By Susan McBeth, Founder and Owner, NovelNetwork®
Ask any librarian who has ever organized a book club meetup for their patrons and they may respond as the nuns did with Maria in The Sound of Music (changing a few choice words of course):
How do you solve a problem like a book club?
…Many a thing you know you’d like to tell them
Many a thing they ought to understand
But how do you make readers stay
And listen to all authors say
How do you keep a wave upon library land?
In my years of working with readers and authors, a baker’s dozen to be precise, I have encountered many diverse and interesting book clubs, but it seems that the majority can be categorized into one of three types, ironically, the three types of book clubs to which I personally belong. And while each of these come with their own set of rules, their own personality, and their own unique history, the one thing they all seem to have in common is the ongoing challenge of keeping the collective spark alive.
What happens when these book clubs don’t go quite as planned, or when they become stale, or need an infusion of creative reorganization, and more importantly, how can librarians assist in keeping readers engaged in book clubs? To understand this, it would be helpful to dissect them just a bit.
The Social Book Club – This is the group of readers who enjoy socializing with girlfriends over a glass of wine and good food, the group who use books as an excuse (albeit a good one) to plan the gathering and make sure everyone shows up on a regular basis. My own social book club selects a book each month, but they may or may not read the book, not because they don’t enjoy reading, but let’s face it, they know why they are really getting together in the first place, and books play a secondary role.
The Serious Book Club – This is the group of readers who take the club very seriously. If you do not read the book, you may feel pressure or not even be allowed to show up for the meeting. They likely have organizers and presenters and themed dinners to pair with the book. They take notes and discuss in depth every aspect of the book, from the author’s intent, to the language, to the theme, to the historical significance, and so on.
The Virtual Book Club – These are the readers who may not have time to join a more traditional book club, or perhaps they are having difficulty finding one to join. I belong to several virtual book clubs as well, including an online business book club, and several others to which I don’t want to fully commit for a variety of reasons, but I do participate when the stars align to make it possible or desirable.
While the aforementioned book clubs, and any other hybrids out there, may differ by definition, most at one point or another will struggle with the same challenge, how to keep their book clubs fresh, motivated, engaged, and connected. There is a simple solution that can help breathe new life into any book club, and some librarians have already discovered this magic bean: inviting an author to the book club, which can be done in person, and now that we live in a tech-savvy world, can even be done simply via video chat!
A social book club loves nothing better than chatting over delicious food and a great glass of wine, so for them, the social aspect of their meetings takes priority over reading the book. By inviting an author to participate in their gathering, the book club is able to expand their social interaction and learn more about the author, thus developing a personal relationship with the author that may actually inspire them to actually read more books. I have seen this firsthand with my own social book club, who were immediate converts when I suggested they schedule a virtual book club chat with an author, and now, they are only interested in selecting books in which the authors are available for book club chats.
For the serious book club, reading the book is not the problem, but what can become a challenge is keeping members engaged and discussions fresh, as it can be a lot of work to belong to an intensely motivated group. By inviting authors to these book club meetings, members can gain a fresh perspective from none other than the person who actually penned the book. When I joined my serious book club, they believed their successful model was all they needed, but when I suggested they give the author visit a try, they were fascinated by the experience and discovered that even their dedicated and cohesive group was able to raise the bar for an even beefier meeting.
The virtual book club offers advantages over physical book clubs for those who don’t have the time to meet in person or who cannot or choose not to commit to a regular discussion for a variety of reasons. The managers of these book clubs are charged not only with getting their members to show up, but also with inviting interaction, staying connected, and engaging readers, because we all know how easy it is to bail on a virtual commitment. Author visits offer an enticing carrot for readers to show up and stay connected, because they feel a personal connection with the author but not necessarily with their virtual “friends.” I know that I am more committed to my virtual book clubs when an online author appearance is included.
If author visits are such a simple way to breathe new life into book clubs, why aren’t more book clubs doing so? Surprisingly, many readers are not even aware that there exists a trove of authors who are amenable to, and enthused about, visiting with book clubs. Many book clubs don’t realize that if an author does not live nearby, that a video chat is still possible. Technophobes (like me) may think that virtual chats are only for the tech savvy, when they are really quite simple to plan. And finally, it can indeed be time consuming to research and inquire of authors, or their many layers of publicists and agents, to find out whether or not they are one of the willing book chat enthusiasts?
Librarians have the ability to reach readers every day and to share their expertise to help book clubs overcome some of these challenges. They often host book clubs, facilitate book clubs, encourage book clubs, and educate book clubs. They have the key to unlock reading magic, and we all know that when books are discovered, eyes are opened, worlds are changed, inspiration begins, and magic happens! So why not invite an author to join in on that journey, one book club at a time!
Susan McBeth is the founder and owner of NovelNetwork®, the nation’s first match(dot)com service to connect authors and book clubs. By registering (free of charge), book clubs gain access to a growing database of authors who are interested in, available for, and excited about, meeting with book clubs, and can view an author’s calendar of availability and schedule book club visits all on one site. Learn more at novelnetwork.com.