How to Run a Successful Book Club

I quit my job when we adopted our son Adam three years ago, and I swear my brain went to mush. After recovering from two months of sleep deprivation, it was clear to me that motherhood used different “brain muscles” than I was accustomed to: I track and multitask in a way I never thought possible. But my linear, analytical thinking skills are rarely challenged in the same way, and I missed it. So, I decided to start a book club.

Now, many of us have probably been in silly book clubs before–with little emphasis on books, it’s mostly a club for socializing. And then one annoying member (usually self-invited) manages to make the dynamics unpleasant so that the people you do enjoy seeing and talking to stop coming. There are some resources that tell you the basics of how to start a book club. In addition to these, I have found there are several ingredients to a happy, healthy, successful book club:

1. Leadership. Somebody needs to be in charge–this is particularly true if the book club is only women. The leader will run the meeting (although not necessarily the discussion), call or email members to remind them of meetings or changes, and provide all the books (see #5 below). This should be someone who is kind, but bold. This person should not be afraid to make an executive decision, while still balancing the needs and opinions of the other members. If one member starts sabotaging the experience for everyone else, it is the leader’s job to confront them, and if necessary, ask them to leave the group. This doesn’t have to be as mean or scary as it sounds: “Listen, you tend to do ___________ and it’s not really working in this group. We’d love to have you attend, but if this doesn’t change then maybe this isn’t the best group for you.”

2. Membership. In my experience, a book group won’t be successful if there are too many or too few members. Six to eight is ideal. You need enough that if one or two, even three members can’t attend, you still have enough people for a discussion. You need a small enough group so that when everyone does come, there is still a chance for each member to participate. I am opposed to “open” membership, mostly because by choosing members carefully you will avoid a world of problems later. If you must include anyone who wants to attend (it’s a neighborhood/church/group based club), you will need really strong leadership. Another disadvantage to open membership is that, unless you live in a diverse city, you are likely to have a very homogeneous group–I love having members of various ages, backgrounds, family status (single, married, married with children), etc. The common ground each member shares is the literature and a love of reading.

3. Identity and Purpose. Establish the goals and purpose of your book group from the beginning. What types of books do you want to read? Classics, poetry, science fiction?  Do you gather mostly for social reasons or do you really want to challenge each other and have focused discussions? This also helps limit your membership. Not everybody wants to join my book group because we read classics and discuss them at length. We talk about character development, symbols, and what the book says about mankind. It works great for us, but I know it’s not for everybody.

4. Democracy. Another pet peeve of mine when it comes to book clubs is what I call literary dictatorship: when the entire group is subject to read what one person thinks is a good book. Don’t get me wrong–I often take recommendations of friends and family for my personal reading enjoyment. But the fact that one person liked a book does not mean it’s good book club material. Instead, make/find a list that matches your purpose. Also, this list can be edited by length (it’s hard to get through 1200 pages in a month) or content. I have compiled a huge list of over 500 books that we choose from. Each person prints out the list and identifies three to five books or authors they would like to read. Then, we all get together, discuss it, and vote on our favorites. Each person also gets several “veto votes” so that we never read a book someone hates or will not read. Usually we agree on a small list (up to 10 books) and then everyone ranks them. The books with the highest combined rankings are chosen. By choosing books together, more people are likely to actually read the book and come prepared to discuss it.

5. Time and Location. Although some people enjoy a travelling book club, I prefer to have it at the same place and time every month. That way, if someone misses a meeting, they won’t miss again because they weren’t sure where and when to go. I chose a day and time before we began, so it was another factor that thinned our membership. If you choose to have refreshments, you can still rotate who brings them.

6. Money. I charge everyone $5.00 per month, and I purchase all the books and distribute them the month before. For example, if we are reading The Grapes of Wrath and will discuss it in August, I hand out copies of the book in July. I am consistently able to purchase books at or for $5 each, including shipping. Usually when one book costs a little more, another will cost less. Overall, it averages out. Then the members get to keep the books, and build a nice reading library. You can collect money each week with cash, or request PayPal funds. At first I thought charging money would be a problem, but nobody minds. On the other hand, they LOVE not having to find a copy of the book every month.

When I told a friend I was writing this post she said “But what do book clubs have to do with personal finance?” The answer is simple–wherever we spend our money, that is where we also invest our time and energy. I could probably find a way to run my book club for free, but when people get something for free, they don’t value it as much. Because they pay for it, my members are more likely to come, to read, and that leads to a very successful book club.

The same is true in personal finance–do you want to know what you truly value? Take a look at your spending. That’s probably also where your spend your time and attention. One of the goals we have is to spend consciously; we talk about what we value, and then plan to spend based on our values. It is a natural result that we are more invested in those areas.

Happy reading everyone!

Posted in General | 6 Comments »

6 Comments to “How to Run a Successful Book Club”

  1. Jodi Says:

    Can I join your book club? 😉

  2. Brent Says:

    For anyone who wants to join a book club online, or just wants to jump into a discussion now and then, my wife and I recently started an online literary community called allows members to create book clubs and discussions as well as post book reviews free of charge.

    Feel free to stop by. Let us know what you think.

  3. stories from a Library life » starting and running a book club Says:

    […] Getting Finances Done has a great post on running a “happy, healthy, successful book club.” The shortlist of things you need to take into account (read GFD for full details): […]

  4. Single Income Parenting » Blog Archive » Start a Book Club With Other Parents Says:

    […] By starting a book club, you can get out of the house, have a little fun and have it not cost too much in the process. Here are some great guidelines for starting your own book club. […]

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