Successful Book Groups

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

When I lived in California I was a member of a book club that had been running for well over a decade. Now I’m in Colorado I’m seriously considering establishing one myself as I loved being exposed to books that I wouldn’t otherwise have read, and I enjoyed the discussion and sense of camaraderie that came with being with a group of like-minded book lovers.

The only thing is – I’m not sure I want to be responsible for actually setting up a book group. In California, the group had evolved and changed composition over time but the balance seemed to be just right. There were enough strong opinions to go around but no obnoxious personalities to derail the discussion. There was also enough food and drink available to help the ‘discussion’ flourish. The thing is, I’m not sure I can ever recreate this and, to be honest, I’m not sure I should even try.

Successful book groups seem to involve an almost serendipitous arrangement of personalities, opinions and characters. Get the balance right and it’s terrific – get the balance wrong and it’s a horrible endurance test for all concerned. I’ve had offers to join other book groups too – but again, I’m wary about joining. I’ve also been reading about the emergence of online book groups which sound pretty cool – only I think I’d miss the personal interaction (not to mention the accountability – much easier to lie online about having read a book!).

So – some input from TKZers is required. Specifically I’m wondering:

  • Are you a member of a great book group?
  • If so, what do you think makes it great? (or if you’ve been a member of a dysfunctional group – what was the main problem or issue?)
  • What do you think makes a successful book group? 
  • And finally…with all the social media/online options do you think the ‘in-person’ book group is becoming (sadly!) redundant?

I’m also interested in whether you tend to favor a single sex book group (the one I was in was all-women) or a mixed group and whether you think focusing on a specific genre is helpful (we could chose basically anything, which I think made it much more interesting as I had to read books I wouldn’t otherwise have read). All in all, it would be great to start up a new book group – but I know, after some ‘interesting’ experiences with writing group dynamics, just how carefully I need to tread… 

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22 thoughts on “Successful Book Groups

  1. I belonged to one that we called “the Wine Club,” because the women loved the flow of wine with their discussions! I dropped out because I wasn’t doing the reading consistently. I read so much on my own that it became like homework to do the additional reading. I do miss the get-togethers, though!

    • I think I need to have some enforced ‘fun’ reading as I end up doing so much for research I feel I miss out:) Wine always sounds good though…

  2. Clare, I was a member of a local critique group for over 10 years. We met weekly and each person read their current chapter aloud. Then we go around the group and critique. Unless the author requested line editing, we usually kept the comments to plot, character development, dialogue, etc. The thing I liked (and miss) the most is the pressure to produce. I had to have a new chapter to read each week, so that kept me motivated. I also met my co-writer in that group, and Lynn Sholes and I are now working on our 7th thriller together.

    A couple of comments on my personal experience.
    I like a mixed group. I think it helps if everyone is basically on the same skill level. All egos should be checked at the door. The goal is to help others become better writers. When more than one group member has a problem with something in my work, there’s a good chance others will, too.
    If you don’t agree with a criticism, sleep on it before you reject it. Most of the time, they’re right.
    Don’t hesitate to kill your darlings. Hope this helps.

    • I like the idea of focusing on a higher level than line edits and word-smithing. And the chapter a week goal would be a good incentive too. Thanks for the tip, Joe.

      Clare–You are a braver woman than I would be. As much as I enjoy reading, I would not want to be responsible for starting a group and keeping it going. Like Kathryn, I read everyday and do so for research and pleasure. To squeeze someone else’s book suggestions in would make it feel like work to me.

      I do like the idea of socializing and wine. There is a local group of authors here who meet once a month and potluck, with someone hosting dessert. They chat about lots of things. That sounded appealing to me, but I could use Joe’s type of crit grp more.

    • Jordan – I’m hesitating for the very reason that I’ve limited time and it seems like a big commitment to get a book group up and running well. I do miss the challenge of reading books I wouldn’t otherwise read – though that can be great or it can be awful (we read some stinkers in my last book group!)

  3. Hi Clare,
    If you will allow me a possibly stupid question, can’t you read new and challenging genres and authors as a reviewer? I think discussion groups are like bushels of apples–statistically, there’s usually a bad one in the basket. The danger of running across a real X (fill in X as you may) is too much for me–I prefer my reviewing activity. As a reviewer for Bookpleasures.com, I can pick and choose my books, but I read many genres in fiction and non-fiction books that extend my knowledge. Moreover, I’m giving back something to a bigger group of readers and writers.
    Just sayin’….
    r/Steve

  4. You might try seeing what Book Clubs are in your area on meetup.com. In Seattle there are a fair number. If you’re in any of the metro areas of CO there’s got to be something. Check out the slant of the groups, and go to ones that sound interesting. Maybe a couple of them will, and they’re a good way to meet new people, too.

  5. I’m also in Colorado and have been part of the same book club for going on 14 years. I’m the only writer in the group but that’s okay. We get to take turns picking books (one a month) and I end up reading things I never would have read on my own. I can’t always read the book due to my writing deadlines, but they’re very patient with me. 😉 We’re going away for our annual mountain weekend next week, where we drink wine, soak in the hot tub, and discuss books. I adore my group and wouldn’t trade in-person for on-line anytime.

    • Kristi – sounds like my group in California (sob!) I was the only writer too and everyone was very patient with me:) But I agree in person is much better than online!

  6. Keeping a reading group going can be a chore. I was in one and it petered out to just three of us. However, we have all remained great friends since. Having someone who operates a local independent bookstore facilitate is a good way to keep it going and add new blood – as well as a nice meeting place.

    I think that book groups should have a website or at least get a constant email chat going. That helps keep the interaction more immediate.

