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How To Start a Book Club That Lasts

There is no “correct” way to run a book club, and there are dozens of permutations that work for different people & different lifestyles. No shade from me if your book club is a front for going out for dinner with friends, or if you only read one book a year!

I am in a book club that started in 2009, and it’s modelled after my mom’s book club that has been going since 1979 (yes, nearly 45 years!). My book club gals & I actually read books and have good discussions about them. After mentioning this in my weekly newsletter, I was asked by a few of you readers to “share secrets” about how our book club is structured. Well, pardon the pun, but:

I’m an open book!

[In fact, in 2016, I dabbled in a side project that was a website/ebook (or something?) about exactly this — it was called "My New Book Club" and this was the illustration/logo design I commissioned. It never got off the ground, but it was a fun little venture while it lasted.]


Here are some key things that, I think, have made our book club “work”:

  • Choosing books only if they are vouched for personally by someone in the group

In another book club I tried (before my current one), the books had been chosen, all randomly, before I joined. One of the selections we read was a “Heather’s Pick” from the CEO of Canadian bookseller giant, Indigo. When we all read the book —and nobody liked it, not even a little bit — we were looking around thinking, why in the world did we read this?!

At least when someone in your group has personally suggested a book, there’s a reason. You might hate it, but it’s out of respect for your friends and the whole process that you can try out books you might not normally read (and may dislike), and not sweat it too much. Without any personal connection, it definitely feels like a waste of time.

Once, a group member suggested a book that she thought was kind of fun; she hadn’t finished it, but was halfway through & thought it would make for a good discussion. We picked it. Later, as she read on, there was a part with a sad & traumatic baby loss that was very raw & close-to-home. Not wanting to discuss her own, recent trauma, she did not attend, much less lead the discussion!

You also get a sense over time of what books will be a good fit for your crowd, or which may not land at all. After liking & suggesting Inheritance The Rules Do Not Apply — memoirs that I appreciated for their nuance & inner wrestling, but that everyone else in my group thought were self-indulgent and whiny — I have concluded that this type of book is maybe just better for me alone :)

  • Having a discussion leader for each book, and a host (whose house we meet at) but not the same person at the same time

Whomever is hosting at their home has things to do — pouring drinks, pulling food out of the oven, herding kids back to bed, answering the door, unclogging a toilet… (these are all real examples, btw). It’s better if the discussion leader can focus on the group/chat, while the host deals with anything else that comes up.

If you meet at a restaurant or other location, then it’s obviously not even an issue. (But, there are other considerations like noise, expense/payment, reservations, etc.)

  • In the discussion time, starting by providing every person the opportunity to share their thoughts on the book — without interruption

Giving everyone the chance to have the floor means that every person will speak at least once during the book talk. Quieter voices, or more introverted friends, may not want to edge their way in when loudmouths like me are blabbing all night. Setting the stage, right from the beginning, that everyone's voice & opinion are valued, is great for inclusive participation over the long run.

After going around & sharing thoughts, the discussion can pick up collectively, springboarding from comments made, or from questions that the leader has prepped.

  • Having consistent expectations that are reliable & clear (ie. when do you meet, how long will the discussion last, what is expected of you, etc.)

What's the frequency of meeting? Who communicates? Does everyone know what books you're reading? Who's in charge & when?

For us, the expectations look like this:

Overall: Everyone makes efforts to read the books. There’s no shame or negative social pressure, it’s actually just not that fun to sit in on a book discussion for 1+ hour when you haven’t read it! This naturally has sifted the crowd over years to be readers who want to participate, and have the time capacity to read the books & attend the discussion.

On book club night, if you’re the host: to make space for everyone; to communicate in advance the address & any other pertinent info (we usually ask for a reply from anyone not attending, for planning snacks); and to provide snacks & drinks.

On book club night, if you’re the leader: to plan some discussion questions in advance; to get started when it’s time; to keep the discussion moving.

On book club night, if you are anyone else: no expectations at all! Come if you can, share what you want.

This sounds VERY EXTRA, but for many years, we also had a two-page outline document of the book club. If someone new was joining, we shared this just to make sure everyone was on the same, er, page ;) (A bit embarrassing, but here it is!) Even then, I acknowledged that it was super cheesy… but, clarity is your ally!

Now, when new women join in, other members (whomever invited that person, usually) would tell them what they need to know.

It has also been helpful/crucial to have one person who communicates overall — to fire up an email at the beginning of the year, and to be the go-to about who is hosting, leading, etc. 

A few other notes about how we do it:

Whereas the above points are helpful, overall, to a successful book club (I think), the following are totally subjective details that could be practically helpful if you are trying to start or improve a book club. But, might not be your vibe. 

  • Timing: For us, book club is once a month on Tuesday night (usually the 3rd of the month), at 7:30, at someone's house. The discussion begins pretty soon thereafter or definitely by 8. We discuss the book until ~9ish, then wrap it up to spend another hour-ish eating & chatting.

  • We have drinks from the start, but not snacks until after the book discussion. It's not that we are babies who can't eat & talk at the same time! It just provides a good structure to transition the night and make sure that the book talk doesn't go on too long. (We learned during the covid, zoom year(s), that we can talk about books for a looong time).

  • Choosing books: In our group, we use the first meeting of the year (September) to choose books. Each person brings a couple of recommendations (or more, or less... many of us during the little-kid-years might only manage to read the book club books... if that!). Then, we go around the circle and share the recommendations. Everyone takes notes. Then we each write down 9 books from the total, the ones we each most want to read. Then, there is a tally.

  • Some books will be clear "winners" and others may all have a similar number of votes. We try to choose which ones win out based on balance (ie. not 3 books about food). We also consider availability at the library.

  • My mom's club chooses their books at the end of the previous year, so they have the summer to source & read some of the books. They also don't choose new books, because of the cost of hardbacks.

  • We usually make the last meeting of the year more of a party/potluck, meet early for dinner, and spend the night together. 

  • My mom's book club was based on a specific, rural-ish area. When the women were all retired and nighttime driving was more of a concern, they switched theirs to Monday afternoons. I have a neighbor who is in a "walking book club" where everyone lives in the 'hood (and within walking distance). Mine has grown purely as friends-of-friends, so there are women from all over the city.

  • Here is a list of all the books we have read over the years. You won't see many true "classics" or long books! We've determined that they just don't work (that is... no one reads them 😆). We generally try to be open-minded and try different genres than our norm. We've read: cookbooks, graphic novels, children's books, how-to books, and essays; sci-fi, humor, dystopia, memoir, sad, silly, earnest, heartbreaking. We try!


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