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Book clubs  •  28 May 2020


Online book clubs: a step-by-step guide

Take your literary discussions into new territories – at an appropriate distance.

More time at home means more time for reading. But just as some of us are breaking book-reading personal bests, it’s trickier than ever to foist our latest, greatest reads onto our friends, neighbours, workmates or random strangers at the local café. Others of us are struggling to focus on reading right now, and the prospect of stimulating conversation is just the impetus required to get back into the habit.

Just because your monthly Book Babes, or Biblio Blokes, or Read between the Wines book club has been forced into voluntary isolation, it doesn’t spell the end of decent literary discussion. Read on for a step-by-step guide to rebooting your book club (or starting afresh) online.

(First things first: if you’re happy with the make-up of your current book club, but just want to shift to an online format, skip ahead to Step three.)

Step one: consider the who? and the why?
‘Pivot’ is a word that’s been bandied about a lot (too much?) lately, and this is your chance to reimagine the flavour and shape of your ideal book club. Didn’t enjoy serving under a dictatorship in your last club? Don’t invite the tyrant into yours. Prefer a social gathering where the book reading is optional? Think of like-minds that will go with the flow. Maybe you’d rather skip the cocktails and go deep on the book for a shorter time? It’s entirely up to you.

Pick your purpose, hand-select the perfect crew, and you’re off. And if, at this point, you decide you’re not management material, great! Forward this article to your organiser friends and wait to be CC’d with the details.

Step two: set the tone and make a plan
Will you stick to one genre such as crime or Australian literature? Maybe you only want to read debut authors or classics? Or is anything on the table? Once the direction is set, check in with your potential members to decide how often to meet (once a month, every six weeks etc) and whether you will stick to the same day and time for each meeting. To start, allocate a time that works for everyone. After the first meeting, you can decide how long your book club should run – an hour, two hours or maybe even more.  

Step three: select the technology
A good rule of thumb here: if you’re already familiar with a tech choice that works for you, use it. And if you’re technologically challenged, ask around: most conferencing applications are easy to use and generally free.

Want to recreate the in-person feeling of a live book club, minus the proximity? Applications like Zoom, FaceTime and Google Hangouts enable face-to-face conversation from afar. (Try our bespoke Penguin Books Zoom backgrounds for a little extra fun.) And because you no longer need to be in the same postcode, this is your chance to go global.

Not keen on getting out of your jim-jams? Try setting up a WhatsApp or Slack group for your club. The advantage here (apart from avoiding the hair and/or makeup department before your meet-up) is that you can chat live when it suits, or type your insights and responses in your own time.

Looking for a more casual, social, lounge roomy-type format? Apps like HouseParty allow club members to drop in and out as they please.

Step four: set up a meeting and pick a name
Think of your first meet-up as a chance to test the technology, iron out any bugs and find workarounds for club members who might be struggling with the concept. If Sue’s internet is dodgy but phone reception is good, maybe she can dial in with another club member on speakerphone. If the audio quality is patchy, maybe enlist a fast-typer to transcribe the key points in real-time. If a member disappears unexpectedly, shoot them a text to see if it’s a tech issue that you can resolve on the spot.

Ask your members to turn up with a few potential club names to brainstorm. Once the tech and name is settled, then it’s official – you’re an electronic book club. This first meeting is also a great time to lay down a few guidelines for the discussions and get used to the inevitable overlap of voices. Oh, and of course, it’s time to select your first book!

Step five: meet, digest, repeat
Exciting times: you’ve read the book and you’re ready to dive into the discussion. Critical to the success of online book clubs is that at least some of the members come prepared. Prep doesn’t need to be a dissertation on the book’s themes, but a couple of conversation starters (try these book club notes) and general thoughts is a good place to start. An advantage of being in front of a screen is that you can share interesting articles, movie trailers or relevant pop-culture references – even throw together a quiz – relevant to the discussion as you go.

Make a game of selecting, or pull names from a hat to choose books, so everyone gets a turn. Whether you’re looking for audiobooks, recent recommendations or tried-and-tested book club hits, the choices are endless. Try stuff, see what works (and what doesn’t), and most importantly, have fun!

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