For the Love of Book Clubs

I have a confession: I’ve never been in a book club.

I’ve read hundreds of books, thanks to undergraduate and graduate degrees in English, a brief but successful career as an English professor, and a lifelong interest in the written word. I’ve sat in, and led, courses devoted to the discussion of books, but I’ve never been in a book club.

My professional and social orbits haven’t even included talk about book clubs, until recently. I’d briefly considered searching one out as a way to meet new people when we moved to Santa Fe nearly two decades ago, but I never got serious about the effort, for two reasons. The first was the double-edged fear that, as a former English professor, I’d be expected to lead the group and provide insightful comments or that everyone would be struck dumb in fear of what a former professor might say. (No worries there; I’ve forgotten almost everything I took pains to learn about literary theory.) The other reason was best articulated by Groucho Marx: “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.”

But such decisions are never forever. I now can imagine belonging to a book club, many years from now, when I’m retired and hanging out with other retirees. None of us has a professional persona to preserve. We’ve lived long enough to call BS on highly touted titles we find dull—or poorly edited. We take turns revising the fates of favorite characters. A couple of us share the backstory on the latest fiction we’re writing. There might be a bottle of wine or a cocktail shaker in the scene.

For now, though, I’m being selfish. I’m reading what I want when I want. I feel no guilt when I don’t finish a book. I feel no guilt for not reading “enough.”

Why Book Clubs?

I became interested in book clubs from a marketing angle when I wrote my first novel, Optics: A Novel About Women and Work and Midlife Muddles. But beyond that, I love that book clubs are thriving. I love that readers of all ages and backgrounds are gathering in person or virtually to discuss books and share their experiences. I love the potential book clubs hold for community-building.

From their name, you’d assume book clubs are about reading and discussing books. From movies, you’d gather that they’re about getting together with friends of a shared demographic over wine. From the popularity of Oprah’s and Reese’s book clubs, you’d suspect they’re about staying current with influencers. Turns out, book clubs are all that and more.

Large publishers host their own book clubs and offer deals to big-name clubs as a savvy marketing strategy. (That’s one reason it may seem that all the well-known book clubs are reading many of the same books in any given year.) But you can also find book clubs for niche demographics and for every genre under the sun. Some clubs don’t even require you to read the book. During the COVID era, it’s no surprise that virtual book clubs have grown in popularity.

Book clubs aren’t just for those with the disposable income to buy a dozen books a year. Libraries have made digital sign-outs possible. For example, Hoopla, an ebook service for libraries, has a Book Club Hub that’s accessible to anyone with a library card at a library that subscribes to Hoopla for ebook check-outs. (Optics will be available through Hoopla, though my non-Amazon ebook distributor says the service has long processing times.)

Data on the number of book clubs and members is hard to verify, especially as so many are local and without a digital presence. Whatever the reason for joining a book club, participation among “regular readers” in the U.S. between 2004 and 2015 rose from 33% to 57%, according to a white paper produced for librarians. The three-page report includes tips for creating successful book clubs. A chart showing the various ways book club members find out about books puts “Personal recommendations” in the top spot, so thanks in advance for any good words you share about Optics with fellow readers!

Book Club Questions

Whether a book is selected by a nationally known club helmed by a famous one-namer or by a self-governed local group, having a novel selected by a book club increases book sales and can expand the network of potential readers. That’s great, but getting book clubs to choose indie-published Optics is much harder, especially as large traditional publishers have substantially larger marketing and promotion budgets.

Even with those advantages, best-sellers and highly acclaimed titles can fall flat, as a friend who’s been in multiple book clubs recently explained. She described one meeting at which most participants offered only one-word answers to what she considered lame discussion questions.

I want to make it easy for book clubs to select Optics, so I wrote a set of Book Club Discussion Questions. Take a peek and download them if you plan to read Optics with a book club or a friend. I’ve written no “reading quiz” questions—the sort that require you to recall some obscure detail. Nor will you find any that ask you to comment on the “significance” of this scene or that character name, as one might expect  from a college English course. They’re simply prompts to help you articulate why you did, or didn’t, like particular aspects of the book.

If you use these questions in a book club—this year or any time in the future—send me a message via this website to let me know how they worked (and what you drank).

For monthly updates from Gail about her novel, blog, writing, and reading, sign up for her newsletter, Gail’s Reading Glasses.

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Reader Advisory: Optics Is Not a Romance Novel

Don’t you just hate it when you start reading a book you think you’ll enjoy, only to discover a few chapters in that it’s not your cup of tea? It’s either more like a mug of weak church coffee or a shot of mescal.

