How We Started a Virtual Book Club at Work and How You Can Too
For many people, the last year and a half have been a time of adapting and reshaping, as we continue to rethink our work lives as well as how we spend our free time. With the temporary closing of businesses like movie theaters and restaurants, we had to find safe, at-home ways to occupy our time. As the months carried on it felt like we continued to look for new hobbies and interests that would keep us entertained and engaged. I mean, there’s only so much Netflix you can watch, right? It might not be a surprise to find that people around the world began to discover or rekindle a love for reading. In fact, since the pandemic, 35% of people say that they read more, with 14% saying they read significantly more. Pair it with the fact that reading reduces stress levels by 68% and there is really no reason not to pick up that book you’ve been wanting to read.
On top of a resurgence in reading, worldwide lockdowns have also led to many companies switching to remote work. Though most companies were initially forced into work from home models in March 2020, studies predict that nearly 50% of companies will allow employees to continue working remotely full time, with 80% allowing employees to work from home at least part of the time. As your company continues to adapt to this new normal, you might be looking for remote ways to bring people together. What better way to not only encourage a hobby but to keep coworkers connected than to start a book club? If the idea of starting a book club seems daunting, don’t worry; we already started our own and have laid out exactly what you need to do to get your very own book club started.
How To Start A Book Club in 5 Steps
Step 1: Pick Someone to Spearhead and Manage the Club
This person will ideally be the person who decided to start the book club or will be someone who is equally excited about the prospect. They will need to be responsible for keeping the communication going and ensuring that the following steps are accomplished. This is also the point in which the leader can announce to the company that they have started a book club. We recommend sending a message in a general message channel so everyone can see that a book club is happening. It also doesn’t hurt to send out reminders along the way so if anyone didn’t see the announcement or was on the fence about joining they can jump right in!
Step 2: Shortlist No More Than 5 Titles
The leader should then choose no more than 5 titles to shortlist for the first book, from which other members will vote on as the starting book. This accomplishes a few things: it takes the pressure off of other members to suggest books; it streamlines the choosing of the first book, as the list of titles out there to choose from is, of course, seemingly endless; it also prevents the club from fizzling out before it could begin as people look into the books and get excited about them.
Step 3: Plan Format / Structure
This step is where you sort through most of the logistics for the book club. Some of the questions you will want to consider at the outset of the book club include:
- How often will you meet? In our club, we meet once the book has been completed. We prefer to have a date range for when people should try to be finished, but flexibility is important.
- Who pays for the books? If the books you are reading are not related to work, as ours aren’t, members of the club will likely be responsible for acquiring the books themselves. However, it is likely worth asking your supervisor about funding options before assuming. There are also many options for renting books that we will discuss shortly.
- What is the format of the meetings? There are tons of resources available online for book club discussion questions. We like to keep our meetings fairly open-ended by having questions on hand while also allowing the conversation to naturally progress.
- Will we meet continually throughout the reading process or just at the end? This is dependent on what members of the club prefer, but as I mentioned we prefer to meet just once at the end. That format allows our members to read at their own pace, taking some of the stress out of reading, but again whatever works for your club is what you should do!
Step 4: Establish Communication Channels
With your book club, you will want a dedicated discussion space for people to ask questions about scheduling, book availability, and post thoughts as they read. We have a Slack channel for the book club where all of that is done. However, it’s extremely important that if people post their thoughts about the current book they do so in a spoiler-free way, as everyone is reading at their own pace. The leader will want to monitor the channel for any accidental spoilers as well as check-in periodically with members about their progress on the book.
Step 5: Host End-of-Book Discussion
At this point, everyone who wanted to should have read the book, which means it’s time to get together and celebrate finishing! The best way to ensure everyone is able to attend the meeting is to ask a week or so in advance about peoples’ availability. Then, as soon as you can get the date on the calendar you should do so. Finally, feel free to send the discussion questions to people ahead of time so they have time to think it over and feel comfortable speaking out. Though we want to continually make sure the book club doesn’t feel like a chore or homework, which is why reminding members that it’s ok to not come with prepared answers to the questions are always encouraged.
