Book Clubs, Part 1: The Benefits

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November 2011
by Linda Carlson

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(See also: Part 2 and Part 3)

Want to increase the buzz about a book? Want to get people talking, blogging, and hand-selling it? Two words: book clubs, those groups of friends and neighbors who sit down together every month or so to discuss a title they’ve all agreed to read. Even better, book clubs that host the author of a book they’re discussing.

But author appearances of any kind require time and at least local travel, and they seldom involve any cash compensation for the author. So are they worth it in terms of dollars? That was one of the questions I recently put to hundreds of authors who have volunteered to visit book clubs. Although many could not quantify the effect on book sales, most were resounding in their enthusiasm for club visits, even those who confessed to being apprehensive before their first visit or intimidated by the blunt questions they’re asked and by occasional criticism.

What follows discusses why authors and others in the trade believe book club visits are so important, and it should help you decide whether book club promotion makes sense for your titles. An upcoming article will explain how to find appropriate book groups, the typical formats for visits, and how to prepare authors for visits in person and via Skype and phone.

Rippling ROI

“Knowing that the author will be there increases the chances that members will buy the book for autographing instead of checking it out of the library or passing a couple of copies around,” said Carole Estby Dagg, the author of The Year We Were Famous (Clarion Books, 2011) and a book group member for 45 years. “Having met the author also increases the ‘buy in’ from readers, and increases the chances that they will talk about the book to other friends,” she adds.

Another writer who belongs to a book club is equally convinced that author appearances increase sales. “Not only does our group of about a dozen buy the selected books, but when we connect to the authors directly, we tend to read everything they put out next, even if we don’t do it as a group,” says Susan Helene Gottfried, who publishes e-books through CreateSpace.

Authors who sell at their appearances can be more specific about return on their investment of effort. When he was invited to be a guest author at the annual luncheon meeting of a New Jersey club called As the Pages Turn, Marc Little sold 30 copies of his two novels to members—and took home orders for 50 more copies. He had dozens of preorders for both books, which he self-published through Infinity Publishing in Conshocken, PA, weeks before last month’s appearance at another New Jersey club, Sistahs to Sistahs.

“Just because there are 10 members of the club doesn’t mean all 10 are going to buy the book,” Carleen Brice points out. “But having a book chosen has meant sales I might otherwise not have had.”

For Brice, who is published by One World/Ballantine, the sales impact has been significant because at least one of the clubs have chosen her titles. The Go On Girl Book Club is national and has 30 chapters around the country. “Each year they select 12 books by black authors to read, and once they have selected one of your books, they consider you one of ‘their’ authors for life,” Brice reports. “They selected Orange Mint and Honey, my first novel. A year later, when the film version of Sins of the Mother premiered on the Lifetime Movie Network, the club promoted it to all their members and held viewing parties

Being chosen by so many chapters of clubs can propel sales to national bestseller levels. Marcella Smith (the longtime small press specialist at Barnes & Noble and a former IBPA board member, who now runs Marcella Smith Associates) recalls several titles that benefited from reading groups. “Reading Lolita in Tehran [which now has millions of copies in print] popped into my head immediately,” she says. “Little Bee, too. Additional sales on The Kite Runner were garnered through book groups, after the book was established. And The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society also got a pop from the book groups.”

Book clubs saved Jenna Blum’s life, she insists. On her blog, Blurb Is a Verb, Blum, the author of Those Who Save Us (Harcourt), tells how a casual invitation to visit a colleague’s mother’s club after the hardcover came out in 2004 led to another invitation and then another, until Blum was visiting as many as three book groups a day by 2007.

She was “drinking way too much coffee and talking way too fast,” she says, but her hard work deserves much of the credit for making her book a New York Times bestseller that stayed on the paperback trade fiction list for a year and got as high as #17. “Book clubs keep books alive,” she believes. “My readers have passed my novels from hand to hand, mother to daughter, friend to friend.”

Authors who never see their names on major bestseller lists also cite exposure as the most valuable result of book club visits. Misty Evans, who is published by Samhain Publishing in Macon, GA, notes that “the sales spike is minimal, even if members buy future books, but the interaction is invaluable. You’re building your brand and reader base.”

Authors may also generate other business as a result of that exposure. Polly Letofsky, whose memoir of walking 14,000 miles through 22 countries is published by Denver’s Global Walk, Inc., says, “At one book club, an attendee was a writer for a magazine. She thought my topic would make a good article, and that article led to a keynote speech, which led to many more speeches. Which was worth many, many sold books.”

Along with the other benefits book clubs can provide, authors cite opportunities to get members to post reviews at Amazon.com, Goodreads, and other important Web sites, and opportunities to promote forthcoming titles. Many distribute giveaways such as bookmarks with new-book information. Some use guest books and signup sheets to gather contact information for new-book announcements.

The Pleasures of Connecting

Then there are the psychic rewards.

