connect with people - as if you're really in the room with them. So, as you "enter" the meeting, a "screen" opens up on your computer and everyone in the meeting sees the same thing. You can add a conference call in, or people can email in questions. You can also have members on video camera. You can post a "whiteboard" and give everyone permission to write on it... So perhaps you're brainstorming ideas - someone can click on the white screen and type in the idea for all to see. Live Meeting also lets you show and share documents. So, for instance, as we were working on a "Cliffs Notes" version of the book, we were able to show a page and all of us could read it, discuss it, and edit it. Another thing you can do is go out to the internet and show another site - so while we're all looking at the same screen, the moderator can pull up other sites, they can be discussed, used for learning, etc. So, overall, it's just a nice way to be able to see, connect, and have tangible information in front of each other.

You mentioned "anonymous surveying" earlier - what's that?

A fun thing to do in Live Meeting - I can post a survey question and members can "answer" it by clicking on what answer they like - and that way we could get a feel for how people responded to an idea before discussing it.

Ooh! That's certainly something you can't do in a traditional book club meeting. So, how tech-savvy do you need to be to coordinate or participate in a web-conferencing book club like this?

Well, clearly you need to know enough about email and setting up a conference call. As for Live Meeting, or a similar type of web conferencing service - this takes a bit of tech knowledge, though I will say that Live Meeting does an excellent job in online classes to teach you how to use all the features. Maybe just one or two people in the group need to know how to use it at the set up level, send the invites, upload files... the others can simply log on, join the meeting and watch and participate at that level.

How did you set up the conference call number? is simple as pie to set up, and enables you to have a number that you use over and over again. The call is a "long distance call" for each member who calls in on it, about $5 for each meeting. Another option would be for everyone to connect for free on Skype.

Is there any special equipment required for the web conference or phone call?

Just a computer with internet access, preferably high speed. Those on dial-up have a slow go when pages change.

And the Live Meeting account?

It's not very expensive - accounts can be had for as little as $25 a month. In our case, because I have an account that I use for my business, I was able to use it with my book group since it didn't cost any extra.

Any advice you'd offer groups interested in starting their own "virtual" book group?

Well, there needs to be one central person who connects and organizes it, and is good using email. While Live Meeting is great, it isn't necessary. Phone chats (and now using Skype it's even easier and cheaper) are great too.

Any particular challenges to be aware of?

I think you need to have a set of questions and a focus to get started. This helps everyone tune into the book discussion even if they can't see each other, as compared to many groups where, when we're all together it can easily just be fun chat, engage in side discussions, etc.

Thanks for all that technical information! So, was The Real Wealth of Nations the first book you discussed?

For this group, yes, definitely.

Was there a particular reason you brought together this group of women to discuss this book?

Yes, because I've known them over a long period of time, I knew they'd like to discuss this type of book - which is a pretty detailed and intense non-fiction book about progressive ideas. I've had individual talks with all of them about this type of information, so then it occurred to me to bring them all together.

What a neat way to bring friends together. Can you tell us a little bit about them?

None of the members knew each other before I started this group - they were individually friends of mine who I'd met through all my moves around the country. We're a very diverse group - some are stay-at-home moms, some are working moms, some are professional women, activists, a couple are retired.

Have you ever met up in person?

Yes, several of us gathered in Atlanta to finally meet each other. It was very fun, very inspiring, and while it is unlikely we'll all do this again since so many are scattered, it was a unique opportunity.

Have you discussed other books since?

Actually, what happened is they got so excited about The Real Wealth of Nations that as a team we created a "Cliffs Notes" version of the book that's now posted on the author's website! And they've continued to discuss and get involved with the ideas in the book.

That's great! What's next on your agenda?

We're actually helping with the launch of an internet campaign behind the ideas in the book, and I'm now working as a consultant with the non-profit based on Eisler's book, the Center for Partnership Studies! I'm hoping to launch new book groups as part of the internet campaign through the non-profit.

How wonderful! Thank you for sharing your unique experience with BookBrowse - Sounds like this "meeting" offered you all inspiration beyond just food for thought. I'm sure many of our readers will be equally inspired by your group and the work that's grown out of it.

Interview conducted and edited by Lucia Silva

© May 2009.

Would you be interested in being interviewed for this feature? If so, please contact us with brief details about your club. It is very helpful if you include both a contact email and a telephone number.

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