Book Group Etiquette

My mother-in-law’s book group has kindly asked me to come visit next year which has prompted me to think about authors and book group etiquette. Thus far, I have been incredibly lucky that the book groups I have visited have loved my books (or at least pretended to!) so I have never faced that awkward moment of realization that someone found my books…er…’lacking’.

As a member of a book group myself I have, however, been known to initiate some pretty ‘lively’ (and negative) debates over the merits of a particular book. So what is the etiquette for author visits to book groups? How do participants and authors handle the fact that not everyone is going to like a book?

When I visit a book group I usually focus on the inspiration for my books and the writing process or writing life itself. Very rarely do I enter into a debate over the merits (or otherwise) of my writing. I wonder, however, have I just been lucky? Is the day of reckoning going to come when I have to face the hard questions? And how, assuming that day does come, should I react?

So here are some questions for authors and readers alike:
  • Have you ever had an author visit to a book group that ended badly?
  • How should book groups handle an author visit when not everyone likes the books (which, lets face it, is 99.9% of the time)?
Now obviously we all expect a modicum of decency and respect…but apart from that what should the etiquette be (for book groups and authors alike)?


17 thoughts on “Book Group Etiquette

  1. I don’t belong to a book group and don’t have the stature to be invited to one as a guest author. However, I would think that common courtesy would dictate that anyone unable to appreciate the merits of an invited author’s writing would either 1)hold fire for the night or 2) find something else to do for the evening.

  2. I’m inclined to agree with Joe, with one exception. If the reader has an open mind about the possibility of having missed something about the book, they should be able to (politely) ask the author about a plot point or character, in case they just didn’t “get” it. Not an interrogation, and let it go if the answer doesn’t satisfy, but author visits don;t necessarily have to be all softballs. A little inquisitiveness may not only bring a new reader into the fold, it could provoke the author into re-examining some aspect of writing that isn’t going as well as he thinks.

  3. Clare, I’ve been lucky enough to have been invited to quite a few book-group meetings over the years. I’ve found them a great opportunity to meet and greet; much more so than book signings for instance. They have not all been 100% positive and praising of my work. But in general, if a group goes to the trouble of inviting a guest author, either in person or via speakerphone, I believe it’s quite a compliment.

    What has surprised me in the past at these events is the in-depth analysis of hidden meanings and motivations that even I never thought of. At one meeting of about 10 ladies gathered in the living room of the host, I sat back and marveled at a 10-minute debate on what my main character’s motivation really was. The group seemed to forget I was even there and argued about my protagonist as if she was a real person, which I thought was a really cool thing. I learned a lot about my book that night.

    The biggest tip I can pass on is that in just about all cases, it’s not personal if someone questions something I’ve written. It’s simply an individual’s interpretation of my words.

  4. I’ve been to three book clubs and luckily, did not get any negative reviews. Like Clare, they may have been faking it, but I’d like to believe they all enjoyed it.

    Also like Joe, some of the participants seemed to make their own interpretations of my writing and tried to put hidden meaning to something where there was no intention of doing so.

    Actually it opened my eyes quite a bit on how different readers can be.

    I was prepared for the negative reviews, telling myself to keep smiling and just explain where I was going with whatever was being critiqued. I’m glad I didn’t have to use it.

  5. The groups I’ve been invited to usually ask me to speak on specific topics, usually about the inspiration behind the book, or research, or the writer’s life.

    It’s been awhile since I belonged to a book club, but when I was a member, we had reading assignments over a period in time & talked about character motivation, themes & symbolism in the book, like Joe mentioned. I don’t recall anyone being overly negative & I enjoyed the experience. A good book club can enhance the reading experience.

    I recently was asked by my YA publisher to come up with book club questions for my upcoming release ON A DARK WING. They plan to print them into my book as a promo. That process was really fun for me. It allowed me to create open-ended discussion questions geared for teens on themes in my book that they could relate to in their lives.

    Thanks for your post, Clare.