“My favorite part of book club is getting to see co-workers I don’t interact with often and having a fun space to discuss our thoughts and opinions on our reading topics. It’s amazing to hear other’s perspectives and gain new insights I may not have thought about on my own.”
- Ariel Owens, Customer Support Manager
What We Learned
Everyone reads at a different pace.
Whether you personally feel like you can breeze through a book in a week or like you need a month or longer to get through one, it’s important to remember that everyone reads at a unique pace. Beyond that, everyone has differing day-to-day responsibilities that may inhibit or encourage more reading. We recommend settling on an end date rather than weekly checkpoints while reading so that people don’t begin to think of the book club as homework or a chore.
Book clubs are meant to be fun.
Book clubs are not meant to be obligatory. In other words, make sure people know that they can start—or stop—reading at any point. If someone originally committed to reading the current book and then life got in the way, they should not feel guilty backing out. Additionally, remind people that they can join at any time! Even if you are one week away from the finishing deadline people should feel comfortable knowing that they can join whenever they want.
Encourage people to read books in whatever format works for them.
The fact that literature can be consumed in multiple formats—paper books, ebooks, audiobooks—is something that should be celebrated. In fact, audiobooks are one of the fastest-growing sectors in publishing, with downloads of audiobooks in 2020 rising 16.5% from 2019. Unfortunately, there is a certain level of stigma around listening to books versus reading them. But not only are audiobooks crucial for accessibility, they are also fantastic ways to read while commuting, doing daily chores, or going on your daily walk. We recommend encouraging your book club members to consume the book in whatever format works best for them!
Don’t add extra stress with daunting decisions.
We already mentioned that a crucial step in establishing a book club is creating a shortlist of titles for people to choose from as the first book. This is a practice that we recommend continuing to use for future books as well. Having a small list of books for people to choose from takes the pressure off members to sift through seemingly endless lists of good books to come up with suggestions. You can even rotate the responsibility of who creates the shortlist to get a wide variety of books!
Rotate genres to keep everyone interested.
Off the top of your head, what is your favorite genre to read? Contemporary? Historical fiction? Memoirs? Mine is fantasy. Chances are, everyone in your book club is not going to have the same favorite genre, which presents a great opportunity. Choosing books from different genres will ensure everyone gets a chance to read a book in their preferred genre while also introducing other members to genres that they may not have picked up on their own!
Be aware of triggering material in books.
As the person spearheading the book club, it is important that you take care to investigate any triggering material in the books the club might read. A simple Google search for the title of the book and “trigger warnings” will usually yield a list of potentially sensitive content found in the novel. We are not necessarily suggesting that you only pick books without any triggering material—in fact that may be nearly impossible, depending on the genre. But it is incredibly important that the trigger warnings are listed so that members can decide for themselves whether or not the book is something they want to read. You will also want to ensure that people feel comfortable opting out of a book with no questions asked. They should not feel obligated to explain why they do not or cannot read any given book.
Make sure the discussion channel is a safe space.
One reason for creating a book club is to foster interesting conversations between coworkers. This will obviously be done at the end-of-book discussion but can also be maintained as people read through the book. You’ll want to encourage conversation and the sharing of ideas and opinions in the channel while also making sure these comments are spoiler-free. Don’t hesitate to remove or monitor any comments that are spoilers for the book and make sure that people know they can move conversations to private messages if they want to get into specific, spoilery details.
Use frequent check-ins to maintain an idea of everyone’s progress.
While making sure not to add undue pressure to people to read faster, you will want to periodically check on people’s progress. These check-ins can be very casual and are just a great way to see if the decided end date is still going to work for everyone. They can also be a shame-free nudge for people who have fallen behind or forgotten about the book completely.
Give people things to think about ahead of the end-of-book discussion.
The end-of-book discussion is an exciting time! People have finished the book and whether they loved it, hated it, or just thought it was okay there is a lot to discuss. Chances are, however, you don’t have hours to chat about the book in the midst of your busy week. Because of this, you will want to come up with a plan for the discussion that includes questions that you’ll send to members beforehand. This is another area for flexibility as you’ll want to let the conversation flow naturally, refocusing when necessary.
