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How to Run a Successful Book Club

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I’ve been a member (and organizer) of many professional-oriented book clubs in my career. I find them a valuable way to connect with peers, keep up with my reading goals, discover new ideas, and learn from other points of view.

Running a book club can be a relatively low-cost and high-value experience. To help, I thought I’d document how I tend to prefer book clubs. These recommendations lean more towards work and professional book clubs and not the social and entertainment variety — though I’m sure some ideas translate.

Picking your books

If you want to get started, I’d recommend just picking a book you are interested in reading and forming a group around it. You might consider trying to assemble a group and letting them pick the first book, but I think it’s better to attract people with a specific title than a foggy concept.

As you finish a book, ask the group for next book suggestions and develop a prospect list. I recommend asking folks to submit a ranked vote against the prospect list (allowing people to vote with priorities), and then you, as the moderator, can choose a book using those signals. You might even consider non-books, like video courses, and work through the material as a cohort.

Remember, you don’t need to pick the book that wins the vote. Sometimes, identifying a book that you identify will generate better discussions, benefit members who need help in that area, or draw more people to the club (introduction books tend to draw a bigger audience) might be a better choice for the group’s needs.

Scheduling and Group Size

Like early book choices, you should just pick a good time for you and get started. Be mindful of time zones if you want to attract people across continents. Also, avoid other meetup groups of the same topic that might overlap. I personally like weekly for work-related book clubs, but if the group is more casual, I think bi-weekly is fine, too. Eventually, as you start new books, you can revisit the schedule to better accommodate those who are showing up.

The ideal group size is probably 8 to 10 people (to ensure you have enough conversations), but you can get by with as few as 2-3 when getting started. Also, expect people to fall off during a book. It happens as people have other responsibilities and interests, and usually, this book club is rightfully a low priority. Don’t let it get you down. If they drop, wish them well and welcome them back when you start a new book. Don’t take it personally.

Venue and Video Tools

All the book clubs I’ve ever participated in or run have been online. For venue, I prefer Zoom for video quality consistency (and recording tools), but Discord is nice to have a place for people to chat between meeting times.

In recent book clubs, we’ve started recording the sessions. I make it clear that the meeting is being recorded and why. I also offer the attendees the option to request parts be scrubbed if needed.

The main goal of the recordings is to help people who miss a week or two stay connected for an eventual return. We may also start to clip some of the conversations for social sharing and promotion, but it has not happened yet.

We publish the recordings inside our chat system and not on the public internet. I’m a little hesitant to post a full public recording as it will shape the discussion, and sometimes, people like to vent about their current work or past projects. Frankly, just having any recording will impact what people say, so you may choose not to do this to keep the floor more open—still figuring this out myself.

Running a Meeting

The format for most of my book clubs is an hour-long meeting. We try to rotate volunteers to summarize each chapter before opening the discussions. A typical meeting covers 2-3 chapters with 10-minute chapter summaries and 10-15 minutes of discussion per chapter. We do not enforce this schedule. If the room is having productive, even off-topic discussions, we let them play out. If I am summarizing a chapter and have a PDF version of the book, I often like to share my screen so they can see the page visuals and code snippets of interest.

I’ve heard of other groups that mix in a bit of out-of-meeting work. Something like a shared Google document where people are encouraged to capture their notes and thoughts outside the meeting so the meeting time can focus on the most valuable interactions. I even have a peer who was working on software that helps structure that kind of workflow, though I have not used it myself.

In general, a shared collaborative Google doc (or substitute) is valuable for any online meeting, in my experience.

Marketing and Promotion

I think it’s helpful to have a website presence to point to when promoting the book club. You don’t need much more than a single page sharing:

  • The goals of the club.
  • The current book.
  • When and where you meet, ideally with a calendar-friendly link.
  • Who to contact with questions.

Check out the Elixir Book Club page for a sample. GitHub and GitHub Pages are a great solution for this.

When it’s time to promote your club and/or a new book choice, I would promote it to the same circles in your community that share educational content and links. Think forums, Slacks, Discords, social media accounts hash tags, etc.

Shared Responsibilities

In addition to volunteers doing chapter summaries, if you can find other ways to get other people involved in the management work of the book club, (eg: updating the website, editing the recording, etc) the chances for the book club to continue well into the future goes way up. Elixir Book Club has been going strong for years, even as different leadership has come and gone.

Those are my notes. I hope they inspire you to start or join a book club. If you have any thoughts or tips I missed, do consider shooting me an email. Thanks.