How To

What Works In Bookclubs vs. What Doesn’t

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Carina Pereira

Staff Writer

Carina Pereira, born in ‘87, in Portugal. Moved to Belgium in 2011, and to Rotterdam, The Netherlands, in 2019. Avid reader, changing interests as the mods strikes. Whiles away the time by improvising stand-up routines she’ll never get to perform. Books are a life-long affair, audiobooks a life-changing discovery of adulthood. Selling books by day, writer by night. Contact

I started hosting my first book club only months after taking part in one for the very first time. I was definitely a rookie in the matter, but I also naively assumed there would be enough interest in a book club because what’s there not to like about one? Reading the same book together and having other people to talk to about that same book? Sounds like a bookworm’s dream.

Especially because the book club was directly related to the bookshop I am working at, I figured clients would figuratively fight their way into our book club. Reader, let me tell you upfront: that is not what happened. At all.

As time went on and I got busy setting everything up — we had a theme and a space to meet up, we even made flyers — I realised that recruiting people for the book club was not especially difficult: it was making them return to it in a consistent way that became tricky.

If you’ve taken part in a book club (or any other club, for that matter) in any capacity, you might have noticed the same: some people are super enthusiastic at first, but then the enthusiasm slowly dissipates, and the club struggles to survive.

My book club started during the pandemic as an effort to give people something fun to do at a time when everyone was confined at home, but we soon realised everyone was also rather tired of online meetings from work, so joining yet another Zoom meeting (even for a bit of fun), became a bit too much for all of us.

When things started to slowly open again, we started offering the in-person option as well as online, but even then, the attendance was flimsy; I remember a couple of particular meetings in which it was me and one other person, some meetings were postponed or cancelled, some of the chosen books never read or never discussed.

Month after month, I chose books that fit our book club theme — about social justice by marginalised authors — and I wrote and sent out our newsletters and took notes. We had a couple of successful meetings, but at the end of 2022, I was ready to throw in the towel.

Just as I was about to call it quits last December, people started to show real interest in the book club. My first thought, as more and more bookshop customers inquired about it, was: all I needed to do for people to join in was to give it up?

Fortunately, no, but I started asking questions, looking for what had propelled this change, and as the year progressed and the group grew substantially, I started to understand what my mishaps had been and what I could do to continue to bring the ship to shore.

It is wise to mention upfront that the two lists below are the result of my own experience but also what I’ve learned from talking to other book club hosts and members, trying to understand what has worked for them or not.

Depending on which type of book club you are organising (its goal and its members, among other variables), these tips may not apply to you — they may actually do the exact opposite. But in regard to that, I’ll leave some extra notes at the end.

It’s also important to reiterate that these are tips on how to carry on with a book club, not tips on how you can start one from scratch. For that, you can check this post instead.

What Works

Create A Mailing List And Make Signing-Up Mandatory

If people show interest in your book club, you can’t let them go! I’m not saying you need to sound desperate about it, but you should always ask to add them to your mailing list in order to get any and all updates.

I always note to any new members that we only send a couple of emails a month, especially when the person is on the fence about sharing their email address due to spam. We stick to that amount, too, because we don’t want to annoy people.

If someone doesn’t want to be added to a mailing list but wants to sign up for the club, I ask for a contact. This will ensure you can reach out in case you need to make any changes to the date of the meetings.

I created the mandatory sign-up rule because I once prepared everything for a meeting, and when no one showed up after a few minutes, I left. Turns out we got a message the next day from a member who had shown up a bit late and was left to wait for no one.

Once signing up is mandatory, you can also control how many people are coming and know what to expect from the group, as well as refuse sign-ups if the book club is full.

As a little sweet extra, having a mandatory sign-up to save a seat gives people the impression your book club is very popular, so much so that they have to guarantee a place to attend it. It can help create that idea that members really don’t want to miss on this one.

Choose Known Books

I have noticed that people are more likely to join in a meeting when the book chosen is well-known, a work they may have come across before and probably meant to read but never got around to it (this doesn’t necessarily need to mean classics).

