All book lovers know the life-changing power of a good read. A great book could transport you to new places across the world, teach you about a topic you've never engaged with before, or give you hope. For all of you who stayed up way past your bedtime as a kid (or as an adult!) to finish the last pages of a novel, you know exactly what it means to be stuck in a book.
But the worst part about a gripping read is when you don't have anyone to discuss it with. Who can you talk to about that mind-boggling plot twist, heart-pumping kiss, or gut-wrenching ending? This is when book clubs come in handy! We spoke with Marianne Paterniti, the book group coordinator at the Darien Library in Connecticut, and Shane Mullen, the event and reading group coordinator at Left Bank Books in St. Louis, who both have some great advice for starting a book club. Below, you’ll find six helpful tips on how to find members, select the perfect book, and create a welcoming environment each month.
Hint: If you love romance novels, you might even think about starting off with Ree Drummond’s The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels to Tractor Wheels, a swoon-worthy story about her and Ladd’s real life romance. (Check out the complete list of all the books Ree Drummond has written too!)
1. Set ground rules.
Will your club read only sci-fi novels? Maybe you’re looking to find other civically engaged people in your community to read interesting non-fiction books. Or maybe you just want to gush about Reese Witherspoon’s latest book club picks. Regardless of the topic you choose, you should set the “rules of the road” for your club early on, Marianne suggests.
By this, she means both the nitty-gritty details of when and where to meet, as well as an agenda for how each meeting will run. You want to set a tone early on for your book club: Will it be a loosely run discussion that might deviate into general chatter, or do you want a more focused conversation to really cover the entire book? "Have a goal for the reading group. Is this more for socializing purposes, or is it about reading outside of your box and expanding your worldview?" Shane says.
Setting this goal in your first few meetings is key, as it’ll be harder to change your club’s habits after a few months. If you’re wondering how to put this into practice, try creating an agenda that accounts for 10 minutes or so for people to chat and settle in. “Somebody has to be the timer and say, ‘Now we have to move on,’” Marianne says. “It sounds harsh, but I think sometimes that's the only way you can make it work.”
2. Put thought into how you choose your members.
When starting a book club, you might instantly think about reaching out to your friends. While there’s nothing wrong with getting your pals together to discuss some epic reads, take a moment and consider broadening your horizons. If you’re really interested in some serious literary discussion, consider recruiting beyond your social group. That way, you're less likely to get distracted and talk off topic.
There are tons of benefits to this approach, as it’ll bring more diverse voices to the conversation and could encourage you to share thoughts you might not have shared with close friends. Plus, it's a fantastic opportunity to get involved in your community. Gathering a group of people who live nearby is a great way to get to know neighbors you might not have met otherwise. "A lot of reading groups focus on specific areas of today's current affairs," Shane says. "Helping your neighbors have difficult discussions about current events is important to help with greater understanding of the world we live in."
There are several ways to find new members, both digitally and in person. Post on Facebook or Instagram to see who might be interested, as this could attract acquaintances you otherwise wouldn’t have known to invite. Broaden your search by putting up fliers at a local coffee shop or library, or start your own Meetup group to attract a wider audience.
3. Use local resources.
Libraries and indie bookstores can be great resources for book clubs. For instance, Marianne runs a program called “Books in a Bag” at her library. It includes 10 copies of a book that groups can take out for up to six weeks. “People tell us all the time, ‘We just can't keep buying books,’” she explains. Find out if your library offers a similar program to reduce the cost for members so they don’t have to purchase a new copy every month— especially if the book you want to read is only available in hardback.
Even if your library doesn't have a special group lending program, indie bookstores often offer discounts to reading groups. "It feels so good to support a local independent business that actively supports your community," Shane says.
Not only can libraries and bookstores help with getting books to members, but librarians and booksellers are a wealth of knowledge when you're figuring out what to read next. Marianne says she can often recommend anywhere from 15 to 20 books for a group to try, while Shane says Left Bank Books often makes appointments with book club leaders to help them find their next read. Librarians and booksellers are constantly sifting through book reviews too, so if anyone has their pulse on the next big crime thriller or moving memoir, it’s them.
4. Choose the right book.
With millions of books out there, how are you ever going to choose the right one? Don’t be afraid of a little trial and error, especially in the beginning. Marianne suggests checking out book reviews in publications like The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, and People to get a feel if the book is a right fit for your club. Online book clubs belonging to celebs like Oprah, Reese Witherspoon, or Jenna Bush Hager are also great resources, as well as websites like IndieBound.org that features suggestions from indie booksellers.
And during your meeting, if you’re stuck on what questions to ask, look online to see if the book has a discussion guide. LitLovers is a fantastic resource for reading guides, as well as book reviews. If you can’t find set questions, you can always use generic questions to guide the convo. OprahMag.com has a huge list of book club questions to get things started! Marianne also recommends asking members to come to meetings with favorite passages or quotes to help the conversation flow.
5. Keep meetings fresh.
If you’re looking for a natural way to start each meeting, Marianne suggests starting by talking about the author and the time period the book was written or is set in, if relevant. “What you're trying to do is bring the group all in one place,” she says. It’s a natural way to orient your group from the start to get in the same headspace.
One creative way to do this is by inviting the author to share some words with your group, whether it’s in person or virtually. There's usually a PR contact on the author's website to find out if they're available. But because this might be a once-in-a-while occurrence, Paterniti says simply reading an interview with the author ahead of time can do the trick. “It just really enriches the whole reading and discussion experience,” she says.
While the heart and soul of a book club is conversing about a book, that doesn’t mean the club has to end there. Brainstorm ways to make reading more interactive. For instance, if the book takes place in Cuba, your group could enjoy Cuban takeout after the discussion. You could even take a road trip if the book’s setting isn’t too far away!
6. Cultivate a safe space.
The most important part of any book club is creating a warm, welcoming space where members feel safe to share their thoughts and opinions.
Fostering a feeling of acceptance is key to facilitating a lively discussion, because everyone will feel comfortable sharing their opinions. This is especially true when someone actually doesn’t like the book you’ve read—it might lead to a fascinating conversation! “You have to feel like you're in a safe place where you can share with people and they're not going to discredit you or think you're way off base. Everything is valid,” Marianne says. “You'll feel very accepted in a group like that.”