Whether you’re an avid reader or simply enjoy a stimulating conversation among friends, belonging to a book club can be a very satisfying experience. For those who are thinking of starting their own group—or are interested in new ideas to introduce to your existing club—we asked Tracy Bailey and Laura Taylor of Tampa, Florida-based Oxford Exchange for advice. The gorgeous, highly curated space houses a restaurant, shared work environment, boutique, and bookstore, and hosts regular author talks, a book fair, and a monthly book club run by Bailey. Here, she and Taylor, who directs the bookstore, share what they believe have been the keys to success for their book club.
Know your purpose. According to Bailey and Taylor, it’s helpful to define what your club will deliver to its members. “Our club gives us a reason to read the books we might not read on our own.” They seek out books that will have merit to their members, and while they are willing to jump from classic to contemporary works and from poetry to novels to nonfiction, certain categories are off-limits. “There is a place for business books and romance novels, but that is a different club. As much as we know who we are, we understand who we are not.”
Form your group. Though starting a book club among friends will differ from how Oxford Exchange developed their open-to-the-public discussion group, good insights can be gleaned from their evolution, which has occurred organically. For one, having a good mix of people is a positive factor. “We have male and female members, single and married, college age to seniors. The variety of our members enhances our discussions and helps us form great friendships,” Bailey and Taylor note. Finding the right number of members is also important. “We’ve found that a group of 15-25 works best for discussion,” Bailey and Taylor say. “Fewer than that, and we lose out on contrasting perspectives. More than that, and it becomes difficult for everyone to have an opportunity to speak.” When creating a club with friends, starting on the smaller side and inviting more people as you get a feel for the group dynamic can be a good formula.
Make your selections. At Oxford Exchange, a moderator has final say on book choices, but members are welcome to make suggestions—and they frequently do, pointing out a genre that might deserve attention or an author that’s been overlooked. Quality writing and good content are always a must, and they aim to have book selections finalized three months in advance of the discussion so everyone has enough time to read the book.
Start the conversation. Sharing a meal is always a nice way to break the ice—and an opportunity for non-book discussion to take place. Oxford Exchange’s book club gatherings begin with dinner, and the food is usually themed to accompany the book. After dinner and general conversation, the moderator opens the discussion, and from that point, the conversation is member-led. “We enjoy hearing each other’s perspectives, and we aren’t afraid of disagreement and controversy because we know and respect each other,” Bailey and Taylor say. For another take, don’t be afraid to reach out to an author to see if they are interested in participating. “We’ve had authors in person, by Skype, by conference call, and by interview,” they say, noting that if you do engage the author, be aware that their presence can change the dynamic of the group. “We now end the conversation with the author a bit earlier to give the members a chance to speak openly outside of his or her presence.”