Book Clubs, Part 2: Identifying Groups to Approach

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December 2011
by Linda Carlson

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Book Clubs, Part 2: Identifying Groups to Approach

by Linda Carlson

 

This screen capture from novelist Meg Clayton’s Web site shows one of the ways she’s made the site book club–friendly.

Book groups create buzz—and buzz helps sell books, sometimes years after they’re published. That’s why authors and others in publishing believe it’s often important for writers to visit the clubs discussing their titles. As noted in “Book Clubs, Part 1: The Benefits” (November), many authors I’ve interviewed find such visits rewarding, although sometimes more in psychic terms than in dollar terms.

This installment of our book club series focuses on how to find appropriate book groups and provides information on typical formats for visits. An upcoming article will discuss how to prepare for visits in person and via Skype and phone.

For Starters

Getting yourself invited to book group (or club) meetings can be easy as 1-2-3.

• First, publish the kind of book that groups often select, usually fiction.

• Second, make sure your book is “book group–friendly,” with a reading-

group guide and other indications that you welcome book club invitations.

• Third, be such an entertaining and gracious guest at your first appearances that those book group

members tell all their friends, who then invite you to their groups, and their group members brag

about you, so the invitations keep coming.

Bodice-rippers and history, classics and cookbooks, sci-fi and fantasy—there’s almost sure to be a book club for any taste. There are even clubs where each member reads a different book and members discuss their individual choices at meetings.

What’s key is this: The books must be readily available, preferably free (as ARCs, publisher giveaways, or at libraries) or at reasonable prices.

Because getting a copy autographed by a visiting author is often important to group members, books published for e-readers should also be available in printed form, at least via print on demand.

To signal to readers that a book is appropriate for group discussions, dozens of authors recommended that each copy include a guide with suggested questions. Flag this on the cover, too.

Book publishers can encourage book clubs to host one of their authors not only by including a book-group guide in the back of the author’s book, but also by providing one on the Web page that promotes the title, and by contacting book clubs on the author’s behalf.

It also helps when publishers highlight a title as a potential book club choice. At Ballantine, Meg Clayton’s novels are published as Random House Reader’s Circle selections. “So my books get exposure in newsletters with a large distribution,” Clayton says.

The imprint’s marketing director, Kim Hovey, arranges guest blogs for Clayton on major book club Web sites and sends complimentary copies to book group leaders. Hovey also helped Clayton revise her Web site with pages oriented to book clubs. “I have a ‘What book groups are saying’ page that includes many photos of clubs I’ve visited, as well as quotes from their members,” the novelist reports.

When visits are virtual, another novelist, Erica Bauermeister, encourages clubs to photograph their members and send the photos to her for posting online (the picture on the cover of this issue is one she got from The Book Bags of Bemidji, MN).

Avoid combining promotion for public speaking in general with details of book club visits on your Web site, warns Joshilyn Jackson, whose novels are issued by Hachette’s Grand Central Publishing. “A year or so ago, I folded the online ‘book club’ page into information about speaking in general,” she says. “That was a mistake. I went from getting six to ten invites a month (mostly for virtual visits via phone and Skype) to getting one or two. When I had the Web site overhauled, the first thing I told the designer was that book clubs needed their own tab in the drop-down menus, and a FAQ and links to all the reading guides.”

Besides using both the author’s and the publisher’s sites to announce interest in visiting, writers with book club experience suggest that authors mention their interest in book clubs when they talk to people one-on-one, at signings and at every possible presentation. And they advise using Facebook pages and Twitter accounts for this, too.

Some authors also use their Facebook pages to host giveaways, either books or T-shirts promoting the book. And authors use Facebook and Twitter to announce book club visits. If a club doesn’t want to be identified by name, it’s fine to post the general location, noting whether the visit will be in person or by Skype and any special details about the event (tastings of Scotch, for instance, which were a feature of some of Tom Averill’s appearances for his second book, The Slow Air of Ewan MacPherson, because it has a Scottish theme).

Using Directories and Occasions

Many directories list authors available for public appearances. Some are for speaking in general, such as that run by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Others are specific to book clubs. One of the newest is the GalleyCat.com Directory of Authors Who Will Visit Book Clubs. (Sign up on Facebook, at GalleyCat Authors Who Visit Book Clubs. The directory itself is downloadable from static59.mediabistro.com/content/GalleyCat.com_Directory_of_Authors_Who_Will_Visit_Book_Clubs_6_.pdf.) Another is Book Group Wiki (bookgroups.wikispaces.com/United+States), which allows searches by state for available authors.

