Six Tips for Starting (and Maintaining) a Thriving Book Group

three sitting and reading
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Book groups.

Isn’t everyone in one?

Or, wait. Isn’t everyone kind of still in a book group that just hasn’t met for…some time? Or that fell apart because some people wanted to read the new Jojo Moyes and everyone else wanted to read The End of Innocence? Or that somehow magically transformed itself into a monthly wine-tasting get-together where no one bothers to read the selection anymore, let alone discuss it?

None of that would surprise Carole Fitzgerald, the person who probably knows more about book groups than anyone else. She’s the president of the Book Report Network, and her site provides discussions guides for nearly 5,000 books to approximately 100,000 users each month. According to Fitzgerald, the average life span of a book group is only two and a half years.

Book groups are great, but they’re still groups, and groups are notorious for including very different people with very different expectations. For some, a book group is a chance to deconstruct Anna Karenina; for others, it’s an opportunity to chat about a nice beach read for a few minutes and then move on to current events, The White Lotus, and what the kids are up to, all while enjoying a nice Chardonnay. There’s nothing wrong with either of those options, but more book groups dissolve over clashing expectations than any other issue. Will your group read the classics? The new Oprah selection? Or the unquestioned choice of that month’s host? Will you devote the meeting solely to literature, or will the book be more of an excuse to get together and relax with friends?

A little care at the outset can avoid pitfalls ahead and set the stage for great reading experiences, invigorating conversations, and powerful explorations for years to come. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you convene or join a new book group.

1. Right from the start, be clear about the kind of books you’ll read

Books you didn’t quite get in high school. Books you pretended to read in college. Fiction versus memoir, Reese versus Jenna…there are as many ways to set your course as there are…well, as there are books calling out for your attention. Often, an unhappy book group member is unhappy because someone refuses to explore beyond their favorite genre, or because reading the chosen books are too much like…work. Have an honest discussion at the outset about what kinds of books your group will read, and try to be flexible. (Nine months of Edith Wharton and a celebrity biography at Christmas? Strictly police procedurals with a break for Dostoyevsky over the summer?) Anything goes, as long as everyone wants to go there.

2. Give some thought to how you’ll choose your selections

For many groups, choosing the next book takes up most of each meeting. Other groups appoint a single decider, or leave the choice to the following month’s host. There are groups in which several books are considered each month and voted on by the membership, and groups that like to set their entire reading lists for the year ahead. Whatever you decide, stick to it. As Robert Frost once wrote, “Good fences make good neighbors,” meaning that things go smoothly when everyone agrees to the same rules.

3. Size matters

A gathering of five or six readers has little in common with a room full of voices. On one hand, a small group can be ideal for conversation, but if one or two members have to miss a meeting due to illness or travel, the numbers can dip too low to allow for much of a conversation. On the other hand, too large a group can feel unwieldy and institutional. Give some thought to what size will support the kind of group you want to be in.

4. Hiring a leader

Not everyone likes to go it alone. Some groups bring in a professional to keep them on topic and enhance their discussion with more specialized knowledge. Look to your local community college, university, or even high school for an after-hours teacher, and invite them to design a reading list or help you with yours. Guiding conversation, providing background on the author or the book’s context, or offering a second chance at some of the works you might not have given your full attention in tenth grade—these are just some of the ways a paid discussion leader can help you get the most out of last year’s National Book Award winner or Jane Austen’s catalog. Payment is a must here.

5. Invite the author

A few years ago, authors who were willing to visit book groups were relatively rare, but the pandemic changed all that. Now many authors are happy to Zoom in to book group conversations, and if the book group is local, writers may sometimes agree to stop by and join the discussion in person. It’s polite to offer payment and cover any travel expenses (a tank of gas, a train ticket if applicable), though some authors will decline. At the very least, however, each book group member should purchase the book if an author is attending in person. (We all love our libraries, but this is not the time to turn up with a library copy.) Don’t be nervous, and don’t worry about what to say if you didn’t happen to like this book. You can still ask interesting questions and get interesting answers about how the book came into being, or what might have surprised the author along the way. (My own company, BOOKTHEWRITER, offers small gatherings in New York apartments at which writers meet with small groups of readers. Though not a classic book group—readers attend only those discussions that interest them—the chance to sit down with a long-admired writer is truly special.) Having an author present means that you can’t talk about the book for 10 minutes and move on to other topics, but the quality of the conversation can be extraordinary. Instead of wondering aloud what the author might have intended, you can simply…ask them.

6. Be forgiving

If no one else in your group wants to read Middlemarch, or if there’s a majority vote for a book you consider unworthy of your beach blanket, try to roll with it anyway; you might find something to love in an author you were sure you’d hate, or become a convert to a whole new genre. Even if you don’t care for this month’s selection, it’s just a book; when you go home at the end of the evening, you can start reading another one, something you alone have chosen. And if your group moves on after a few minutes to the economy, The Crown, or the way someone’s sleepless toddler entertained them in the wee hours last night, that’s fine, too. At the end of the day, it was still a book that brought you all together, and that’s the best thing about a book group.

Jean Hanff Korelitz is the author of eight novels, most recently The Plot and The Latecomer, and the creator of BOOKTHEWRITER (, which hosts pop-up book groups at which readers can discuss new books with their authors.

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