Benyamin Cohen, in “Jewish America, One Book Tour Stop at a Time” for the Huffington Post, describes the high points of a 40-talk cross-country trip promoting his religious memoir, My Jesus Year: A Rabbi’s Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith (HarperCollins). “I know this may never happen again, so I’ve learned to enjoy it while I can,” he says. “After all, for brief moments throughout, I often get treated like a celebrity. Fancy hotel suites, green rooms with my name on the door, people asking for my autograph, and some even asking for pictures with me. What rookie writer doesn’t dream of such adulation?”

“I usually come home feeling like a rock star,” agrees Carleen Brice, who recalls the six book club members who flew from Texas to Denver to take her to dinner, and the time she heard screams of excitement when she rang a book club hostess’s doorbell. “I thought they were expecting a male stripper, but no, it was just for me!”

Like Jenna Blum, novelist Karen Essex is well aware of how book clubs can keep titles alive. Her Kleopatra, first published by Warner Books in 2001, was recently read by a Los Angeles book club. For its meeting with Essex, who was visiting from London, the hostess prepared an elaborate Egyptian banquet. “I was so touched by the effort she and the other members put into the event, and we had a long and intimate evening together discussing a book that was published 10 years ago,” Essex reports.

Many authors cited the pleasure of being able to meet with people who know their books well. “At a reading, you read to people from a book they’re not familiar with, but most book club members have read the material and are keen to ask questions,” notes Cliff Garstang, whose In an Uncharted Country is published by Press 53 in Winston-Salem, NC. And he adds, “At one club where the members were all affiliated with a local university, many members had taken notes that they referred to during the discussion!”

In the past two-and-a-half years, since the publication of her first novel, The School of Essential Ingredients (Putnam), Erica Bauermeister has met in person or via phone and Skype with some 75 book clubs. “It’s been a fantastic experience: most recently I spent a long, lovely summer evening with a group of women who had been friends for 30 years. The camaraderie was a beautiful thing to see, and the questions were fantastic,” says Bauermeister.

Tony D’Souza, whose three novels have been published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, believes that “book clubs of any size are extremely valuable to an author,” and that “a friendly and engaging author can connect with readers, leading to more sales through word of mouth. Book club participants are universally grateful that you’ve made yourself available, helping build a fan base. Authors looking to connect with readers in a real way have no better format than a book club.”

That connection, that way of establishing relationships, is what keeps Angie Fox enthusiastic about signings and club appearances. “When one member of a group suggests an Angie Fox book, that’s an endorsement that can’t be bought with advertising or promotion.”

Fox, whose most recent novel was published by Kensington/Brava, is full of anecdotes about people who have purchased her entire backlist because of one-on-one conversations at book clubs. “Yes, these women were readers, but it was about more than that. It was about having that personal connection and enjoying my time with them as much as they enjoyed meeting me. Several of them have become regular readers who will drop me notes after reading a book or will come to book signings.”

Connections are also important because writing can be lonely. As Carole Estby Dagg says, “After working in solitude for years on a book, it’s a delight to meet readers and get their reactions in person.” Hearing what piques their interest also prepares her for her next appearances.

Linda Carlson (lindacarlson.com) writes for the Independent from Seattle. She is astounded to learn what she has missed by neither belonging to nor speaking at a book group.

The Power of Word of Mouth

“Nothing beats word of mouth, nothing,” declares Marcella Smith, who asks how many of us read The Help, The Kite Runner, or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo because a friend had raved about it. And, this veteran industry insider points out, “Books also fade if word of mouth is ho-hum.”

Now head of Marcella Smith Associates, this former Barnes & Noble executive says, “The question is what starts the word of mouth. In my bookselling days in New York City, it was most certainly the New York Times daily book review, and sometimes the front page of the Sunday Times Book Review. These days there is so much more book news in all kinds of media. I think it comes down to, ‘Who do you trust?’”

Big-name publishers agree. Last fall an NPR story, “How to Sell a Book? Good Old Word of Mouth,” quoted the marketing director of Little, Brown, Heather Fain: “In a lot of ways, the greatest marketing tool we have in publishing—and that probably will never change—is word of mouth.”

Not long before, the Daily Beast published “The Book-Club Hustlers,” in which book club guide author Mickey Pearlman was quoted as saying, “The only thing that’s going to save publishing is book clubs.”

Magazine editors are among those promoting clubs. A recent issue of Publishers Weekly described a virtual visit by Meg Wolitzer, author of the bestselling novel The Uncoupling, to 10 clubs around the country. It was sponsored by Skype and More, a Meredith publication oriented to women 40 and older. “Book clubs and reading are passion points among More readers, who tend to be extremely engaged and love to debate with each other,” said Lesley Jane Seymour, editor in chief of More. “I heard from many of More’s readers that they’d like to get to know the authors that we profile.”

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