a reading life

Marginalia: On Author-Reader Book Clubs

There are many kinds of book clubs out there today – online vs in-person, single vs multi-book, author-led vs group-led, broadcast media-led vs community-based or organization-based. Whatever your persuasion may be – the solitary reader who likes to “lurk unseen” in online book clubs, the social reader who likes to discuss with others while reading or post-reading, the blocked reader who needs recommendations, the fan reader who likes author discussions  – there’s a book club for every stripe of reader out there. Of these, it seems that the ones that get the most reader participation are broadcast media-led. Quite simply, this is a matter of reach, accessibility and convenience and, as with all things media-related, has its pros and cons.

The Today Show announced this week that they are starting a new monthly book club. They’re kicking off with Samantha Shannon’s The Bone Season, the first book in a new series by a first-time novelist. They also said that their monthly picks will have “something for everyone – from classics to the next big thing” and include interviews with the authors.

Firstly, this is a good thing. Getting people to see reading as a mainstream activity with mass read-a-longs like these never hurt a society. Oprah’s original book club on her talk show ended a very successful run when she moved to her OWN network and loyal fans/readers have continued on with her new Oprah Book Club 2.0. Unsure about the success of this latest version, but the 70 books selected over 15 years of the original book club sold through the roof, literary controversies notwithstanding.

That said, there are 2 main concerns with broadcast media book clubs such as these:

1) Given that it is run by a mainstream media show, there will be a bias towards books and authors who will help ratings more than anything else. This first selection sadly proves my hypothesis. They’ve picked a book that is very much like the crazy-popular Hunger Games and Harry Potter series – with a movie deal to boot. The author is something of a celebrity already at 21, God bless her, and being touted as the next J K Rowling.

What if, just to make a statement, they had picked a book that was not all of these things? Say, a book that is less “like” anything else out there and hasn’t already bagged a movie deal. Something like that could have helped a lesser-known author.

Sadly, the message that is now being sent to aspiring writers everywhere is that they only need to write like these other series / authors to become successful overnight and get onto The Today Show. As an added bonus, we can also expect a surge of bad supernatural dystopian futuristic fan fiction across the internet and into literary agents’ slush piles.

A missed opportunity to do some real good.

2) As happened a fair bit with Oprah’s original book club, there is a high probability that the book club discussions with the author will turn into a sort of confessional about the author’s personal life as well as the on-air catharsis of various readers who identify strongly with one character or another (or, Lord help us, the author).

Don’t get me wrong. Curiosity about an author’s background and how it brought him/her to write the book is an age-old pastime and pleasure for readers of all stripes. But, this author-to-celebrity demotion and the newsworthy confessional soundbites that these TV hosts probe relentlessly for are, as we have seen over and over again, entirely cringe-worthy (for authors, readers and viewers alike).

And, identifying with characters in the books they’re reading is something many readers do naturally – nothing wrong with it. However, when the book club talk show is reduced to an on-air real-time couch therapy session (as some of Oprah’s book club discussions were back in the day), it takes something vital away from the reading experience and the book itself. Oprah was smart enough to veer away from too much of this sobbing and sharing on her show in the latter years. It remains to be seen how the significantly lesser-skilled Today Show hosts will manage.

This is not a rant against broadcast media book clubs. There are some excellent and long-enduring book clubs of this type that have got it right. Pretty much all of these are also available as podcasts on iTunes and I have been a loyal, long-time subscriber to the first 3.

1) BBC World Service Book Club – This radio show has been going on since 2002 and is presented by Harriett Gilbert. As a writer and academic herself and the daughter of a writer, she brings sensitivity and skill to her interviews with the authors. [Note: Gilbert also hosts the excellent A Good Read on BBC Radio 4 – not quite a book club, but her guests discuss their favorite books.]. The audience comprises of people from all walks of life and from across the globe. They ask such lovely, thought-provoking questions that many of the authors express sheer delight at being able to finally talk about certain little-known aspects of their book. Gilbert allows the authors enough time to talk and her follow-up questions to gently nudge them towards something that they really want to express are just pure genius. There is some personal commentary, but it is never self-serving or due to needless probing that has nothing to do with the book. I should also mention the show’s considerate producers, who work patiently with readers around the world for their live call-in feature (that I recently participated in).

2) BBC Radio 4 Bookclub – Yes, another one from the BBC and another one on radio. James Naughtie, the host, is a skilled journalist with an obvious love for literature. And, frivolous as this may sound, his Scottish burr makes the listening a pleasure in itself.

3) The Guardian Book Club – John Mullan, the host, is a Professor of English who specializes in 18th century fiction. He brings an ironic humor to the discussions and his unplanned riffs with the authors on other works of fiction as part of the larger discussion around the author’s book are a joy to stumble upon. [Note: They also have a separate online monthly reading group, where they invite the author for a web chat.]

