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!