One of my most popular book club books was The Vegetarian by Han Kang. Some people had read it but were eager for a reread, some had meant to read it but hadn’t yet, and most people had heard about it one way or another, so they wanted to join in.

When I spoke to other book club hosts about the books they choose, several mentioned that popular books are always a good choice, especially if you’re just starting up.

Choose Short Books

One of the reasons a lot of people stop showing up for meetings is because they have not finished the book.

This can sometimes be helped by changing the frequency of your meetings — I went from having a meeting every month to once every two months — but oftentimes, members start reading the book just a few weeks before the meeting takes place. It is what it is, and I, too, am guilty of doing this.

Choosing shorter books (fewer than or close to 300 pages) will not only ensure people will be more likely to want to read them (they’re less intimidated), but there is also a higher chance they’ll finish them before each meeting and will actually show up consistently.

Choose Consistent Dates

Having a specific day of the week/month to meet up will help people remember the meetings better, and this can also be chosen with the group via a poll on the base of which days and weeks have more votes.

I organise my book club every other month, on the 4th Wednesday of the month. That way, it’s easy to book it in a planner for the whole year.

Everyone knows in advance when the meetings will happen, and they can decide to lock it in their agendas as well and never miss a meeting.

Choose The Break Between Meetings According To The Needs of The Group — But Also Yours

As said above, I changed my book club meetings from once a month to once every two months. Personally, it worked better for me, as it started getting a bit overwhelming having to organise a book club every month, but it turned out it was ideal for the rest of the group as well.

Nowadays, members have more time in between sessions to pick up the book and read it, and I sometimes even organise a silent reading in between these sessions to keep people motivated to read for the book club.

When it comes to timing, though, and as strange as it may sound in this context, your own need for a break should be put above those of the group.

At the end of the day, you’re the one steering the wheel, and if you are burning yourself out organising things, there will ultimately be no book club.

Make Polls

You don’t need to do this often; I do it once at the end of every year, just before we take a break from the book club.

Polls might give you great ideas, but, most importantly, they will show the book club members that you care.

When you request an anonymous answer, and especially if you talk to the whole group about the results of the poll and what you intend to do with that information, people will see that you take the needs and wants of the group seriously — even if you can’t fill in some requests.

Some important questions to ask are:

How has been your overall experience with the book club so far?

What changes would you like to see?

What do you hope remains the same?

Do you need any accommodation that hasn’t been provided yet?

Feel free to ask even more basic questions regarding how they came to know about the book club, if they have/would recommend it to friends, if they’re planning on continuing to show up (and why/why not), etc.

And always include a final open question where they can just go off and say whatever they want to say.

These will be truly insightful in letting you know what works for YOUR book club.

Make Posters And Flyers (But Mostly Posters)

When our book club started picking up, I tried to understand what was changing for people to suddenly start signing up. Turns out, it was the new posters we were hanging.

Our bookstore is part of a food market, so we spread out posters around, closer to the areas where people were waiting to be helped or sitting down to have a bite.

Several people ended up in our bookshop asking about the book club because they saw the posters while chilling in the space and got curious, or saw on the posters what book we would be debating, and that caught their attention.

If you don’t have a food market at hand to drop the posters, it helps to ask cafes or restaurants, your local library, or bookshop. Try also your local supermarket, since they usually have an assigned spot for these types of things.

Keep them simple: a big image of the book cover, the date, time, and location of the meeting, and some information explaining what the book club is about and how to sign up (check the example below).

Flyers also work, but posters seem to do a better job for less work.

Image of a book club poster announcing the book read for November, with a cover of the book and information about the book club

Use Social Media

This is also something that could be applied in the previous point but is a point in itself because several people rely on social media to stay up to date on what events are going on, as well as to share things with others.

A mailing list will keep you in touch with those already signed up for the book club, social media will help you find more people.

I know most people don’t use Facebook anymore, but Facebook groups can be a good tool to find more members. Instagram is still my favourite platform, though.

