August 24, 2015

How to Start a Successful Book Club

If you've been frustrated by lame book clubs where no one reads the books, here are ten tips for starting a killer book club
(photo credit and tutorial for painting book covers: The Band Wife)

Raise your hand if you've ever joined a book club, dutifully read the book and showed up to find that 75% of the people hadn't actually read any of the book, there was an obligatory 5 minutes of book discussion and then everyone sat around talking about The Bachelor and eating treats.

Yes, that's what I thought.

Because I've been to about five different book clubs in multiple states that were exactly like that.

When I moved back to Texas in 2010, one of my friends invited me to join a book club. She told me, "This is not a 'see who shows up and we read fluff and self-help' book group; this is a "I commit to having read the book and be there every month unless I am out of town or dead.'"

I will admit, I was a little intimidated by this. Was I really ready to commit to this kind of book group?

As it turns out, yes. I loved this book club so so much and it was really one of the hardest things for me to leave behind when we left three years later.

A week or so after we moved to Arizona, a college friend of Bart's emailed me and asked me to join her book group which is focused on reading the Great Books of the Western World. Like before, I was a little hesitant, but I committed to six months and after our first meeting last week, I'm pretty thrilled to be part of a group that is serious about reading (in fact, I was one of only two people who didn't show up with a notebook to take notes. Time to step up my game here).

So if you're interested in starting a book club that isn't one of those book clubs where no one actually read the books, here are my recommendations, which are worth exactly what you are paying for them:

  1. Make it clear right off the bat that everyone is expected to read the books. This is not a social club. If you want to start a "dessert and chatting club," go right ahead (in fact, I started one of these in Texas too, and it was really fun) but this is not the same as book club. If you're in a book club that is actually a chatting club, consider starting a spin-off book group and inviting the people who want to actually read books and talk about them to the book club and keep your former book club as a social group so people who don't actually want to read the books can come without feeling guilty. But there's basically no way to have a great discussion about a book if only one or two people have actually read the book. 
  2. Make it a fixed number of participants. My book club in Texas had twelve spots. If someone moved or decided they could no longer commit to attending and reading, the remaining members nominated new members and everyone decided who to invite (I am eternally grateful that my name came up and I got the spot. When we moved, my sister Landen took my spot, that lucky dog). Twelve is a great number, I think, because even if you have one or two people absent on any given night, you have enough to carry a great discussion, everyone chooses one book a year, hosts once, and does refreshments twice. 
  3. Set an expectation of how much time will be spent discussing the book. My current book club meets for ninety minutes (sharp - people have little kids and school in the morning) and the expectation is that one hour will be devoted to discussion and then any remaining time of the ninety minutes can be socializing. Last night, the discussion went right up the ninety minute mark and then everyone left, right on time. In the Texas group, the discussion leader was expected to be prepared to lead a 60-90 minute discussion. 
  4. Try for a good mix of people. In my Texas book club, no one knew everyone else at the beginning since everyone had recommended a person or two when it formed (I wasn't there for that). We had ages ranging from mid-twenties to sixties. Some were married, some were not. Some had children, others didn't. We had homeschoolers, professors, homemakers and teachers. We seemed to fall all over the spectrum when it came to politics, economics, and education. And that made for some really great discussions. 
  5. Pick books that are actually worth reading. There were plenty of books in three years that I never would have picked up on my own and several I didn't even really enjoy. But I always loved the discussion because the books always were full of interesting themes, topics, and opinions. You can read Sophie Kinsella books on your own, but for a book club book, you'll want something that has enough to really warrant a discussion. (And this is why you need a group where people are committed to reading the books even if they've never heard of the title or aren't actually dying to read The Cellist of Sarajevo). 
  6. Have everyone pick their own book. I personally don't like it when a group chooses titles as a group. It's harder to get people to take ownership of leading a discussion and people don't seem quite as motivated to read the books since it wasn't someone's pick. (Of course, my current group is picking books off a pre-determined list, so it's a little different, but even so, if it'd been up to me, every person would have chosen their own book from the list and taken responsibility for it). 
  7. Have someone review/lead the book discussion. You need one person in charge to be prepared with discussion questions and background on the book. At our last meeting, the woman leading had some great background info on Shakespeare and his canon, had great things to say about each play individually and how they represented his tragedy and comedy plays, and even had some brief movie clips to play. Having someone who will keep the ball rolling makes a huge difference in having a real conversation about a book rather than an obligatory five minute rehash of the plot. 
  8. Dessert. My current group doesn't have a dessert policy, but I'll admit I loved that the food in my Texas group was a big deal. Each month, two people were in charge of the food (different from the person leading the discussion) and they usually had the food related to the theme of the book somehow. It was always a beautiful spread, usually served on real dishes, and I learned quickly not to eat dinner on book club nights because there was usually 4-6 different dishes. I think this made it really feel like an event that you didn't want to miss. We would serve up first and then eat as the discussion started, with the food still out so people could go back for second (or thirds or fourths) as needed. 
  9. Have someone in charge of the group each year. Every year, one person was in charge of book group (we went in alphabetical order, so we never got to J before I moved). That person created the calendar with book choices, the location for each month, and who was doing refreshments. They also sent email reminders every month with the location, book, and refreshment assignments. 
  10. Make sure everyone is on the same page. My Texas group initially put together a list of policies and so when I joined, they sent me a copy and I knew exactly what the expectations were, which was phenomenal. When someone new joined, there were no surprise - you knew exactly what you were getting into. 
You might be reading all this and thinking "Whoa. . . this is pretty intense. I would never want to be in a book group with you."

