There’s a lot of talk these days about the seismic changes in the publishing business. What’s discussed less are the changes to the social aspect of reading and the increasingly social ways people interact over books. And this social component is even driving the way books are marketed, both by publishers and by authors themselves.
I had been speaking to book clubs for about six months when I encountered a club that had been meeting for 28 years. For nearly three decades, these women had met monthly and dissected the popular literary reads of the day.
When I arrived to discuss my novel and writing process, they were armed with thoughtful questions. There was an impressive spread of food. There was also an Excel spreadsheet of all the books they’d covered month after month, minus August and December, for nearly three decades.
Once I began asking other authors about their experiences with book clubs, I found out this was not the anomaly I’d thought it was. There was the book club that went to France after reading Sandra Gulland’s historical trilogy and the one that flew to Denver to have dinner with author Carleen Brice and tour the city in which the book was set. Then there was the club Kate Ledger visited that had gone above and beyond making a dish evocative of the novel they discussed monthly — they published a cookbook of their years of literary-inspired dishes, and donated the proceeds to a favorite charity. Matthew Dicks visited a club that kicked off his visit with a game of Jeopardy with questions based on his novels.
But the most ambitious I’ve encountered yet is a Florida book club headed by a woman named Jennie Blue who throws a grand luncheon every year or so, called Mama Francina’s Fancy Hat Literary Luncheon (in honor of her aunt). Blue flies the author into town (and picks up all expenses), and hosts a lunch at the Ritz Carlton Amelia Island to entertain and educate about 40-50 guests — whose millinery rivals attendees of the Kentucky Derby — with an afternoon of author conversation, plus extras like musical tributes and theatrical performances of scenes from the book.
If I were writing a trend article, this is where I’d write, “These are not your grandmother’s book clubs.” But that would be clever and coy and not altogether true. Ambitious book clubs have been recorded since the late 1800s, reviewing material (and sometimes prospective members) with the seriousness of PhD candidates.
What is new, however, is that book clubs’ appetite for reading — and the power of their consumption — is becoming a publishing influencer. Clubs are in fact spawning a business niche that is driving marketing decisions of authors and publishers.
A recent piece in the New York Times (“Really? You’re Not In A Book Club?”) estimated the number of Americans participating in book clubs at five million.
Membership in one these days seems to have crossed a line from social function to smartness function, doing double-duty as a sort of continuing ed.
“I think that book clubs want to be part of a larger cultural conversation,” says Christina Baker Kline, author of the New York Times-bestselling novel, Orphan Train. “Many times this means that the book takes readers on a journey in which they learn something about a different time or place.”
Regardless of how elaborate the meeting, the support of the book club demographic is highly effective in raising a book’s profile. Reagan Arthur, the editor of books including The Lifeboat and Life After Life, recently named publisher of Little, Brown, recognizes the value of book clubs to a book’s success — and longevity. “Book clubs are a great way to sustain the conversation about a book long after its arrival into the world.”
Jenna Blum, whose debut novel Those Who Save Us became a New York Times bestseller four years after its release, did just that. In those years, she visited with as many as three book clubs a day (an estimated of 800 total), and calls her book a “poster child” for the influence of book clubs on a book’s success.
Cathy Marie Buchanan, whose 2013 novel The Painted Girls spent four weeks on the New York Times list, estimates that she’s visited about 200 book clubs in person or via Skype. “In marketing terms, book club members are the chat leaders of the literary world. They talk books. Their opinions are actively sought and given. They create much of the buzz around a new book.”
Not surprisingly, this has spawned an entire business niche: pairing books to this elusive but powerful group of consumers.
Paula Hubert, founder of Book Movement, left a career in the literary department at William Morris to monetize the marriage of book clubs and authors online. “I saw that book clubs were creating these bestsellers, and publishers were desperate to get at them but nobody could connect them,” she says. Her website now has 35,000 clubs as members, and offers book promotions and giveaways, author interviews, book of the month designation, and ads in its email newsletters.
Similarly, TLC book tours is a paid online vehicle to reach readers – but in this case, via book-reviewing bloggers, whose audience is avid book club readers.
The elephant in the living room is the cost of this marketing. For most authors who haven’t achieved bestselling status, the onus falls on them to pay for these promotions, or to convince their publisher to do so. For many, this is a final financial straw in an artistic career that was supposed to have been about putting words on the page, but morphed into social media management by day and visits to book clubs by night.
A new New-York based company, Book the Writer, is trying to turn the tables by monetizing the book-club bandwagon from the other end, or at least for the upper echelon of authors: Author visits at a price, like a speaker’s bureau for bestselling authors. The fee started at $750, but has been since discounted to $600. (Finding willing authors is no problem, founder Jean Korelitz told The Huffington Post, “but demand is a different kettle of fish.”)
But the strength of the book-club phenomenon is that even if some are doing extraordinary things, the average book club doesn’t have to. They make a difference in a book’s success by doing the ordinary thing in small clusters all around the country.
“Read the book, and if you like it, recommend it to a friend,” says Matthew Dicks. “Nothing means more.”
Image via Seth Woodworth/Flickr