The Book Group Experience

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I’ve had many terrific experiences speaking to book groups and, as a member of a book group, I’ve spent many hours debating and (let’s face it) dissecting other people’s novels. While my mother-in-law is visiting, she and I have been talking about the role of book groups and how difficult it is to please many book group attendees. In my mother-in-law’s group it’s rare that any book passes muster – and this got me thinking about the power of book groups and their evolving dynamics.
There’s no denying the power of book groups today – they are the fuel that can propel a literary book to bestsellerdom (think of books like The Kite Runner or The Memory Keeper’s Daughter). I think many publishers are eager to please the ‘book group’ demographic (women aged 35-65) because without the book group ‘word of mouth’ few literary books would probably achieve commercial success.

As an author I love speaking with book groups but there is always the fear that someone will hate the book or tear it to pieces in front of me. Before I was published I never thought twice about ripping into a book I felt was unworthy – now, I confess, my criticism of novels is more tempered (as I know just how bloody difficult it can be to write the darn things!). Still, I cannot help but be impressed by the influence book groups can wield – and I’ve been mulling over just how certain books end up being the perfect ‘book group’ read.

So here are my questions:
  1. Are you in a book group, and if so, how do you select the books you read? Are the bestseller lists influential or is it mainly word-of-mouth (in my groups it’s all word-of-mouth)
  2. How critical are you and other members of the group – are fewer and fewer books these days meeting your standards?
  3. Do you have authors visit – and if so, how do you deal with the thorny problem of members not liking the book? What do you like authors to cover or discuss with the group?
  4. How much notice do you take of the reading group guides publishers provide (either on-line or in the back of the book)?
  5. For all you authors out there – what have your experiences been like with book groups? (…any horror stories you’d like to share?)
  6. And – for God’s sake – tell me, are there any men in book groups these days????

Now I’d better get to reading my next book group read, and sharpening my claws for the inevitable discussion:) on our next read – Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier.
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6 thoughts on “The Book Group Experience

  1. I was in a book group once with about four guys and only one girl. We were reading Plato’s Republic, so I suppose nothing about the group was typical.

  2. I was in a very fun and spirited book club until I got too busy to participate. They rotated types of books from light, fun fare to more serious works, including nonfiction, so there was always a change of pace. For any book there always seemed to be defenders and detractors. I don’t recall using the book club questions for any book, although the person who suggested a book always developed her own list of questions. (All the members were women, no partners allowed!)

  3. I’ve never been in a book group but I’ve spoken at quite a few. There was one large group in South Florida that would invite myself and my co-author to dinner once a year after they’d finished reading our latest thriller. There are some perks to being a writer. 🙂

  4. i belong to a large book club at superstition mt, az….all women…tho’ we would welcome anyone. we convene once a month from nov-may {everyone goes to their summer homes the other months} we select books suggested by participants…making sure we have both fiction and non fiction. and dec. always has to be our “hammock” book…doesn’t need a lot of concentration, as everyone has so much to do for the season. [evanovich type!] we try to tie an event in with the book….ie gallileo’s daughter sent us to the planeterium b4 lunch…..sherlock holmes sent us to the poisoned pen bookstore in scottsdale b4 lunch…as you can see, lunch is always involved. to kill a mockingbird….we enjoyed watching the movie and eating popcorn and jujubes. so it is a source of great fun and discussion. we are never unkind about the books or authors….as we feel it’s subjective and what one likes, another may not. we have never used the suggestions at the end of the book, as with 20 ladies, there’s never a lack of conversation. i can speak for our group….thanks to all authors for making reading such a wonderful pastime…..kathy d.

  5. I love the perks of being an author and have enjoyed many a yummy meal as part of a book group. My own book group is all women and it’s a fabulous group – but we often split on each book with very strong opinions either way. I often think it’s amazing how the reading experience can be so different for everyone and one person’s ‘love it!’ is another person’s ‘I threw it against a wall’ book.

  6. well, actually, we did have one gal throw a book onto the open firepit where we were grilling marshmallows for s’mores….then retrieved it, fearing it would taint the marshmallows….but that was a rare occasion….

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