But it's hard to get out on a regular basis and if I'm going to arrange my schedule to go to a book club, I want it to be worth my while. I always came home from book club so energized and inspired, instead of annoyed that it had wasted my evening (and occasionally a babysitter). 

You probably wouldn't join a choir or a dance group where they said "no one is really in charge and half the people don't show up and we won't actually sing/dance most of the time." 

I feel the same about a book club. And these book clubs are FUN. It is a bunch of vibrant, intelligent women, great books, fascinating discussions, and delicious food. Having a framework and expectations doesn't make it less fun - it makes it far less frustrating for everyone. No one has guilt about coming without reading the book and no one is annoyed that they are the only one who dedicated time to actually reading the book and now has no one to discuss with it.  

Later this week, I'll be sharing a list of some of my favorite titles for book clubs to read, whether you're looking for hefty or lighter choices. 

If you have questions, I'm happy to try to answer and I'd love to hear what's worked for your book clubs! 


  1. This sounds like my kind of book club. I mean, if I were to join one, which I probably won't, because I avoid pretty much anything that involves meetings or a schedule. My 45 minutes (if I'm lucky) to myself at night after kids are in bed and before I collapse are too precious to me.

    Then again, I suppose it won't always be like this. So maybe when I don't have so many tiny, needy beings in my home, a book club might seem more appealing.

    But if I were to be in one, I would definitely be in yours. Or one like it. Give me structure or give me death. Or something.

  2. Your book club sounds awesome. I am in two book clubs. One of my book clubs is really committed to reading the books, and I love the discussions and the other women. My other book club is more relaxed. I started going to it because I felt like I needed to meet some women in my new ward (rather that just hanging out with people from my old ward all the time--see previously mentioned book club). The last time I went to this book club they did not discuss the book. At all. It was a new all-time low. I have a lot of books to read, so, needless to say, I am not as committed to reading that book club's books.

  3. I love this post and agree with every single one of your points. My current book club doesn't follow all of them (although we are very committed to reading the books we select), but I would love to be part of a book club that did.

    I love the idea of including a wide variety of people. Right now, my book club is pretty much limited to 25-40, but I know some great women in their 50's, 60's and 70's who could contribute so much to our discussions.

    Also . . . desserts. My book club makes a big deal about the food. But I also belong to another group (that mainly discusses books on education) where the host is not expected to serve dessert. We still have really engaging and interesting discussions, but without food, the evening just feels kind of bland. So yes to yummy food!

  4. My book club isn't nearly this serious, but I'm happy with it. Usually only people who have read the book (or most of it) come. Those who haven't read it or haven't finished it understand that we will discuss the book and, too bad for you if you didn't finish it in time. When we first started we allowed the hostess to choose the book, but that became difficult, and sometimes the book wasn't chosen until a week or two before the meeting. So this year we planned out all the books for the whole year. We have a good variety of books, and we made sure to spread the styles of books through the course of the year. (A few classics, a few historical fictions, a few non-fictions, etc.)