Authors who are Jewish or whose books have a Jewish theme can pitch the Jewish Book Council’s annual audition, Meet the Authors. As Benyamin Cohen, author of My Jesus Year: A Rabbi’s Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith, explains, “Authors get two minutes to say why they should be invited to the book festivals. It gives the organizers of all the various Jewish book festivals a chance to judge the authors (kind of like American Idol auditions). The council usually has 200 authors, and it takes a couple days for all of them to make their pitch. All genres are welcome. There just has to be some tangential Jewish connection.”

In addition, the Jewish Book Council annually compiles Meet the Authors, a printed guide to authors on tour, which is used by Jewish organizations, including community centers, synagogues, and Hillels, to plan their book events and as a buying guide for their bookstores. The selection process for Meet the Authors begins in early winter; see jewishbookcouncil.org for the 2012 timeline. The auditions themselves are scheduled to coincide with BookExpo America.

Black authors can submit their titles for consideration to groups with chapters across the country, such as Go On Girls, which selects one book—fiction or nonfiction—for its members to read each month. Submission information is at goongirl.org/read/book-solicitation.php.

Reader’s Circle (readerscircle.org) lets you search for clubs by locale. It indicates how many miles a club meeting site is from the ZIP code you’ve entered, a valuable tool for authors interested in making more than one presentation in a particular area. Within five miles of my neighborhood, I found clubs for writers, lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender (LGBT) groups, socialists, and steampunk fanciers.

Other directories by geographic area include Mosaic Books (mosaicbooks.com/bookclub.html), which lists clubs for black Christian women and for a few other demographics. For California, the site lists five dozen groups; for Massachusetts, just five.

Some traditional print media provide directories of book clubs in their locations. The Minneapolis Post lists more than 100 clubs in its circulation area that are open to new members at minnpost.com/_asset/9gvzs1/PublicBookClubs.pdf.

Many organizations sponsor book clubs as part of their primary mission. For example, last summer the Potsdam, NY, chapter of the American Association of University Women read The Heretic’s Daughter: A Novel. Next month, the Redlands, CA, AAUW chapter will be reading Cutting for Stone. This month, the Bates College Boston Alumnae Book Club is meeting for a potluck and discussion of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. In November, the book club of the Austin, TX, alumni of Rice University read The Windup Girl.

On-campus groups also occasionally gather for book discussions. Some are organized by professors, others by students. Business books, seldom the first choice for traditional book groups, are sometimes read in groups at institutions like the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

Remember to check writers’ groups too. As Mary Shafer of Word Forge Books in Ferndale, PA, reminds us, writers also read. She belongs to Sisters in Crime (sistersincrime.org), a group of women mystery writers. “I was aware that they have both local and regional reading groups, so I asked if any of these groups wanted to review two of our titles in a mystery series,” Shafer reports. “When a group replied in the affirmative, I sent review copies with a press kit and offered a 10 percent discount and free shipping for any order of 10 or more books, along with a list of discussion questions for each title, and bookmarks for each copy ordered.”

Response was good enough that Shafer says she plans a similar campaign using reading groups found by Googling “mystery reading groups” and “mystery book clubs.” “It takes time,” she admits, “but the leads are far more targeted and therefore qualified. We are considering also offering one free copy of the book(s) in exchange for referrals to other reading groups of at least 10 people.”

For Successful Internet Searches

Type a phrase beginning with “reading groups” into a search engine and you’ll find all sorts of information, including a link to the all-important bookclub.meetup.com. When I used it to access information about clubs in Dallas, I found some that read NPR recommendations and some that read on atheism, on public speaking, on chick lit, and on books that have been made into movies.

“Meetup is the mecca of book clubs [see “Making Use of Meetups” in the archives at ibpa-online.org], and new ones pop up every day, as evidenced by the alerts in my email,” reports James W. Lewis, author of Sellout of the Bay Area (from The Pantheon Collective in Santa Cruz). Lewis says he also browses the site at least once a month for appropriate groups. “I simply send an email to a selected club organizer with an introduction and description of my books. If I get a positive response, I always offer bulk autographed copies at a discounted price.”

Note, though, that not all Meetup groups welcome contact. One publicist reports that most of the groups she contacted “didn’t respond, and those that did were irritated that I used their forum to contact them.”

