I don’t think anybody needs to reinvent the wheel and come up with a new protocol for starting a book group; not when there have been so many useful books and websites on the topic. I am going to refer you to a few of each, and then supplement those citations with some of the lessons gleaned from my own limited experience.
As for books, the outstanding one is:
The book group book: a thoughtful guide to forming and enjoying a stimulating book discussion group / [ edited by] Ellen Slezak ; foreword by Margaret Atwood.
Chicago : Chicago Review Press, c2000. Edition 3rd ed. (Note: The first and second editions are also available and would probably also serve; this 3rd edition is the latest one that I am aware of.)
Loevy, Diana. The book club companion : a comprehensive guide to the reading group experience. New York : Berkley Books, c2006. ISBN 042521009X
SEE ALSO: Laskin, David. The reading group book : the complete guide to starting and sustaining a reading group, with annotated lists of 250 titles for provocative discussion. New York, Plume, 1995. ISBN 0452272017
If your local libraries do not own any of these titles, you could probably pick one of them up fairly cheaply at a used book store. You could also order them online at http://www.addall.com by plugging in the title or the ISBN number.
There are a great many websites that will also offer you tips on how to start and run a book group. Three good ones are:
BOOK CLUBS RESOURCES
READING GROUP GUIDES
You may also find other interesting resources here:
At the Avon Public Library, in Massachusetts, early in 2004, I took it upon myself to start a book group for the library. The way I went about starting that book group was as follows.
1) I posted a sign-up sheet at the library to ask various library patrons to sign up with their names and phone numbers if they were interested in joining a reading discussion group. (If I had thought of it at the time, I would also have gotten their mailing and their E-mail addresses!)
2) I attended a long-established book group in Attleboro Massachusetts, which met monthly at a Borders Book Store, to see what a book group was like.
3) Once I determined that there was a core group of at least four people in Avon who were interested in joining a book group, I then went and read a book about the best literary books of the last 40 years.
The authors’ recommendations, and hence, our initial selections, were a bit “difficult”, as I quickly learned. From that book, however, I learned about Annie Proulx’s first novel “Postcards” and Cormac McCarthy’s acclaimed 1985 novel Blood Meridian. (I’m not sure, however, I would recommend either of these–at least, not to start with!)
After making the initial few selections myelf, I eventually came to rely increasingly upon book group input to determine what books should be read, and in what order. In running the Easthampton Group, every six months or so I currently ask members to bring in a list of about four books, then base my selections on how easy it is for me, as librarian, to order as many as 12 or 15 copies from libraries in the region. You can ask your town librarian if they are able–and willing–to borrow books from area libraries for that purpose. If not, you may have to ask the book group members to buy them. You might not have to pay full retail. The book vendors listed on the addall.com site mentioned above might provide you with half-price copies. Or a local bookseller might be willing to locate and buy multiple copies for you, and sell them to your group at a reduced rate. If you do decide to purchase, rather than borrow, the books, then, in theory, there are no limitations on what titles you may select. However, if you do want to borrow the books, keep the following obstacles in mind.
IF THE BOOK IS VERY NEW, IT WILL BE IN HIGH DEMAND, WITH A WAITING LIST, AND THUS YOU WILL BE UNABLE TO GET MULTIPLE COPIES FROM AREA LIBRARIES.
If the book is very obscure, you may also have the same problem with getting multiple copies.
You may, in order to avoid these obstacles, select from well-known books that are two or more years old and therefore not in such high demand. There are many reading lists on-line that will steer you to good, proven reading group selections.
There are a number of other factors you might want to keep in mind when making selections.
1) What kind of book group would you like to have and be a part of? Whether you want a literary book group, a mystery book group, a fiction and memoir book group, or a “general interest” book group, you would do well to ask the initial “core” members what they hope to get out of the book group and what kinds of books they might want to read. Be guided by what they say. The leader (or “facilitator”) of the book group should, at the very least, have an understanding of the logistics behind getting ahold of multiple copies of the book.
