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How to Start a Book Club: 7 Rules for Book Clubs You’ll Want to Adopt for Yours

Book clubs provide great opportunities for people to stretch their minds, and social circles. A well-managed book club requires more than just a bottle of Chianti and copies of the latest bestseller, however. If you're wondering how to start a book club that people will want to join, here are some terrific tips from those who have been there, read that.

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Choose a name for your club

Your book club’s name helps anchor its identity, the same way a book title sets the stage for a great novel. Many book clubs center around a theme, which is reflected in its name. “I started a book club three years ago, and decided it would have no theme, would be open to men and women, and that anything goes,” says Hima Dasika, founder of the NYC Chill/Anything Goes/No Themed Book Club. Dasika’s book club’s name, despite its claim to no-theme fame, says it all. It makes clear to any interested reader that the club is casual, the reading eclectic, and the mood, fun. The book club name you choose can act as an advertisement, helping you attract members who will participate, attend meetings, and stay engaged. The name can target lovers of a certain genre, such as thriller books, or specific age group. It can also target alumni groups, or specific professions. “My college book club has a theme that changes annually. This year, the focus is on multiculturalism. I’m also in a local neighborhood club, which is pretty loose. Book club rules are all over the place,” says book lover Stephanie Plaut.

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Find your people

“I started a book club because I wanted to fill my free time with conversations between like-minded women in an informal environment,” says Anastasia Garcia, founder of Fiction Addiction: Women Hooked on Books. One way to find members is by prospecting within your own social circle. “I started out by sending an email to friends that I knew loved to read. Several years later, I brought the book club to Meetup.com, to increase our reach and membership numbers,” says Dasika. Another way to find members is by putting up flyers at libraries or coffee shops, posting on the PTA’s e-bulletin board, or on local list serves. You can also start your club as an open or closed Facebook group. “The greatest thing about book clubs is that it’s a great way to find your people. You come into a club, meet once a month, and create a shared bond,” says Michael K. Wagner, manager of The Moderns: The Modern Library 100 Greatest Book Club.

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Create a reading list

“You need structure to make meetings work, but want to stop short of being the book club police. Even so, someone needs to decide what books will be read, and in what order,” says Dasika. A loosely-held rule in Dasika’s club concerns book length. “It’s not a hard-and-fast rule, but we usually choose books under 500 pages long. I’ve found that people have a hard time reading longer books in time for meetings,” she explains. In Garcia’s club, the opposite holds true. “We strive to encourage reading outside our comfort zone, with graphic novels and extra-long books, of over 1,000 pages. We’ve read wonderfully eye-opening, terribly cringe-worthy, and downright frustrating books together,” she says. Wagner peruses book lists, such as the Modern Library’s Top 100, and New York Times bestsellers, picks out titles he finds most interesting at the beginning of the year, and has his membership take a poll, and vote. Other clubs float member suggestions throughout the year, and decide which ones they wish to read. Whatever system you choose for your club, make sure everyone feels like they have a voice, keep it simple, and be consistent. Looking for inspiration? Here’s the most iconic book set in every state.

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Choose a location

Your meeting locations can make or break your book club. You need to find a convenient space, large enough to accommodate your group comfortably. You also need to be able to talk freely, and be heard, without too much ambient noise in the background. For many book clubs, this means meeting in each other’s homes. Many groups have memberships that take turns hosting the meeting. Often, everyone brings a dish to share or a bottle of wine to drink. In warmer weather, your club might be able to find a comfy spot outdoors to meet, in a park, in someone’s backyard, or by a lake. You can also reach out to your local library, to see if they have a private room you can use for meetings. This may have the added advantage of helping you to grow membership. Garcia’s book club likes to mix it up. “We meet in new locations every week, to encourage a spirited sense of adventure. We’ve explored back alley speakeasies and attended comic art festivals, she says. You can also have fun by matching your meeting locations, to the books you are reading. For example, a Columbian restaurant might make a lovely backdrop for discussing One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Jose Garcia Marquez. Museums, historical societies, and interesting neighborhoods can all add flavor to meetings. “I didn’t know which end was up when I was figuring out how to start a book club. That was 15 years ago! My little group of 10 has been meeting ever since. We flew to France together, after reading All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, so that we could explore the places referenced in its pages. We adored the book, and needless to say, had a blast on the trip!” laughs book club founder,Dorothy Senchez. Consider adding these 14 classic books you should have read by now to your list.

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Set the (literary) stage

Wherever you decide to hold your meetings, a go-to structure will help you all to stay on track. Decide whether it is important that meetings begin and end on time. Some meetings use the first half hour as social time, while people set up, and stroll in. Others live and die by the clock. Make sure people are on the same page about what types of food and drink will be available, so no one is left hungry or cranky by the end of the night. If the meetings are pot luck, find out if anyone has food allergies. Make arrangements for how clean up and leftovers will be handled ahead of time. Be sure to have enough chairs for everyone, and arrange the room so that there is no “bad seat.”

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Go with the (somewhat structured) flow

Getting the ball rolling on the night’s discussion is a key role. You want the conversation to be lively, interesting, and respectful. “Reading is a solitary activity, so when you come into a club, and get to talk about what you’re reading, you can gain new perspectives. Whether you loved or hated the book, someone is bound to share an insight that is thought provoking. This shifts the way I look at the book, and sometimes, the way I look at life,” says Wagner, who calls the crafting of each question, an art form. “Thought-provoking questions help people peel back the onion,” he adds. Some clubs begin the discussion by handing out pre-printed copies of questions. Others send questions out ahead of time. Many books include discussion questions in the back; others can be found online. Other clubs are more free form. “I always start the discussion by asking, did you like it, not like it, and why. I use pre-printed questions as a backup, in case there’s a lull in the conversation. If things are dying down, I’ll throw in a question. Usually it just flows, and I just let it go. In my club, people don’t raise their hands. If they want to say something they just interject,” says Dasika. (Find out how to read books online for free.)

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Share, relax, and enjoy

In an online world, book clubs create a haven of community. Friendships (and even romances), have been known to spark at gatherings, and people come back month after month to see their friends, flex their gray matter, and enjoy themselves. Whether your goal is to create a large or small club, one based on diversity, or a common frame of reference, book clubs can add a fascinating dimension to life. Make each meeting meaningful, and memorable, by picking interesting books, and by bringing together interesting people. (Check out the books you read in high school that are worth reading again.)

Originally Published in Reader's Digest

Corey Whelan
Corey Whelan is a freelance writer and reproductive health professional who has worked with infertility patients and adopting parents for over 25 years. Her work has been featured in multiple media outlets, including Reader’s Digest, The Healthy, Healthline, CBS Local, and Berxi. Follow her on Twitter @coreygale.