    I would love to do one that is a little more intense, but since basically all the women in my group are in situations similar to me, I recognize that isn't really feasible. There are always people who would love to come but can't because husband's work schedule changes, kids get sick, or something else pops up. I'm okay with only having 4-6 people there, as long as those people actually read and can provide a decent discussion.

    I love the idea of the non-host bringing food!!!!! My book group meets on Tuesdays, and I work on Tuesdays, so the idea of me getting all the way home, greeting my family, making sure the house is in order (usually that's Eric's job), AND getting a treat out is just too much. Last time I hosted I had no food at all because I literally got home moments before my first guest arrived. On the other hand, I do allow people to bring their kids if they need to, and Eric entertains all the children. He's a gem.

  5. your Texas book club kind of sounds like a dream. My ward book club is definitely more of a dessert and chat hour, which I guess is fine, but is not what I am looking for. My library just started a YA for adult book club which I think has a lot of potential - at least there will be someone paid to keep us all on track.

    I am excited to see your list of book club recommendations. I think that is the hardest part of being in a book club - recommending something that will be worth the discussion and appeal to at least some people (you know, so they'll read it)

  6. I liked both of the book clubs that I was a part of in NC, although I feel like I could be part of the blame for too much socializing after the book discussion. But I pretty much make it a rule for myself to only go if I actually read the book. I felt like the Durham book club was really good at getting a big turnout, but probably did have a lot of socializing. In Cary, it was a smaller turn out, but everyone was super serious about the book everyone ALWAYS read which meant that the discussion actually went on for a pretty long time and you actually got deeper into the book instead of just the generic print off questions from the internet (Which I'm totally guilty of printing off 5 seconds before it's my turn to lead the group)

  7. I would LOVE to be in a book club like the one you described. Maybe one day once we are more settled. But in the meantime- I am now in charge of the ward one since Cabrina is gone... Any ideas on how to run it? How to make it less eat and chat and more talking about the books while still including everyone that wants to come?

  8. This is great advice! Some of these tips I would never have thought of doing but you're 100% right. Especially love that everyone should be committed to taking the group seriously - just the same as you would another commitment in your life!

    I'm curious how you found the group(s) you've been a part of in the first place - or how you'd recommend getting started finding people for a new group!

  9. I am so sad you are not still in the book club! I think one of the nicest things Sara has ever done for me was to invite me to join (and she has done lots of nice things for me!). I LOVE book club! It is a highlight of the month.
    I also love these ideas and this post :)

  10. I would love a book club like this! My mom has been part of the same book club for maybe 20 years, so I thought all book clubs were as successful and fun as hers. So disappointed to find that they are rarely as great.

    A few things I love about hers: they have a beach trip with the members every summer, they include their husbands every September, and they plan the whole year in advance.

    How do you feel about requiring people to have already read their book choice? My mom does this but mostly because they want to be sure the book has no questionable parts.

  11. I don't mind some flexibility, especially because I know if mine was too strict it wouldn't keep functioning! But ours has been going so well, I'm pleased. One thing I've learned that's key for a ward/neighborhood book club- including older ladies. I think that helps avoid fluffy books and talking about the bachlor haha, blech. I love the chance to become friends with ladies I don't usually spend time with.

  12. I just wrote " Look up how to start a bookclub" on my To-Do list and pow!- this showed up in my Bloglovin feed!

    Make it a fixed number of participants -- This is a great idea. I like how this makes it feel like a something worthwhile and exclusive (in a good way).

    Thanks for sharing this. As someone who blogs about books I think it would be great to have a group of people to discuss them with and best of all have great recommendations!

  13. Oh my word, I want to be in a book club like this!! I guess I'll just have to create my own!

  14. Wow! No wonder you loved your Texas book club so much! I have really been wanting to find a book club just like the ones you describe but haven't had any luck-- maybe this post is a sign. And hey... if you want to be part of another Arizona book club besides the one you're already in, I'd love to have you in mine!

  15. I want to frame this post! Seriously. I tried starting a book club in my ward and it was a disaster. I think I tried too hard to make people feel welcome and included (big mistake! Jk) and therefore no one felt obligated or motivated to read. And then even the people who came didn't really want to discuss the book. We lasted four months. I'd love to give it another try though. These are some really good ideas. Thanks!