A really cool app is MeetUp, a social platform where several events taking place in the same town can be found. Unfortunately, if you want to post an event, you need to pay a monthly fee.

Is Your Book Club Bilingual? Choose Books Members Can Read In Both Languages

This is a very specific point that I am including anyway.

I live in the Netherlands, which is not my home country, and I read mostly in English. Moreover, I live in a very international city.

When I started the book club, I knew I needed to find English books for it because my Dutch wasn’t perfect. My aim was also to attract a diverse group of people, including immigrants like myself.

Luckily, most Dutch people speak excellent English, but despite this — and with just a couple of exceptions — I’ve been choosing books that are available in both languages so that everyone can feel more included and read in a language they feel (the most) comfortable in.

Focus On The Neighbourhood

If you’re hosting a book club in central London, you’re better off trying to recruit people from that area.

Some people will travel to join book club meetings, but they are more likely to show up consistently if the book club meeting takes place somewhere near where they live or spend most of their time.

Stay Open, But Remember: At The End Of The Day, This Is Your Book Club

Book club members will sometimes request things that you know won’t really work for the general audience of the book club. Either because their requests don’t fit the goal of the book club (thematically or otherwise) or because it’s really more something that fits their personal needs or wants rather than those of the book club.

When this happens, don’t feel pressured to please everyone. Think it over, and if you decide that it is not good for the group or doesn’t make sense in the theme of the club, stay firm.

Otherwise, because of one person or two, you may be throwing the whole group into a place the majority doesn’t want to be in.

This said, make sure you do accept some suggestions if they’re pertinent, or at least let people know they are being heard, but this will not work out for this or that reason.

Ultimately, you can always ask the opinion of the whole group and see what comes of it.

Some people will be upset at you for not doing what they think is the best for the club, and they’ll be sure to show their displeasure, but hey, they can always start their own book club, too. 🙂

What Doesn’t Work

Allow (And Expect) People To Just Show Up

You want to keep people engaged, and unfortunately, them enthusiastically saying they will absolutely show up doesn’t always mean they will.

Knowing who to expect for any meeting will allow you to have more control of it and will pass on the idea that people definitely want to ensure a place in the group.

On the other hand, if your group is so big that you even need to decline some reservations due to lack of space, this will avoid people travelling for the meeting just to be told they can’t be a part of it.

This said, don’t be super strict if, once in a while, someone shows up unannounced and requests to join in on the spot: if you have the space, gladly let them join in.

Let People Choose Which Books You’re Reading

There is one exception to this, which is to give people a chance between a few books that they can vote for, but ideally, you should be in charge of choosing the books for the book club for two reasons: first, you’re the host, and you should want to read the books for something you are hosting; second, it is a bit of a bummer when one person chooses a book, and then they don’t show up for the meeting discussing that book. This is especially annoying if the group ends up disliking the book.

Allow people to recommend reads, but make no promises.

Hybrid Meetings — Unless You Have The Means

Now, don’t hate me immediately when I say this, please. I am not forgetting access or accommodation here, it comes from my own personal experience offering hybrid meetings in the past.

I did a couple of hybrid meetings in 2021, and it ended up being less than satisfactory. First, because those on the online side couldn’t hear us well, and because sometimes the connection would break.

If you have a room with fancy material to do an online meeting, with a big screen and good sound, go for it. But if all you have is one small laptop and microphone, you’re better off offering separate in-person and online meetings than you are at trying to combine them.

Overuse Your Mailing List

Unless you want members to start disregarding your emails and miss important info, you should keep your communication to a minimum. And never, ever sign anyone up for a mailing list they didn’t ask for.

With a meeting every other month, I usually send three emails within two months: one with info about the book we’re reading for the next meeting, one during the month in between reminding people to sign up for the meeting if they haven’t yet, and a (super short) one the day before the meeting as a reminder for everyone.

These are all short emails and are straight to the point.

Use Apps

I know Bookclubs is a very famous — and quite handy — tool, but for small book clubs, I feel people are looking for less, not more. Making people install a new app on their phone as the only way to have access to updates from your book club will probably work against you, not in your favour.