2) You may also wish to be a bit conservative when first starting out. In general, you might wish to avoid:
a) Books of over 400 pages. You may wish to begin with books of under 200 pages, then work up to books of greater length.
b) Books that are likely to be of limited appeal. Any book that is too “difficult”, which is to say, any book written in a confusing or a complex style, is probably best avoided–at least, at first.
c) Anything that was a commercial sensation 40 or 50 years ago might not be the best selection for a contemporary reading group, and thus, might also be best avoided. People tend to gravitate to the new. This caveat does not, however, apply to acknowledged (and short!) “classics” such as The Great Gatsby, Ethan Frome, Heart of Darkness, or Seize the Day.
d) Genre fiction. You might want to do a little preliminary research by reading about the book on Amazon to ensure that it is not in a genre that might intimidate or antagonize or offend the sensibilities of the reading group members. At least early on, you may wish to avoid the following:
1) “Hard” science fiction
2) Sexually explicit fiction
4) Graphic novels
Once your group has been in existence for awhile, you will gain a better sense of just how adventurous they would like to be.
It’s hard to go too very wrong with the following genres:
3) ‘Women’s fiction’. This is what Reader’s Advisory librarians use to describe fiction that tends to be about relationships between people. One example would be “The Time Traveler’s Wife“. (Many book groups are principally feminine, but if yours is not one, then ignore the suggestion.)
Caution: One member might suggest that the group discuss the latest mass market paperback by Danielle Steele or John Grisham. This is fine in theory, but be advised that these types of books do not tend to have much “content”. I won’t say they’re fluff, but if your purpose is to actually discuss the book, then, in dicussing one of these, you might run out of things to say after 25 minutes and be reduced to talking about something else entirely. Deflecting such good-intentioned suggestions takes a certain amount of tact. I would simply say something neutral, like “We’ll look into it.” Then let the matter drop. The same goes for ponderous literary classics. If a member who is new to the group suggests you read, say, “An American Tragedy,” tell them you’ll take it under advisement. If they’re still there six months later and they suggest it again, then by all means put it up to a vote! (I mention this because I have learned that people who are not invested in the group will often be the ones who will make some of the most problematic suggestions.)
PROMOTING YOUR BOOK GROUP LOCALLY
Step one: You could put up a flyer in your local library and in other places where your community gathers. A coffee shop; city or town hall; the council on aging; the local arts center; the local book store; even area churches.
You could use this flyer to announce “A preliminary meeting to establish a book group”. The flyer should be an 8 1/2 x 11 sheet, eye-catching and easy to read, and should state the following information:
Purpose of Initial meeting
Place of initial meeting
Time and date of initial meeting
Telephone number of book group contact person.
Alternately, you could just gather together some like-minded individuals, decide on a book, then have the first book group meeting to discuss that book. You can also decide there at the first meeting some important things about future meetings. (I advise you to do the part about future meetings and selections BEFORE the actual discussion of the book, when everybody is fresh!)
These “important things” are as follows:
A NAME FOR THE BOOK GROUP.
Is it going to be THE WERNERSVILLE READING GROUP? THE WERNERSVILLE BOOK CLUB?
It might be best to decide on a name then stick to it, to ensure that people know what you’re talking about when you start to promote it.
A (MORE OR LESS PERMANENT) MEETING PLACE. Usually, it’s the local library. But you could also have the meeting at a private home on a fixed or rotating schedule. Or at a local community center. Or at a coffeehouse, restaurant, or church basement. Even a bar, though these tend to be noisy. You will have to coordinate with stakeholders to determine whether the monthly time slot you have chosen will always be available. Also, if the group is–or grows–larger than about 12 members, you may have a hard time locating a physical space large enough to accomodate all the attendees.
FREQUENCY OF MEETINGS. Monthly is the norm. A set afternoon or evening makes the meeting dates easier to remember. For instance, our groups at Easthampton meet on the last Monday of the month and the second Wednesday afternoon of the month. It is understood that there are default dates when those specific days happen to coincide with holidays. However, it is also good to map these meeting days out at least three months in advance, and let the members know the exact date, time, and place of every meeting in the near future. And remember those addresses, phone numbers, and e-mail lists? You might want to use those during the first few months to contact members the day before and remind them of the next meeting. (I will confess that I do not do this…though I could.)
HOW LONG WILL THE BOOK GROUP RUN?
One hour? Ninety minutes? Two hours? More?
