The Rules of Starting a Book Club

image: Alexis Brown

This article on book club personalities & drama made me laugh, from the themed four-course dinner to how clubs kick out members. But it also brings up a good point that book clubs these days can be fairly treacherous with rules & expectations that can be pretty stringent.

So, is it worth it?

From my experience it's good to go in with realistic expectations & to have that discussion upfront. Figuring out what type of gathering this will be (formal & themed, serious discussion only, social & casual) will probably get rid of a lot of the issues discussed in the article. And when new members show up they should get the full rules ahead of time so they know whether or not this is the gathering for them.

Key questions when forming a book club:

  • Is reading the book an expectation for showing up to the meeting? 
  • What types of books are going to be read?
  • How much time will be spent discussing the book versus gossiping & catching up?
  • How is hosting decided? And what is the meal situation- snacks or a full dinner? (No food is not an option- come on people, no one wants to sit there with only water!).
  • How will decisions be made for which book to read & who will host?
  • What is the protocol for bringing in other members?
The worst part of that article is how clubs handle kicking members out. It's super awkward but I think it needs to be thought of before an incident happens. What do you do when someone is not a good fit? It's a legitimate concern as one person may alter the group's dynamic but pretending you're not meeting when you really are? That's just mean! 

A little effort in planning how your book club will operate & answering the above questions will take the drama out of what is supposed to be a fun get together. I mean really, book clubs should not be that serious! 

As examples, here's a little summary of the 4 different book clubs I have been a part of & what worked (or didn't) in all of them:

image Matthew Henry

"Girls' Night Out"

This is my long-running book club of friends who originally chose a monthly book by consensus, met up at someone's house each month & maybe discussed the book for 10% of the conversation. There were no rules on who was invited or about reading the book. This has now led to us giving up the books altogether & just meeting each month at a restaurant! 

So what works
  • It was casual, which was good for a group of varying work obligations & kids. We've kept going for years because we were flexible.
  • Conversations were never solely around books so it also allowed us friends to catch up & be involved even if we didn't have time to read.
  • The loose rules have allowed book club to morph into something that fits in with our current lives better. 

And what doesn't
  • Obviously we are no longer a book club. But if having a monthly social date with friends is your goal than keeping things casual is your best bet for it to continue! 
  • Not having a structured discussion or requirement to read meant that it was really easy to just not read the book. Sometimes the fun is reading a book you may never have picked up & that doesn't happen when it's too casual.
  • It's really easy to fall apart. Each month we'd have a different host, different date, & different way to pick a book. This keeps it flexible but there have also been large chunks of time where we just did not get together.

"Just the Two of Us"

Book clubs do not need to be big gatherings. One of my best friends & I have a two person one (others are invited just no one has joined in beyond a visit from her sister!) which has been really nice for book discussing & catching up.

What works.
  • It's very easy to pick a book that we're both interested in (nerdy social studies related ones!).
  • It's also easy to meet up as we can just arrange it over text with little notice.
  • We meet at a restaurant so there's no hosting pressure. We meet at a favorite spot but changing up locales is easier with a small number.
  • Balancing book discussion with catching up is easier with less people talking. Plus we're friends who used to see each other daily so this is a good standing date for us. 

What doesn't. 
  • It depends if you want a lot of input & deep debates about the book, because with only two of us that doesn't happen so much. It's a pleasant conversation with not a lot of varying perspectives! 
  • It requires both of us to be vigilant about getting together.
  • It's easy to push off meeting as there's only two of us.

"The Work Group"

As a teacher our work book club was a little easier to arrange (meeting only during the school year, right after the last period got out) but I think with structure this is a great way for co-workers to bond beyond happy hour. 

What worked.
All decisions were made at the first meeting. This took the monthly back and forth out of the equation, making the club run smoothly. So what we decided on:
  • Voting on books from a list we compiled of suggestions. The top ones were the ones we then scheduled. Easy & fair.
  • Schedule by monthly increments. We had the school year as our block of time but you can easily plan for 6 months, 8 months, etc. So pick the top 6 books, schedule them per month & then do another block of voting after those 6 months. This way people have the list ahead of time which allows for people to plan ahead in their reading.
  • Have a snack sign up for each of those planned meetings. Knowing ahead of time there's a schedule of who is bringing food makes people more aware & organized about it. 
  • Also, have food! No one likes book club without a snack.
  • Keep a consistent day & time.  Some people won't be able to make it but this keeps the monthly back & forth away. It's a standing meeting which is best when organizing a larger group. 
  • Meet at the same place. Again, taking the monthly decisions out is key so by meeting in a room at work or at a restaurant down the block you're making it easy to get there.
  • Meeting right after work. For us this was simple as it was after the last bell but if possible pick a time that is generally when people are finished with work. It's more likely people will show up than if they go home first. 
What didn't. 
  • With the connection to work it was sometimes hard to pull yourself away from your actual job. People could not consistently meet.
  • This will be one of the first things to go with limited time. Once I had kids I knew I could only read so much or go to so many events. Seeing friends once a month at book club took priority over another work obligation.
  • Connections to work means the club will be more formal. Which is a good thing for discussing books but it's not the social outing that other book clubs are. 

"Strangers & Books" 

When I graduated college I joined our local alumni book club for awhile but any type of club where you're meeting up with people who aren't in your regular social circle can be counted.

What worked.
  • Lots of book discussion. There is literally no connection between these people beyond maybe where you went to school or where you live. So it's focused.
  • Introduction to new books. I read things I never would have read, like The Stand. And you know what? I enjoyed it.
  • Meeting new people. Especially if you're moving to a new place or transitioning to a new point in your life, this has the potential for making new friends.
  • Like the co-worker group there was structure. We met at the same place & had rules on how books were picked (though to be honest I don't remember what they were!). 

What didn't. 
  • You have to be motivated to meet new people. I stopped going as life got busier but I also had a network of friends & my now husband, so the push wasn't there to branch out.
  • People come & go a lot making it harder to really get to know anyone. Most of us were recent grads so I think in general our lives were all over the place.
  • You may not have much in common. I remember talking a lot with a woman who had two small kids & while she was great we were at very different points in our lives.

Honestly, no matter how the book club is formed the expectations need to be laid out initially & discussed with any potential new members. Take the guess work out of what this club is! 

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