5 Tips For Keeping Your Book Group On Track.

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Interesting book club choices.

So your book group is a little lax and needs some shaping up, but you are not quite sure what to do.   The meeting dates keep changing and the endless emails to reschedule are cluttering your inbox.  When you finally do meet, all anyone cares about is the food and wine and half the people haven’t even read the book.  Finally, when one person recalls the purpose of the get-together and announces how it is getting late, and maybe you should talk about the book, the momentum shift to intelligent discussion feels like a chore and the book conversation is forced, aimless and short.  From someone who has been in many book clubs over the years, I would like to offer you some advice.

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Assign a leader…someone needs to be in charge.

The leader of the book group is responsible for communications; she should ask the group for book suggestions, evaluate the responses and choose the winning book.  Ask the group for volunteers to host, assign the host, agree on the date with the host and communicate to the members, the host, the date and the book.  The host can then reach out to the group asking what they would like to bring and letting them know the address and where to park.  The leader of the group does the administrative job to keep the group moving forward.

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Pick a date…and stick with it.

The sweet spot for book group meetings is every 6 to 8 weeks.  This gives slower readers a chance to finish in time and everyone has the chance to plan their schedule.  Not everyone will be able to make every date so consistency is helpful.  If you can plan the year’s meetings ahead of time this could work too.  I am in one group that provides all meeting dates and book titles at the beginning of the school year.  Everyone is invited to bring their lunch, cookies are served, a moderator is brought in to help the leader lead discussion, and there is no nonsense.  This group’s focus is more serious, similar to a class due to the learning and enrichment, and the set schedule, in depth content discussion and book choices reflect those values.  This orderly routine works well for this group.

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These books generate good conversation.

Choose the right book…it must satisfy the needs of the group.

All members should suggest several books they want to read and most likely there will be some overlap. The book chosen should meet the needs of the group.  Does your group like to read mainstream, popular fiction that focuses on relationships? Mysteries? Historical fiction?  One of my book groups chooses well known titles (Reese Witherspoon and Oprah picks) and we have had smart discussions.  We have read An American Marriage, Little Fires Everywhere, and most recently we discussed Educated and The Great Alone together, as there is so much to compare and contrast.  Another group I am in read Song of a Captive Bird, a fictional account of a real Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad, and most recently, Asymmetry, a debut written in three parts about love, luck, life and art, and both of those discussions were informative and educational. With Asymmetry, so much learning occurred and hidden meaning was revealed at our round table discussion in a Japanese restaurant’s Tatami room one evening…we continued talking about that book for days!  My advice is to choose a book you can sink your teeth into and do some extra research on the topic, author, time period or characters. 

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Size doesn’t matter…agreement on the format does.

Contrary to much publicized book club advice, it is possible to have a successful book group with as many as two dozen people, or even just a few people.  As long as your group has some structure and everyone is respectful and willing to follow the format, great fun can be had.  Smaller groups have an easier time agreeing on a date, finding a place to meet and everyone has more of a chance to speak out.  On the other hand, one of my groups has over 20 members and most of these women have been reading together for 20 years.  For them, the meal on book club night is important as many of them enjoy hosting a dinner party, so we always enjoy a beautiful meal and wine for an hour or so before we get down to business.  We tend to have more emails back and forth about the date, but if everyone can’t make it, that is ok. We still enjoy thoughtful discussion.

Regardless of size, it is important to have a moderator.  The moderator should come to the meeting with discussion questions that usually can be found online;  some local libraries will provide them if you put in a request. The moderator can kick off the meeting with a short summary of the book to get everyone on the same page and then can use the questions to stimulate conversation.  She is in charge of keeping it civilized!  If nobody takes the lead, too many people try to talk at once and the group tends to break up into smaller side conversations.

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My book group meeting Martha Hall Kelly, author of The Lilac Girls, after a speaking engagement.

Go the extra mile…there is added value to be had.

This is where you can make your meetings interesting, and everyone can bring something to the party.  This is what I do. Once the book is picked, I like to follow the author on social media.  This gives me the opportunity to connect and ask questions.  Most authors are excited to hear what you think about their book and I always leave a review on Goodreads and Amazon.  This helps them with their rankings and can impact sales so why not help an author out!  They also could be willing to visit your book club or Skype with your group and that can be really exciting and different. 

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FaceTiming with Fiona Davis, author of The Masterpiece.

One of my book groups FaceTimed with author Fiona Davis when we discussed her third novel, The Masterpiece.  In addition to the book and the writing process we talked about artists that were named in her book, actors who we would want to play her characters if the book were made into a movie, along with the architecture and special floors and rooms of 1920s Grand Central Terminal.  We also had photos one of our members took of places in the current Grand Central Terminal which enriched our discussion and made it oh so much fun! 

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My book group meeting with Heather Frimmer, author of Bedside Manners.

A different group I am in welcomed author of Bedside Manners, Dr. Heather Frimmer to join us and talk about her mother-daughter medical fiction debut.  As a radiologist, she talked to us about the realities of breast cancer and how her medical knowledge helped her write an authentic book.  

And of course, Google is a wonderful thing…I always research the author and the book, and if I am the moderator, I download discussion questions.  When I moderate a group I like to read a short summary of the book to get everyone in the right frame of mind.  Everyone can find something interesting to contribute; it is nice to show a video or pictures (someone showed photos of locations in Spain when we discussed Dan Brown’s Origin), read an interview (I read a transcript of a conversation between author Tara Westover and Bill Gates when discussing Educated), and in another group one of our members referred to her copy of Alice in Wonderland when we examined the writing of Lisa Halliday (at our Asymmetry discussion).  There are so many author interviews on youtube and author websites to share.  Another fun thing to do is to choose a book where you and your group are able to go hear the author speak at a local library or bookstore. If you can, connect with the author on social media and ask to meet for a drink with your book group after the event.  

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Controversial themes and unusual settings make for interesting discussion.

If you want to get together with friends, drink wine and have fun after reading the same book, that can be easy to do.  If you want your book club to be a little more intellectually stimulating, everyone needs to be in agreement and effort must be put in.  Follow my 5 tips for keeping your book group on track, and you should have some success.  I am enjoying each of my many book groups for different reasons, but most of all, I am happy to connect with friends over books and learn something new.  

Assign a leader…someone needs to be in charge.

Pick a date…and stick with it.

Choose the right book…it must satisfy the needs of the group.

Size doesn’t matter…agreement on the format does. (Assign a moderator!)

Go the extra mile…there is added value to be had.

Let me know what your book club is reading and if you need a suggestion, please ask!

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Photos above include:
Delia Owens, author of Where the Crawdads Sing
Jenna Blum, author of The Lost Family
Min Jin Lee, author of Pachinko
Fatima Farheen Mirza, author of A Place For Us
Lynsey Addario, photojournalist and author of Of Love and War
Stephanie Powell Watts, author of No One is Coming to Save Us
Katharine Weber, author of Still Life With Monkey

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