To be honest, I wasn’t planning to write a post about how to ruin a book club. I was supposed to write about how to run a book club. But thanks to my inability to type, I ended up writing the heading as “Ruin,” not “Run.” Freudian slip? Possibly. Anyway, I decided that talking about ruining a club was possibly more useful (and more fun) than talking about how to run a club. (Besides, I kind of already hit on most of the high points of that with my post on hosting a neurodiverse book club. The principles for success aren’t really that different.)
Most people who start a book club want it to succeed. They have dreams of forging new friendships around a shared love of reading. And that’s noble and great. Unfortunately, many book clubs fail. The reasons can be many, but sadly a good number of clubs fail because their founders/leaders fail to do some basic things to ensure success. Here’s a list of a few things that are pretty much guaranteed to ruin a book club. That ruin will come even faster if you do more than one! (Needless to say, I don’t recommend you do any of these. Take it as a list of things to avoid if you want your club to thrive.)
Set ridiculous timelines.
Nothing frustrates me more than when a book club hands out a 500 page book and says, “Be ready to discuss it in a week.” I’m a faster than average reader and that would be a challenge for me. I know it would be almost impossible for many. Tailor your meetings to the book length or, if you always meet on a set day, keep that timeline in mind when selecting a book. Don’t risk burning out or pissing off your members with outrageous deadlines.
Insist on sticking to a rigid format.
People get aggravated when you insist that every meeting stick to the same format, particularly if you police that format with a stopwatch. Who cares if the meeting starts at 7:05 instead of 7:00 because people were enjoying the introductory socializing? So what if the book discussion only lasted thirty minutes instead of an hour? Maybe that’s all it took, or people just aren’t feeling it for whatever reason. Let it go. Don’t insist that everyone stick to a rigid schedule. Let things flow organically, while still keeping things moving and (at least somewhat) on topic.
Talk about anything but the book.
Book clubs are for discussing books. While it’s fine to discuss life events at the beginning and end of the meeting, or to link your life to the book, don’t forget to actually discuss the book. I’ve seen too many meetings end with no book discussion at all. If everyone agrees to stop the book club and make it a social club, fine. But if people are reading the book and preparing for a discussion, it kind of sucks to make that preparation in vain.
Insist on equal participation.
Some people are going to attend who aren’t comfortable with active participation. They may be content to just listen. That’s okay. Don’t force them to participate if they aren’t ready. Similarly, don’t insist on having each person host the group. Some people don’t enjoy having others in their homes (or can’t, for whatever reason). If someone can’t host, don’t run them out of the group because of it.
Invalidate and disrespect the opinions of others.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“That might be true in your world, but…”
Nothing kills a group faster than devaluing the opinions and experiences of others. The whole point of a book club is to exchange opinions and learn from the experiences and interpretations of others. If you’re just going to throw everyone else’s opinions under the bus, then don’t even bother with a book club.
Be a dictator, not a leader.
People like it when someone leads the book club. They like it when someone coordinates the details so they don’t have to. What they don’t like is when someone never asks for input on those details. Don’t be the person who says, “We’re reading this, we’re meeting here at this non-negotiable time, and you need to do this, this, and this to prepare.” Get group consensus on things, or at least allow for discussion. Sure, nothing is ever going to work for every person, but at least try. No one likes it when a supposed-to-be-fun club turns into a fascist dictatorship.
Forget that you’re dealing with grown-ass adults who aren’t in school.
This isn’t school, and the people in your group aren’t little kids. They’re also in the group because they want to be, not because the educational system has forced them to be. Remember that and act accordingly. Don’t tell people what to do or where to sit. Don’t make members write book reports, or do other un-fun tasks. If someone wants to watch the movie in addition to reading the book, don’t make a big deal out of it. Same if they go for the Cliff Notes, or turn to online sources for aid. Also, don’t force feed the classics. Most of us would rather not read too many books that are “good for us” once we leave school. (One or two may be fine, but learn to read the room on this one.)
Don’t respect others’ time.
Since you know you’re dealing with grown ups, you should also know they have other things to do, so don’t waste their time. Don’t host meetings that drag on for hours, and don’t make a thing out of it if someone misses a couple of meetings. Don’t send endless emails that clog up their inboxes. Want to host a meeting on a holiday? Forget it. Homework (other than reading the book) should never be required. Don’t pick a location that’s far away and hard to get to, even if it is the coolest place ever. Remember that people have jobs, kids, pets, and a hundred other things to do. Your book club is way down the list and the harder you make it for them to attend and participate, the less likely they are to do so.
Make it about your issues.
No, everyone doesn’t want to read books about divorce, alcoholism, depression, mid-life crises, parenting issues, sexuality, racism, politics, or whatever your issue/cause du jour is. Or if they want to read one, they probably don’t want to read dozens. Don’t make your book picks all about whatever issues you have. (Unless it’s an issue oriented club where everyone has consented to this being the case.) Remember that other people deal with “stuff” and they may like to see their own issues reflected occasionally. Or not. It’s entirely possible that they come to book club to get away from all of that.
Be sure to have a clique.
If a group of friends or family members either forms the club or are the majority of the attendees, it’s too easy for them to end up excluding others. They may not mean to, but they’ll likely be a little tribe that others find difficult to penetrate. Worse, they may end up “running” the club, to the exclusion of anyone else’s opinion. Make sure that everyone feels included and try to break up the cliques.
Copycat a major book club.
It’s great that the celebs all have their own book clubs. Kudos to them for raising the profile of reading. Just don’t choose books for your club because they’re what Celeb X is reading in their club. If people want to read Celeb X’s book picks, they can join that club. Pick books for your club that resonate with your membership. Maybe that means more of a focus on local authors/settings, or lesser known works. Otherwise, people will just go with the bigger online club that’s easier to attend and demands less of their time.
Try to be edgy with your book picks.
Most book club picks should appeal to a wide audience. (Unless your club is focused on a narrow genre or area.) While it’s fine to take some risks with your choices, you don’t want to get so far out there that you risk alienating members. Horror might be fine, but over-the-top gore or realistic snuff-lit might not be. Same with sex. A little sex is probably fine. Erotica might not be. Same with anything too crazy about religion, politics, or race, for example. You may think your radical picks are “edgy,” but others might simply find them offensive. If you’re going to pick something likely to offend, talk about it first to make sure people aren’t surprised, or can decide to skip that month if it’s not something they want to read.
It’s surprisingly easy to ruin a book club, but it’s also surprisingly easy to avoid it, as well. The advice really boils down to, “Be a good person, and don’t be a jerk.” That covers most things likely to ruin a book club. The rest is really common sense.
(Photo courtesy of Myriams-Fotos)