4) Slate’s Audio Book Club – I must confess to only listening to these infrequently as they don’t include the authors or readers – the discussion is between Slate critics. This is probably a lot more fun for the Slate folks than for their audience.

5) Goodreads Live Author Interviews – These are sort of ad-hoc book clubs. Readers sign in to watch the author being interviewed on Livestream. Typically, most have read or are reading the author’s book(s). The random book selections, lackadaisical interviewers and frequent technology glitches have not made these a more desirable aspect of the site. Perhaps, Amazon, as the new owner, will make some much-needed improvements.

6) The Rumpus Book Club – Now, this one is a neat idea. For $25 a month (or $42 international), they will mail you a new (as in, potentially not released yet) book each month. Throughout the month, there’s an ongoing discussion. And, at the end of the month, there’s a moderated online discussion with the author, which, post-discussion, gets featured as a complete article. They also ask for reader reviews and will feature the best one on their site. Neither the discussion nor the review are mandatory. There’s also a club for Poetry. I like this, but the “only new books” part might not appeal to all.

7) Mashable Reads – It’s odd to think of a tech/business site offering a literary book club, but, there you have it. They do. Their rationale: “We’re breaking into the literature scene to supplement your daily news updates with some soul-enriching, feel-good reads.” Their author chats are conducted on Twitter. I like their first pick.

8) The Atlantic’s 1Book140 – A Twitter book club. Seemingly, very popular. But, questions and answers in 140 characters? It is augmented with online discussions on The Atlantic and there are many tweeted links to additional content. They also break up the real-time discussions week-by-week. Still. Something very impersonal about this format.

9)  12 Books – This started last year on an invitation-only basis but is now open to all. It focuses on business and personal finance books and offers an optional $45/year premium model. The discussions are host-led, live Q&A in a webinar format, allowing participants to submit questions through the dashboard, or, occasionally, through their device’s microphone. Though, in the long run, there may not be enough takers for the premium version and they will likely have to find other revenue streams.

10) BookTalk.org – This one has been going on since 2002 or so and is free. About 8000 members, they say. Members volunteer to lead book discussions. There are live author chats. And, lots of discussion forums. In some ways, not unlike Goodreads and Librarything (where I hang out), I suppose, but not as well-known.

11) Book Group Expo – In the Bay Area in California, USA, this ran rather successfully before the 2008 recession. Within the 2-day Expos, there were literary salons with the authors (an impressive roster). They also had smaller book circles.

12) The Book Club Show – This also appears to be defunct now as there are no blog posts or messages since August 2012. There was something about going on Public Television and they had a casting call out at some point. Not sure what killed it or whether they’re still going.

As mentioned earlier, there is no question that broadcast media-led book clubs have the most impact due to their reach. However, with many TV viewers now cutting the cord to cable, there is an opportunity for some changes. Some have started cashing in on these changes by taking book clubs online, as you see from the list above. It makes sense, given how social media is now part of our everyday lives, where a lot of conversations are happening and, for authors, it gives a wider, easier accessibility.

How about a multi-media platform book club where authors and readers get to interact directly like in the radio shows above? And, perhaps there is no need to re-invent the wheel. Just take any of those excellent radio shows above and offer them in multi-media – radio broadcast with a Google Hangout and a recorded show on Youtube after. I’m no expert in multi-media, but with all the technologies out there, it should be possible now to design a more immersive author-reader experience, surely. Yet, maybe there’s something to be said for the immediacy of an in-person session that allows authors and readers to interact freely (somewhat like the literary salons across cafés, bars, pubs, houses of appreciative patrons, etc., that all but died in the 20th century).

What do you think about The Today Show Book Club? Do you like book clubs in general? Are you part of any? What would you like to see in the next stage of their evolution? Have you come across other models of author-reader book club discussions?

Added September 10, 2013:

Tumblr has officially announced their Reblog Book Club, which will include author Q&A. And, because this is Tumblr, readers will be able to

…express your feelings about the book however you choose — a written review, fan art, gifs, poems, letters…. nail art? Maybe you want to post a video blog talking through your ideas, a g-chat with a friend, or a song you think the characters would relate to?

Love it.

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2 thoughts on “Marginalia: On Author-Reader Book Clubs

  1. Jenny, it’s not much better the other side of the pond. We have Richard and Judy with their book club. Remember them? Still going strong. Also a more commercial venture. I’m done with book clubs and only enjoy the ones in fiction now. Like The Jane Austen Book Club. Or the series The Book Group (did you ever see that?)

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    1. Hey, Mhairi. Yeah, I read about the Richard and Judy thing on The Guardian, I think. And, that TV show – The Book Group. It was an odd one, for sure. But, yes, I sort of enjoyed parts of it. What a weird group of characters, eh?

      Thanks for stopping by.

      Like

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