  16. An alternate title to this post is "How to Start a Good AP English Class". Amiright? Ha ha :)

  17. I currently run a book club that is a chat and dessert club. It is a bit sad, but since I have a hard time getting even three people to show up, I invite any and all who want to come, come. Whether they've read the book or not. Maybe someday I'll find a group like yours (here in the west valley).

  18. This is a fantastic post! I kind of wanna be in a book club with you now, lol. I've always wanted to participate in a book club, but the only ones I know of where I live are too specific for me (women's crime fiction or books about trains).

    Someone in my city started a book club on, but it was cancelled before the meeting due to the host's health issues. It had a lot of members signed up, so I know there's interest here for one, but I unfortunately am not able to host a book club where I live. I was thinking of checking with my library about reserving one of their meeting rooms, but my social anxiety and low self-esteem keeps me from going through with it - what if I'm not good at running a book club?

    GAHHH!! I wish my city was more literary-friendly. We have over 1 million people, but we don't have any independent bookstores, literary events, or author signings (other than local authors that write about local/historic subjects). Maybe I should just suck it up and start one anyway - gotta start somewhere.

  19. My problem with book clubs hasn't been that people show up just to chat but that people don't show up! I started a book club that had fabulous discussions, but then it fizzled out after about four months. I was a member of another book club that got to the point where only 3-4 people would show up.

    Right now I'm a member of two book clubs. One fabulous, one okay. In the one made up of women from my ward, anything that isn't super squeaky clean totally gets criticized. We end up reading a lot of books that are fine, perhaps even enjoyable to read but don't really lend themselves to discussion.

  20. I had a great book club in my previous city, but it was definitely more of the chat about bachelor and doesn't matter if you read the book or not, book club. But it was mostly comprised of my friends, many whom I only saw that one night a month. But I agree, there's nothing worse than reading the book club pick and then having no one to discuss the book with because everyone else decided they couldn't be bothered to read it that month!

    We recently moved to a new city and I was anxious to find a new book club. I found one through meetup and it sounds promising, so fingers crossed! Although, showing up to a book club meeting where you know absolutey no one is kind of terrifying! But at least we'll have the book in common, right? Haha. I also, in my search for a book club, discovered that our book store chain here (Chapters), has a monthly book club. You have to RSVP as they only allow a max number of people, but I can't imagine anyone showing up to those meetings not having read the book! And the mix of people must be a good variety...again, fingers crossed for next month! :)

    And I feel the same way as you did...leaving behind my book club was one of the hardest things about our move. #booksforlife ;)

  21. I love this! I've talked with the husband many times about how I should have more adult social time, besides with him and not on play dates! I find it really hard to leave the house at night since it's the only time the husband and I have during the week. But I'd love to join a book club, either the social kind or the actual book discussing kind. If I had one night a month away from my boys, this would be my pick. Now I should work on finding people!

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  23. I don't know where in Arizona you live, but I'm in Mesa and would love to be a part of a book club like this! Have you found a good book club yet where you live?

  24. I don't know where in Arizona you live, but I'm in Mesa and would love to be a part of a book club like this! Have you found a good book club yet where you live?

  25. I want to be in YOUR book club!

    I tried to start my own... and I couldn't find the people who were this committed. It was fun to have the girl-time, but it was not the book club I was hoping for. Time to try again!

  26. I would suggest to anyone looking for a committed book group to check out your local Public Library. I'm a retired librarian and had the privilege to facilitate two fantastic groups during my career.

  27. Call me crazy, but I like a more laid back book club. My book club had a lot of moms in various stages of life. The older moms had endless soccer games, ballet performances, ect. to attend and they have little control over the scheduling of these activities and being there for their kids outranks book club. Most of the younger moms had husbands in the middle of medical training and couldn't always get away-- it's difficult to arrange for a babysitter when your husband is on home call! And no one had a lot of money to buy books and the local library had limited copies so it was hard for everyone to get their hands on a copy. No one could really commit to something hard core but it was nice to still be able to get a chance when you could to get out of the house for a night--even if it was just a social hour-- and to read a book you might not have picked otherwise. On a side note, my grandparents would love a book club like yours. In fact, they belong to one at their local library. Because it is run by the library instead of a social group, people are more serious about the book. Everyone has read the book and there is quite the diverse group so they have some really interesting discussions!


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