The reading groups–a.k.a. book clubs–that meet in homes, bookstores, and libraries, among other places around the country, have become a holy grail in the publishing world, not only because of their sheer numbers (5 million American adults participate in them) but also because of their passion–that spark of enthusiasm that emanates from book-club discussions to get people talking and fan the flames of hand-selling.
Book clubs are the invisible army for consumer word of mouth. Although they’re not connected to each other, not in touch with each other, and not easily reachable, they have created bestsellers. The best documented is Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. As Malcolm Gladwell points out in his eye-opening book The Tipping Point, “Ya-Ya’s roots in book-group culture tipped it into a larger word-of-mouth epidemic.”
So the question is: How can authors and publishers tap into this enormous market and get book clubs excited about their books?
When I started BookMovement.com in 2003, I interviewed book-club members to see what they liked about their clubs, what they needed, and what they wanted. My goal was to create a Web site that would give them everything they need and, in doing so, to assemble them as an audience and build a marketing platform for authors and publishers.
That meant I had to tell clubs about books in a way that would be useful to them. Here is what I found as I explored possibilities:
Book clubs want background information on books and authors. But they don’t want (or don’t have the time) to go looking for it. There are several reasons for this. First, it is enough of a challenge to read a book in time for a meeting without trolling the Internet for the publisher site, the author site, and reviews and interviews that could contribute to discussion and understanding. In addition, the complex maze of publishers and imprints is extremely confusing (even to someone in publishing) and makes members more reluctant to search. Finally, how would they distribute useful information to each other even if they found it?
Book clubs don’t always find publishers’ reading guides helpful. A controversial stance, I know, but it’s a conclusion based on speaking to people in hundreds of reading groups across the country. Some find the guides’ questions too simplistic, and others complain that they reveal plot points. This controversy has resulted in some groups actually boycotting books with guides in them. So how do you help clubs discuss a book without the expense of writing a reading guide?
Book clubs want contact with authors. This has become a well-known fact, and several publishers and authors have offered conference calls to book clubs. While a call is exciting to the club that gets it, the conversation is lost afterward–there is no record or archive of the exchange that other groups can benefit from and use in their own conversations. So how can authors and publishers connect with book clubs in a more efficient way that promotes community among book clubs, and between the publishing community and book club members?
Book clubs are always looking for the next great reading-group book. This is great news for publishers and authors. Book clubs do not want to read just bestsellers–they end up selecting bestsellers because they do not know where to look for their next book selection. Where do they look now? Reviews, their friends, libraries, booksellers, the media book clubs (the Today show, Good Morning America’s Read This!, etc.) and a few select Web sites. Where can they find your book?
With these and other findings in mind, I decided that my goals were probably achievable, and I forged ahead.
Choosing Content, Making Contact
During its first year, BookMovement offered free reading guides for books selected by clubs I had encountered at book festivals and for books the national-media book clubs featured. Then, in 2004, we created three paid services for authors and publishers who wanted their books featured on our site.
Knowing the clubs’ need for accessible information, I structured the basic package around an online reading guide that we compile. Each guide incorporates content that the book’s publisher sends and includes a book description, an excerpt, reviews, and links to the publisher’s and author’s sites, among other places.
Most important, each guide also includes discussion questions that the author has created about the book. Great discussion questions help groups focus on overarching themes that apply not only to the book and its characters but to their own lives as well. A question that Michael Chabon contributed for The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is a good example. He suggested, “Discuss the ability or inability to escape–both in the book and in your own lives.”
Finally, each guide features a link that clubs can use to buy at 30 percent off (orders are fulfilled through Baker & Taylor or Ingram and shipped directly to buyers).
Knowing also that clubs want contact with authors, I decided to offer a premium package that adds an Author Q&A forum within the book’s reading guide. Clubs use the forum to submit questions to the author. Authors then log in at their leisure, select which questions to answer, and respond. Readers’ questions may be about the writing process, a specific character, or a theme in the book. Authors’ answers can be conversational and spontaneous. All correspondence is displayed at the bottom of the reading guide for all reading groups to use.
A third service adds a means of offering review copies to selected clubs.
Clubs can distribute information they find at the site through our Book Club Planner, which gives each club a private Web page where they can post meeting information; when a club selects a book from our list of more than 600 titles, a link to the book’s reading guide will appear on its page as well as in email reminders the Planner sends out to its members.
Whether you are interested in BookMovement’s services or not, our experience with online outreach to book clubs may serve you well as a model. Asking authors for specific sorts of discussion questions, presenting Q&A opportunities, scheduling author chats, and offering review copies will help you build productive relationships with reading groups. I continue to learn that the clubs need and want contact with authors and publishers as much as authors and publishers need and want the clubs’ passion and enthusiasm–and the sales that they stimulate.
Pauline Hubert, the founder and president of BookMovement.com, worked in the publishing industry for 10 years, at Workman Publishing and the William Morris Agency, before starting BookMovement in 2003. For more information, visit www.bookmovement.com.