    • That’s an idea Jim – never thought about keeping the ‘chat’ going online. I’m worried though that keeping a reading group going will be a chore…

  7. I was in a face to face book club long ago, and it was okay, but I was the only teen in a roomful of middle aged women, and we didn’t have a lot in common. Now I’m in a group of fellow writers who are challenged to read in our genre (spec fic). We alternate history and fantasy every month, and we keep an eye out for cheap or free ebooks we can throw on the pile. We just discuss books on a Facebook group, and sometimes we invite the author to the discussion. It’s lots of fun. 🙂

    • Kessie – that sounds great. I think being with like-minded souls is very important. I was the youngest in our group in California but that never seemed to be an issue. I do think that if people are too dissimilar the group can get ugly!

  8. Clare,

    I’ve belonged to two weekly reading clubs: an in-person book club and an online club that covered The Best American Short Stories. Here is a summary of my experience, related to your questions:

    Weekly In-person Book Club:

    Several years ago, I started a weekly book club with two other women. We had met through our membership in a local subscription library (Library membership was open to anyone, but required a yearly fee).

    Before we had our first meeting, the three of us established ground rules and selected the first 20 or so book titles. After we read those books, we opened up title selections to the rest of the members.

    We had twelve regulars: nine women and three men, who showed up every week, ready to talk about the books. Twelve turned out to be a good working number: small enough for everyone to discuss at length during the two hour meetings, yet high enough to offer a diversity of opinions.

    As founding members, we administered the club for five years. By the seventh year, the three of us had moved onto other things.

    The club still meets, in a more free-form fashion: meetings are less frequent and more social (some people show up for the social aspect without having read the book); titles selected are more varied (We focused on classic and literary fiction for adults—no children’s books, biographies, poetry, etc.)

    Here is why I think our book club was great/successful:

    We had a regular, comfortable place to meet: the subscription library. (Although no food or drink was allowed, due to the presence of historical books and manuscripts.)

    All members lived within walking distance of the meeting place, so weather or transportation was never a problem.

    The three of us took turns moderating the meetings. Each weekly moderator arrived with prepared notes, comments, and questions to keep the meetings lively. This ensured that discussions began immediately, focused on the weekly book, and didn’t stray into complaints about somebody’s day at work, recaps of TV shows, or arguments about politics.

    Weekly Online Cub, The Best American Short Stories:

    One person administered the club, which took the form of weekly comments to a forum note for the “story of the week.” All members were writers, with varying degrees of publication success.

    The moderator’s role was minimal: she posted the weekly “Discussion” header, but rarely participated in any discussions.

    Participation was sporadic. A large number of members posted for one or two stories and disappeared. A core of four or five posted most weeks.

    The above features were advantages to an online group. Nobody needed to invest heavily in time or book-buying.

    Most members posted under their real names. Still, I expected freer commentary under the autonomous aspect of Internet, than I observed:

    – Two members openly stated that they were uncomfortable stating negative opinions about stories rated “The Best of…” Offline, one member told me that he worried about editors and authors of the stories finding his comments and blackballing him.

    – I noticed people were more conservative in their comments and opinions, less likely to argue extreme positions, than those in my in-person book club. I attribute this to the same reason as above: they didn’t want their comments hanging around Internet for editors, publishers, and authors to find.

    • Really interesting reading your comments and I think that’s why in person groups work well. I would also be reluctant to state negative comments online – like with reviews – the internet can often spark flame wars!

  9. I’m in Colorado Springs and I’d love to get together with other writers. There are 2 groups, that I’m aware of, that meet regularly, but as I understand, require doing “reading homework”. I work full-time in a stressful job and am lucky to get some writing done during the week, before I collapse into my bed in the evening. Also, I’m a bed-time reader, so it takes me forever to finish reading a novel. Therefore, the idea of doing a weekly chapter-sharing group would fit better into my lifestyle. Clare, whereabouts Colorado are you? If anybody knows about such a group in the Colorado Springs area, let me know…

  10. I love this blog. Seriously. I recently started to subscribe and enjoy all the posts. Thanks for this one on book clubs and writer/critique groups, which I see as separate animals, (growl!)

    My experience with critique groups has been a string of Indy Jones adventures… wildly erratic. Some critique circles are welcoming and more amateur. Others operate at a more professional level (skills are sharper), but feature members whose feedback is a razor. Draws some blood, carries a sting. For whatever reason, I’ve often found that women tend to be meaner, and frequently harsher on the bigger talents, while cooing “good job!” to the woman whose work isn’t as polished. Maybe because she’s not perceived as big a threat. Tough and honest – that’s always good. You want that in order to improve. But mean? Cruel is something we can all do without, yet you see it all over the Internet. So we’ve got to develop our rhino skins, as James Scott Bell once said. And maybe harsh critiques help prep you for the no-holds-barred publishing world.

    I’ve found that a mixed critique group is good – equal parts male and female. Egos can flare in almost any group setting. Bet even nuns get testy with each other, LOL. As long as I keep my own ego in check and always strive to be constructive and encouraging, that’s the key. To be a mensch. Help a fellow writer from becoming discouraged and quitting.

    Book club wise, I think it would behoove all writers to try to join one, just so that you keep reading. Reading a great novel keeps our own saws sharp. Yet I find at the end of the day, I’m often exhausted and too tired to dive into a novel, no matter how badly I want to read it. Staying off the Internet and e-mails helps me feel less spastic, so I can read a book format (training the ole eyes to move methodically, back and forth, rather than zig-zagging like I do on a web page).

  11. I’m a member or a great book club. The members are able to share their true opinions. Although we have fun and spirited debates, we respect each other’s opinions, even when they are quite different from our own. I think that’s what I love most about the group. (It’s all ladies, by the way, but I think it would be interesting to have a variety. We haven’t excluded men, but none have asked to join.)

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