Maybe you’ve had that experience with a book labeled a classic, best-seller, or award-winner. If the title was assigned reading for a class, you probably slogged through to save your grade. If your book club chose it, you might have skimmed the pages or skipped to the final chapter. But when you buy a book for your own entertainment or edification, you want a higher degree of confidence that you’ll like it. (For mass market maybe books, the library can be a safer bet.)

That’s one of the reasons I gave Optics a descriptive subtitle: A Novel About Women and Work and Midlife Muddles. Turns out, that may not have been explicit enough. Comments from a couple of pre-publication readers suggest that they were expecting something different from the book—specifically, romance.

I didn’t think anything in the title, subtitle, or back-of-book marketing blurb would lead readers to expect a romance plot, but I may have underestimated the power of the romance genre to shape expectations.

When Women’s Fiction Equals Romance

This story on Bustle, “Who Reads Romance Novels? Infographic Tells All,” is a few years old, but the data are probably similar today. Nielsen BookScan, which collects book-related data, found that in 2015, young, white women constituted the largest reading block (59%) for romance novels; readers over 45 were 40% of the market. Now think about every sort of fiction genre published—from literary to fantasy and from historical novels to mysteries. In 2015, nearly one-third of all fiction titles in all formats—29%—were romance novels. That’s a powerful percentage.

My concern about Optics potentially being misidentified as a romance doesn’t come from a place of intellectual disdain. The best romance writers are professionals in every sense; one of my fellow graduate students earned her PhD in English and promptly began a successful career as a romance novelist. And romance novels aren’t necessarily shunned by the supposedly intellectual elite: One of my English Department colleagues in my first academic job frequently reported, with no shame, that she relaxed with “bodice-rippers.” Then there’s the business side. The writing and selling of romance has helped thousands of  women support their families, and I’m all for women’s financial independence.

My challenge is alerting potential readers that Optics isn’t a romance novel. Well, one subplot does have a romance element, but it certainly doesn’t drive the main plot. Social media is one way to reach readers, so I created a couple of tongue-in-check Reader Advisory graphics to post on Facebook and Instagram. They’re designed to acknowledge the pervasiveness of romance plots and the odds that a reader will be younger than my book’s main character.

Not recommended for romance readers

Main characters are all over 50

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To be clear: I want Optics: A Novel About Women and Work and Midlife Muddles to sell as many copies as possible. I’m not trying to drive away potential buyers. Instead, my Reader Advisories are intended to guide readers to a book I hope they’ll enjoy and tell their friends about. Who knows, maybe a few forewarned romance readers will be curious enough to read Optics and will love it. After all, the reviewer at the San Francisco Book Review called it “a perfect beach read,” so you know it’s not self-consciously literary. (You should be able to find the review online in a week or two after they batch-upload the latest reviews.)

Defying Categories and Expectations

The assumption that Optics might focus on romance isn’t just influenced by the overwhelming number of romance titles in the marketplace. It’s also aided by industry categorization.

Marketing in the book industry—whether you’re dealing with a book published by a Big Five traditional publisher or an indie publisher—is driven by metadata (data that provides information about the title). An essential piece of book metadata is the genre category or categories. Traditional print book distributors, bookstores, and online retailers use slightly different lists of categories, but they typically use the same big buckets. Those big categories help both physical and online booksellers group any given book with similar books so browsers can find what they’re looking for. But the more specific your category, the higher the probability that someone interested in just the sort of book you’ve written will find that title. Such a category does not exist for Optics.

The organization that standardizes these categories, the Book Industry Study Group (BISG), doesn’t have a category for contemporary fiction about women in the workplace. That omission may seem inconsequential, but there is a category for fiction that focuses on the Amish and Mennonites. No disrespect to those faith groups, but I would guess that category is a rather small piece of the fiction pie. Of the 47 subcategories for romance fiction, you will find one for workplace themes. But what if the novel has a workplace theme and isn’t romance? You’re out of luck. There’s no category for fiction that happens to be about women in the workplace—nevermind midlife women. You’re left with a general category for fiction about women.

Perhaps one day BISG will amend its list to include a category that better fits Optics: A Novel About Women and Work and Midlife Muddles. In the meantime, I wrote the book I couldn’t find to read, and I hope others will discover in Optics what they’ve been looking for.

For monthly updates from Gail about her novel, blog, writing, and reading, sign up for her newsletter, Gail’s Reading Glasses.

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