  6. Joe said: “What has surprised me in the past at these events is the in-depth analysis of hidden meanings and motivations that even I never thought of.”

    I’ve not had the book club experience yet so I can imagine it would be a bit nerve wracking. But what Joe mentioned above I think would be the most fascinating benefit for an author. I never tire of the diverse ways in which readers (and for television watchers) viewers read/see the same thing and come away with different interpretations. And if you get the opportunity to do that at a book club, it’s like unlocking a big box where all kinds of great insights come popping out. That’d be cool.

  7. I think it is so cool when a reader sees something in what I wrote that I didn’t see myself. I don’t always know why characters do what they do, I just know that it seems right for them to do it at that point in the story. But a reader may look at the action of a character and see much more to the character than I originally imagined.

  8. I was very nervous the first time I attended a book club as an author, wondering whether people had liked the book. I was amazed that most of the club members’ questions were about me: they wanted to know how my life related to the issues in the book, and how I developed the main character. The one negative input I got was about the heroine’s romantic choice at the end of the story. I reassured them that she’d reunite with Mr. Right in the next installment.

  9. Thank you for the helpful post, which is timely since we have an author visiting our book club next week. A few of our members have said, “Oh, no, now we can’t really talk about the book,” but, as this post and comments show, there is still plenty to discuss without involving full-on criticism.

  10. Great post, Clare,
    And great responses as well.
    My book “Careful…” was elected for a read at my local book club.

    I was thrilled, but terrified, all those emotions you feel when you put your work out there.

    Like Clare, I came up with questions (which the leader in our group is responsible for) by asking the readers to each contribute two questions. I collected them, and prepped some answers.

    But what happened during that two hour book club was magic, folks.

    Like Kathryn mentioned, at first they all wanted to know how I fit into the characters, but then, like Joe experienced, the group morphed into this debate over why my characters did what they did, like they were real people, and how they wold have handled the same situation.

    The biggest compliment came from one reader who said, “I caught myself wondering what they were doing during my workday.”

    That was pretty cool.

    If you are invited to book club, and you get the chance to ask the readers to submit the questions, that’s a pretty effecitve tool.

  11. I always like to see posts like this one, covering topics rarely if ever addressed elsewhere. Although I’m really nowhere as an author, and therefore not likely to be invited to a book club gathering anytime soon, I found Clare’s setup to be very thought-provoking and the responses sincere and informative.


  12. Thanks everyone – so glad people have had positive experiences. I think the mantra “it’s not personal” goes a long way when confronted with criticism. I try to always be gracious to other authors no matter my opinion of their work – we put ourselves out on the line when we present our work and that is hard enough! I have also found book groups reveal some hidden themes or ideas I didn’t even realize I had in the books!

  13. Great post Clare. Who would have thought it would generate such thoughtful and useful comments – but that’s writers for you! We’re all looking forward to having you visit our Book group next year.

  14. Hey Kill Zone Authors,

    Does anyone have access to, or a reference to, an actual Book Critique set of questions?

    When I took Art 101 in college we were handed out a set of ten questions that led to objective analysis of the work we reviewed.

    Surely something like that exists in fiction.

    Criticism is VALUABLE when it’s constructive, and helps you move from point A to point B.

    Maybe JSB or Joe Moore knows of such a list of questions, or knows a writing teacher that does.

    And, if it doesn’t exist for fiction, maybe we could come up with our own list: Objective Criticism – How does the WIP measure up?


  15. Paula, I have only seen specific questions for a particular book at group critique meetings. In my writing group we usually ask an overarching question to the writer – what was your intent with this work? … then we provide input based on whether the work met that intent and provide constructive comments that are designed to help the writer in fulfilling that intent. It seems to make sense most of the time:)

  16. Should I be in the enviable position to be invited to a book group, I would like to think it was because they admired my work. If, however, I was to receive or see another receive hostile fire, I’d probably diffuse it with an answer I heard bantered around at a conference once.
    It goes like this: “Well, if you don’t like this trash, what kind of trash do you like?”

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