Ninety minutes is probably plenty, at least for the early meetings. You can then decide whether the group’s meetuing should be longer or shorter, based on how long people seem to stick around and on what amount of time they tell you that they have. Bear in mind that one or two people will always be early, and one or two will always be late–as much as half an hour late. Learn to roll with it!
SELECTION OF READING MATERIALS. One of the best ways to guide, without dictating, the selection of discussion materials is to leave selection in the hands of the group while at the same time making it clear to them the limitations you will be operating under. If the group is all over the place, you could either appoint a “selection committee” of three or four, or present a prepared list to the group–whether based on all of their selections or not– and have them vote on their preferences.
SELECTION OF MATERIALS: TWO BRIEF DIGRESSIONS
1. Note that books that were at one time made into movies are often nominated by the group as possible selections. But be aware that if someone wants to arrange a movie showing, either as part of the discussion group or as a separate event, that’s a whole separate issue. Usually, a royalty fee must be paid to the copyright holder when the film is shown in any PUBLIC space, even if admission is free. If you all want to get together to watch a film, do so at the home of one of the members. (Obtaining broadcast rights for anything made after 1930 is generally not worth the trouble and expense.)
2. Be advised that, in addition to hardcover or paperback, some members might prefer books in the following four alternative formats:
BOOK ON CASSETTE
BOOK ON CD
It can sometimes be helpful to look into the availability of the books in these formats when making the reading selection. Elderly group members may strongly prefer large print. Or you may have a book group member who has cataracts and feels they cannot participate unless they can acquire the book in an audio format. Sometimes very busy people who must do a lot of driving or “grunt work” may also prefer books in audio formats.
GROUP LEADER. Someone has to do it. A book group leader may serve to ask certain pertinent questions that will also help to steer the discussion. But keeping the book discussion on a rigid track usually isn’t that important. People will fly off on tangents. Let them. It is only when they threaten to totally fail to discuss the book, or one one person dominates the discussion to the detriment of others, that a group leader needs to focus the group and steer the discussion back to the group’s purpose. There can be many candidates for this role. One would be the book group founder. Another, a local librarian. Still another, a retired Professor or even a local bookshop owner. Yet another, a person who has been in other book groups and who may have led other book group discussions in the past. If your group has a problem with designating a “Leader,” you can refer to the leader as a “Facilitator,” because that’s essentially thenfunction they serve.
FINAL STEP: PROMOTING YOUR BOOK GROUP BEYOND THE FIRST MEETING
This final step isn’t really necessary if you start with a core group and are satisfied with the membership. A close-knit kind of social club of readers may not need or desire new members. But if you want to expand the group, you will want to do some publicity. This is not as difficult as it seems. Here are the major local contacts you will want to cultivate:
1) The Library. If they publish a newsletter, you will want to have the information regarding the book group in it. If they have a webpage, you will want to have that information on there as well–depending, of course, on how closely you are working with the local library.
2) Local newspapers. They are usually glad to print a short notice regarding a community event, and will usually do so free of charge.
3) City or town websites. These will usually promote community events.
4) Flyers on bulletin boards. These can be placed anywhere. Local bookstores, community centers, etc. I used to advertise the selections a month at a time. After about six months, I started advertising the selections three months at a time, to cut down on the work of printing and distributing them. You, or someone, may wish to maintain a notebook in which the book group’s selections for the next three months are kept.
5) Radio stations, community access television stations, other local websites. Or whatever resources apply to your specific community.
In all cases double check all promotional information to ensure its accuracy; otherwise you may find yourself announcing a meeting for “April 31st,” or putting down the wrong date for the meeting. Supply all the RELEVANT information. If it is to be an open group, say “All are welcome.” If you offer coffee and cookies, say “Refreshments will be provided.” If the group usually meets from 6:30 to 8:00 PM, say so in the promotional materials.
THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IS TO HAVE FUN!
I have offered you all sorts of information–maybe too much. Don’t be daunted! It’s not hard to keep a book group going once the groundwork has been laid. And the rewards will come immediately. Because all sorts of interesting thoughts and ideas will emerge during the course of the book group discussion. To me, that’s what makes it all worthwhile. (So, a final tip: take notes–or have somebody do it for you!)