If your title is appropriate for churchgoers, whether or not it discusses religion, use a search phrase like “book reading groups church U.S.A.” Or contact the regional headquarters of the faiths you’re interested in: the dioceses, districts, or synods.

Authors and publishers can also do online searches for groups in general. If a search for “book clubs” turns up too many references to Oprah or book retailers, try “book discussion groups” as the search term.

Reaching Bookstore and Library Clubs

If you don’t already have a list of local bookstores to contact about whether they sponsor book groups, you can use the directory of your regional booksellers association, which is probably an affiliate of the American Booksellers Association. And you can search the ABA site (bookweb.org) by city and state.

Not every bookstore is an ABA member, so supplement your ABA list with the contacts you find in telephone directories and chamber of commerce directories. To contact chain-store booksellers, see the outlets listed on the chains’ sites.

Because bookstores that host clubs often help select titles, make sure store buyers and event planners are aware of your titles and how appropriate they are for discussion groups. “Most of the recommendations of my books to clubs have come from booksellers,” says Alma Hromic Deckert, who writes as Alma Alexander for HarperTeens (the Worldweavers fantasy series).

Many libraries host book groups. Start compiling a list at the Library of Congress Center for the Book site—read.gov/cfb/state-affiliates.php. Lists created by the various state centers vary. The Iowa Center’s page (iowacenterforthebook.org/library-groups) includes more than four dozen reading groups; the Alabama Center’s page (lib.ua.edu/Alabama_Authors) has a directory of authors with a connection to the state.

Through the American Library Association, 30 publishers currently provide material for YA reading groups via the Teens’ Top Ten project (ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/yalsa/teenreading/teenstopten/yagalley.cfm). Even if you don’t participate in this project, its list of clubs offers valuable information about library-hosted groups.

To contact libraries or library systems about the clubs sponsored by their branches, use such lists as the ALA’s “Nation’s Largest Libraries,” Fact Sheet 22, available at ala.org/ala/professionalresources/libfactsheets/alalibraryfactsheet22.cfm, or publiclibraries.com. Some state libraries provide detailed information; for example, the Washington State Library’s map of “Public Library Service,” sos.wa.gov/_assets/library/libraries/libDev/wa_lib_service.pdf, shows each library’s service area.

Clubs Active Only Online

Some groups meet only in cyberspace.

The U.S. Catholic Book Club (uscatholic.org/bookclub) has an online discussion for each month’s selection; the Jewish Book Council has a monthly meeting of its Twitter Book Club, with an author online to respond to readers around the globe; and American Christian Fiction Writers (acfw.com), which has more than 2,000 members, has an online club that discusses two books a month.

The online book club that is hosted by Manic Mommies (manicmommiesbookclub.com) archives each meeting as a podcast. At the Inspirational Book Club (inspirationalbookclub.org), which uses Meetup as its forum, Rachel Haimowitz recommends Good Reads (goodreads.com/group) for its list of almost 1,250 online book clubs. “I do gay genre novels, and there are many large, dedicated groups of readers for books like mine, but the most I have found are on Good Reads, which has focused virtual communities.”

The gay-romance group, for example, has almost 4,000 members, she reports. “It has ‘book of the week’ and ‘book of the month’ picks that hundreds of people will read at once. Both my colleagues in the genre and I saw noticeable sales bumps when our books were selected, during that month and sometimes for months to come, because the group selections created word of mouth in a very large and active book community.”

Still more sources of leads: book group blogs. A quick search shows sites with many links, including Book Group Buzz, bookgroupbuzz.booklistonline.com, and Book Blogger Appreciation Week, bookbloggerappreciationweek.com.

Newspaper Tie-in Opportunities

Check traditional print media, too. Tony D’Souza, whose three novels have been published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, visited “clubs” organized by newspapers such as the Sarasota (FL) Herald Tribune and the Redding (CA) Record Searchlight, and he reports that some have more than 100 participants.

More like special events than traditional book club meetings, these groups’ sessions involved a newspaper staff member selecting a title (in the Record Spotlight’s case, someone from the region), asking local booksellers and local libraries to carry the book, and arranging for an author presentation. “It was very successful,” recalls Michelle Martin Streeby, Record Spotlight marketing director, whose club had to be discontinued after a few years due to staff cutbacks. (Publishers, take note: Martin Streeby says that the most time-consuming part of each event was dealing with publishers who were unresponsive to the newspaper’s request to contact authors.)

