Setting Up A Book Group: Twenty Tips

Posted at 17:34pm on 9th May 2009

Dear Mel,

Somewhere I've seen that you wrote about starting a book group and I wondered if you could tell me what qualifications you think are needed.  I've always loved reading and I did join a group once but there were so many people and they all had such a lot to say I didn't really feel I fitted in.

There are a lot of people at our church who would like to meet to talk about books but no one who wants to be a leader.  I wouldn't mind starting something with people I know and feel comfortable with but I don't know how.  I'd be ever so grateful for any tips you can give me.



Mel's Comment:

Dear Sonia,

I've been leading a Book Club for nearly four years now. During that time I've posted a summary of the group's discussion and conclusions on the Diary page of my website (more recently on my blog, Mel's Muse) so I can only presume that this is where you've seen it mentioned. I'm certainly very happy to tell you all I can about starting a readers' group and must say it's great fun. Especially if, as you say, you love reading! As an author if fascinates me to see what other readers draw from a book, especially if their views differ.

Many of the big publishers now run Online Book Clubs.  However, probably the best known group of all is the Richard & Judy Book Club, which used to feature on TV. In fact, I'd say that they were probably instrumental in ushering in the whole concept of book groups.

Now - what do they all have in common? I'd say:

  • challenging and entertaining books;
  • avid readers with a keen sense of what does and doesn't give a book universal appeal;
  • a leader who's prepared to put in the effort required for preparation, and the insight to bring out the quieter members.

So - where to begin? And how to proceed? What are the factors you need to consider when setting up a book group?

  1. START WITH A BOOK: You could start with a book: a book you've read and enjoyed and which you know has been read by two or three friends. Ask them round for coffee one evening to talk about that particular book, and take it from there.
  2. START WITH FRIENDS: Alternatively, you could ask those same friends round for coffee, tell them that you're thinking of setting up a Book Club, and ask them if, between you, you could select a book to read.
  3. START AS A CHURCH GROUP: You've already said that this is what you'd like to do. Knowing that I was an author, our minister asked me to start our book group as part of the church's discipleship. However, we now meet more frequently than originally planned, and select a broader variety of books.
  4. DECIDE HOW BIG YOUR GROUP SHOULD BE: The group I lead varies in size - say half a dozen to two dozen - depending on the book we're reading. We have, at times, met as one big group but, as you identified in your letter, Sonia, that can be intimidating for some. We find we operate best if we break into smaller groups of 6-8. That way, everyone has a chance to speak without feeling they're making a spectacle of themselves.
  5. CHOOSE A VENUE: You may wish to have the Book Club meet in your home on every occasion. Or, you may have a rota and take it in turns to visit one another's homes. In either case, the size of the group may be a defining factor. Our Discipleship Book Club started out by meeting in a local café / restaurant. The owner had an area which was separate from people dining in the evening. On the plus side there was yummy cake and coffee; the downside was the noise factor (ours and the diners) and the fact that we had to be out by 9.30pm. We then met (for free) in the library of one of the large local hotels. Because it's carpeted it was much less noisy, and we still got great coffee or drinks from the bar. When they began to make a hefty charge for the use of the room, we moved to the large lounge in our minister's Manse.
  6. ASK WHAT TIME OF DAY IS BEST: A daytime meeting may be difficult for those who are working. Because we meet in the evening we have a good mix of men and women. However, if you want a women's only book group and you all have school-age children, you may find a morning meeting more conducive.
  7. DECIDE ON LENGTH OF MEETINGS: It's better to make a decision in advance about what time you plan to finish so that everyone knows where they stand. Make it clear that anyone may leave without embarrassment if you run over time. We find 2 ½ to 3 hours suits most people. Too short and you'll end up frustrated because of all the work you've put in and been unable to finish; too long and you'll lose members.
  8. . . .& FREQUENCY: Most book groups meet about once a month. Our church one originally met only once a term, which suited our church leaders but not the Book Club members. Consequently, we now meet approximately every six weeks. Too often and people won't be able to get through the book; too infrequently and you'll never coalesce as a group.
  9. CHOOSE A BOOK GROUP THEME: What, you may ask, is a book group theme? Well, you may want to read only novels; or only biographies. Or you may feel you want to focus on ethical issues; family; politics or crime. Your theme will dictate what type of books you select. As I said earlier, our group began life as part of our church discipleship and the minister particularly wanted us to read books which are academic in nature i.e. study books. We, on the other hand, wanted to have a broader remit. So, whilst still being true to the discipleship theme (i.e. how we develop as Christians) we now read and discuss biography and novels at the additional, intervening meetings.
  10. SELECT THE BOOK TO READ: Some readers' groups select books for the year ahead; others only for the next group meeting. Because the Book Club I lead is part of our church discipleship, our minister originally selected the books: three for each occasion. Each was graded as 'a gentle stroll', 'a hike' or 'mountaineering', according to the ease or difficulty of comprehension. The group then chose one of the three. Without being a control freak!! I liked to impress upon them that the one in the gentle stroll category might be best, so that there was no sense of the group being too intellectually elite and discouraging others from joining. We now have autonomy and choose our own books. For the secular choice, the core group selects a book which one or more members have read or heard of.

Because this letter was getting rather lengthy, I've decided to split it into Part 1 (this post) and Part 2 (following) when we'll look at:

  • Optional Book Reviews
  • Choosing a Leader
  • Defining the Role of a Leader
  • Readers' Group Questions
  • Keeping Everyone Happy
  • Bringing out the Quiet Ones
  • After the Event
  • Online Summary & Questions
  • Online Resources
  • Having Fun!

If you have any tips to add to this, or have found a better way of operating, please contact me and I'll publish your comments next time round.


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