Reading groups: keeping the book industry viable

While book sales generally may not be thriving, one positive feature of the contemporary reading scene worldwide is the growth of reading groups, book groups, book clubs – call them what you like. The ritual that brings friends together regularly to discuss their recent reading is so widespread that, in the aggregate, it’s surely keeping the book industry viable.

These groups take various forms, from quasi-academic study circles to (more often) informal chat sessions. They meet in various places, from members’ houses to libraries and cafes. Though essentially self-managed, many have links to particular stores through which chosen titles are bought at a discount or borrowed through a consignment scheme; e.g. there are several hundred reading group members under the wing of my little local indie, The Well Bookshop.

Other groups may belong to a network coordinated by a small business operation, which provides fee-based services such as lists of recommended titles and discussion notes. A lively and well-run Californian example is Literary Masters.

Some groups known to me have been going for very many years, with original members continuing to participate actively as their tastes ripen. Other groups are newly established. I see no sign of a decline in the phenomenon, and in fact it seems to be burgeoning. According to John B. Thompson in Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the 21st Century, reading group membership has doubled in less than a decade. It’s estimated that there are now some 20 million members in the US alone.

Oprah Winfrey’s book club choices, publicised since the mid-1990s through TV and the internet, have had a demonstrably huge effect on sales.

A comparably influential British example is the Richard and Judy Book Club, which began as a TV chat show and was credited at its peak (2008) with 26% of all book sales in the UK. Subsequently, in association with the retail chain W.H. Smith, it became a website, and still has a large following.

In Australia the ABC’s nationally televised Book Club, hosted by Jennifer Byrne, is now a decade old. Its popular website and wide social media outreach have generated a high level of interest across all parts of the country in forming and joining satellite reading groups.

Several Perth-based reading groups have invited me along to their meetings to discuss one or more of my novels. I’ve always found it pleasurably informative to make this direct connection with a sample of my readers, respond to their questions, listen to a range of opinions, and observe how differently they go about comparing their literary experiences.

To judge from conversations with the groups I’ve attended as a guest and from positive comments that reach me from other such groups, it seems that my novels work well as a stimulus for the exchange of readers’ views. If you belong to a book group that hasn’t yet chosen one of these titles, you may like to consider doing so in the light of discussion notes that my publisher’s website provides on The End of Longing, That Untravelled World and The Mind’s Own Place.

Happy reading, happy talk!

4 thoughts on “Reading groups: keeping the book industry viable

  1. Literary Masters really is a top notch and impeccably run program. I highly recommend it to everyone.

  2. Thanks for that testimonial, Ginny. Knowing LM only from a distance, I envy those of you who can participate in its program directly. Perhaps it could establish an Australian franchise!

  3. Literary Masters is honored to be highlighted in this post along with such great company–thank you! Our members truly love books and everything about them, so if our coming together helps to keep the book industry viable, that’s great. What we are also doing is engaging with each other and with the world at large by discussing these books in an open-minded manner. Yes, I’d say there’s a definite place for Literary Masters in Australia! 🙂

  4. I’m sure Literary Masters will continue to thrive, Liz. Its winning formula depends largely, of course, on the judicious way you select your books and the warmth of your engagement with your members, along with the particular services you provide. Nicely done, and a fine contribution to the cause of intelligent reading.

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