The Redding book “club” was patterned after the club sponsored by the Sacramento (CA) Bee, whose author events started more than 15 years ago, and have attracted as many as 1,400 people (for Amy Tan’s appearance). Bee staffer Allen Pierleoni brings in what he calls “A-level” authors, usually those on national tours funded by their publishers, so the only cost to the paper is rental of the venue for the appearance. (Independent publishers with strong regional titles and authors who make outstanding appearances can, of course, contact Pierleoni about considering their books.)

The paper has also negotiated with Barnes & Noble and a dozen nearby independent booksellers to offer a 30 percent discount on selected titles.

Being selected for a media “club” has the obvious advantage of—you guessed it—lots of media exposure. At the Bee, the title is announced in the paper, and Pierleoni then does a phone interview with the author for a feature story that appears a few days before the appearance. The local NPR affiliate almost always interviews the author, and often other broadcast stations do as well.

Tools for Sale

Several authors report benefiting from the use of Patricia Rouse’s Romance Readers Groups (rousepat@aol.com), which, despite the name, includes more than romance reading groups. Rented on an annual subscription basis, this list provides contact information for hundreds of independent and bookstore-sponsored book groups and labels color-coded by group genre.

Publishers (and authors) can also advertise on such Web sites as BookClubCookbook (bookclubcookbook.com/for_publishers.htm and its companion site, kidsbookclubbook.com). They claim to reach more than 7,000 book club members with a newsletter and paid announcements. Titles do not have to be cookbooks; some are, and the others have some tie to food.

Bookmovement.com, which says its mission is to “give book clubs a way to recommend books to each other on a national level,” also offers paid promotion, with fees starting at about $750. It has formalized programs like the book group giveaways that Word Forge’s Mary Shafer does on her own.

Linda Carlson writes for the Independent from Seattle.

How Scarletta Press Handles Book Clubs

Any small publisher knows that book clubs are a hard market to break into. You have to have the right book; you have to have the right discussion questions; you have to know at least some of the right people; and most important, you have to have the right marketing scheme.

The best way to start—and what’s working for Scarletta Press’s newest novel, Hassie Calhoun: A Las Vegas Novel of Innocence—is to develop your own reading guide kit.

Our reading guide kits include:

• an intro page with a cover image, description, and sales info

• an author biography page

• a PDF of 10 to 15 discussion questions

• a PDF of 10 author interview questions

• one short excerpt

• a press release

• a one-page PDF of endorsements or testimonials

We post the reading guides on the author’s Web site and Facebook page. And then we post just the discussion questions on our own company site. After that, we use social media as much as we can to connect with book clubbers. Some of our favorite hashtags on twitter are #bookclub and #bookbuzz.

We knew a few people in book clubs that focused on this book’s genre (literary fiction/women’s issues), so we asked them to read the book, discuss it, and give us feedback to use as testimonials. We posted some testimonials online, and we tweeted them as well, with a link to the author’s Web site.

Digital marketing has so far been our best tool when it comes to raising awareness with book clubs about Hassie Calhoun. It’s surprising how many online book clubs are out there.

When we send a guide kit with one free copy to a bookstore’s book club, we follow up to make sure it was received and to answer any questions.

If there’s one thing we’re learning at Scarletta Press, it’s that no matter how you go about breaking into the book club market, the key is to learn to adapt and be persistent.

—Desiree Bussiere, publicity director at Scarletta Press, Inc. (scarlettapress.com)

Structuring Presentations

For appearances at book clubs, most writers recommend giving a brief introductory talk and then providing plenty of time for questions.

Writers also note that book club members are often as interested in the author and the writing and publishing process as they are in the content of the book. Angie Fox, whose paranormal novels have been published by Dorchester and Brava, says, “Readers want to meet the person behind the book; they want that personal connection. We sometimes forget how unusual it is to sit down and write a book. People want to know how you write, why you write.”

Some of Christina Hamlett’s appearances are more structured. “For my play anthologies, we assign roles and create an impromptu readers’ theater group,” she explains. Like Fox, she has found that groups are interested in her as an individual. “When my Scottish time-travel book, The Spellbox, was released by HarperCollins, I regaled book club groups with the back story of how I was inspired on a vacation to the Scottish highlands and how four years later I married my own knight in shining armor at a castle.”

Carole Estby Dagg is among those authors who get questions about the publishing process. She’s been asked what kind of research she does, whether she has input into her book title or cover, and what her next project is. Those questions about manuscripts under way provide the opportunity to presell the next book. Many authors recommend taking bookmarks that promote the current title or the forthcoming one.

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