Email seems to be the most reliable form of communication since it doesn’t require people to be in any specific social media app, and pretty much everyone uses email nowadays.

Ignore The Needs Of The Group

I said above to keep control of the club, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen to its members, because you definitely should.

When people are part of something, they like to feel like they’re involved, not just a passive part of it. So make sure you are in control while also giving space for people to open up about their expectations.

Again, don’t make decisions based on the wishes of one person, but involve the group in it.

During the meetings, pay close attention to the group as a whole and individually.

Leave no room for serious conflict without resolution or for a bad environment.

Let Someone Control The Conversation

As a guest, there were instances in which I was annoyed by a group because one person was controlling the whole conversation in a way that was clear the whole group was uncomfortable. You want to avoid that as much as possible and try to make the conversation as balanced as you can. That may mean kindly but firmly shutting someone down, especially if the discussion becomes incensed or too aggressive.

Make sure not one person takes over the whole debate, and create space for those who aren’t as active in having a say; sometimes people don’t know how to take space, and it’s your job as a host to make sure everyone has their time to speak and feels included.

Again, you are the host of the group, and you certainly want to mingle with everyone else rather than stand out, but if anyone has the duty to stop someone from being a jerk or just too entitled, it’s you. That person may even leave the group, but the group as a whole will most likely remain.

Quieter members of the group may want to remain more passive, but they will definitely appreciate you noticing them and asking them if they wish to participate.

Start A Book Club For Selfish Reasons

There’s a difference between having a niche and being standoffish. Book clubs that come together with community service in mind, rather than just a personal project or box to be ticked, tend to stand the test of time better, especially because members can early on figure out if they’re there as a part of something, or there because the host needs someone to talk to about the books they want to in the ways they want to.

Ask For A Fee

I know this goes against some very successful book clubs, but this whole post assumes your book club is a small-ish community of people and needs tips on how to keep going and growing.

When I first started the book club I run, we included a “pay what you can” link at the end of each newsletter. Later on, when I was talking with a club member about attendance (we were both sad there were so few people joining in), she confided that one reason might have been due to asking that fee since a couple of members mentioned that that had made them less eager to join.

I am not saying you should never request a Ko-Fi, but keep those requests to a minimum and make sure they’re thrown in at the end of the email. And, just to be sure, make a note of talking to the members of the book club and make it clear that you’d rather they don’t pay at all if the other option is that they’re simply not coming.

Give Up

More often than not, finding that group of people who show up meeting after meeting will take time and patience, tests and trials (and tribulations).

But it is absolutely worth it.

One Last Thing To Do:

Keep It Cool

With this, I mean people mostly search for bookclubs because they are fun, not because they need another serious elitist hobby (there may be exceptions).

Keep it casual and open, and try to create an environment that people enjoy and feel safe in.

And when your book club reaches the year mark with consistent attendance, you’ll have a group of people as happy to be a part of it as you are, proud that it worked out.

There are, of course, exceptions to these “rules”: if your book club is specialised in lesser-known books or a niche, some of the advice above does not apply to you. If the goal of your book club is to read long books, you can forget the “choose shorter books” advice.

I know hosts whose book clubs actually focus on these things, and they are successful. But if you are struggling to keep the flow or if, as contributor Stephanie relays in this post, all of your book clubs so far seem to have imploded, give these tips a go.

And one extra note that is important to mention: a lot of book clubs work and keep going (or have loads of people attending from the beginning) because the hosts already have a big network of people with common interests or even pages with many followers on social media, previous to starting the club.

Do not let the fear of comparison or the size of your book club stop you from trying. A book club made of five people who consistently show up and are excited about the next books and meetings will provide you with much more than a huge book club where there is no connection or sense of community.

Book Riot knows our readers love book clubs, and we have written several posts about them, like these book club questions that will work in any book club debate or these fun Halloween book club ideas. And if you’re looking to join a book club, here are 15 you can look into.