“The pandemic definitely impacted how much I read. Before COVID, I read less than 10 books a year and I wanted to improve that. Online resources like Audible and Libby were a game changer for audiobooks, and when I was reading at home I began to actually make my way through the books I bought!”
- Annie Dorsey, Service Direct Product Intern
Where to Find the Books
Naturally, a concern many people will have is going to be about finding the books at an affordable price. It’s no secret that books aren’t cheap and they certainly add up over time. Fortunately, there are many ways to find books at a reasonable price and even tons of options for renting books out so that no one has to feel trepidatious about joining the book club due to funds.
Rent From Your Local Library
This may seem obvious to some, but to others the idea of getting books from the library may not have crossed their mind. At many public libraries, getting a library card is easier than ever with online applications and ecards. Without even leaving your home you are able to apply for a library card and have access to the library’s resources in just a few days! Once you have your library card you can use OverDrive, an online service that allows you to connect your library card to your local library and rent ebooks and audiobooks with the click of a button.
Consider Purchasing a Non-Resident Library Card
If you don’t live in a big city or are just interested in seeing what other, larger libraries’ catalog looks like, you might want to consider a non-resident library card. Every library will be different, but in some large cities, non-residents are able to purchase cards that give them access to that library’s vast inventory of books. In Austin, for example, non-resident library cards can be purchased for $120 per year and non-resident ecards can be purchased for only $22 per year! When you consider that the average cost of a new paperback book is around $15, you are saving some serious cash.
Shop for Used Books Online
Hopefully, your city or town has a local used bookstore that you can check out whenever you are shopping for books. Unfortunately, a used bookstore is not guaranteed to have the book you need, especially if it’s a new release, but there are tons of online resources to find used books at an affordable price. Sites like thriftbooks.com and abebooks.com are fantastic resources for finding used books at a fraction of the price of brand new ones.
Consider Book Subscription Services
If you, like me, love the feeling of a hardback book in your hands, you may want to consider a book subscription service. Generally, book subscription services are a great way to regularly get new books without the hefty price tag that comes with buying new hardcovers at the bookstore. There are numerous subscriptions to choose from, but Book of the Month specifically has been a worthwhile investment for me. For a little over $16 per month, you can choose a hardcover book from their extensive library and have it shipped to you for free! Additionally, it’s super easy to skip a month if you’re not interested or need more time to finish your current read.
Support Indie Bookstores
We’re not winning any awards for ingenuity on this one, but it does deserve to be mentioned that if you have the means, supporting independent bookstores is a fantastic way to build up your personal library. If you have a local bookstore that you love then you know that there is no better feeling than strolling through the stacks of shelves looking for your next read. If your local indie bookstore doesn’t have the book you are looking for, most bookstores are taking online orders for curbside pickup. Bookshop.org is also a fantastic resource for buying books online while still supporting independent bookstores across the United States.
Books to Choose From By Genre
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
- An American Marriage follows Roy and Celestial, a young married couple living in Atlanta. Just as they are beginning to start their lives together, Roy is arrested for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit and is sentenced to twelve years in prison, turning their lives upside down. As Celestial begins to find comfort in her childhood friend Andre while trying to hold onto love for her husband, what happens when Roy is released from prison after five years?
All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood
- Wavy is the daughter of a meth dealer who has had to grow up quickly in order to take care of her 8-year-old brother—a job nobody else seems willing or able to do. Then, she meets one of her father’s thugs, Kellan, after he wrecks his motorcycle, and everything changes. This book is an unlikely love story that is equally emotional, beautiful, and discomfiting. If you’re looking for a book that will make you think while facing uncomfortable themes head on, this is the book for you.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
- In Little Fires Everywhere, Ng tackles themes of family, class, race, and identity head on. This novel follows the lives of the affluent, white Richardson family as their new tenants, mother and daughter Mia and Pearl, turn everything upside down. What happens when the secrets many people hold dear are exposed in the small suburb of Shaker Heights? (As a bonus, this novel was recently adapted as a mini-series on Hulu that your book club could watch after reading and continue discussing!)
Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid
- This fictionalized biography of a rock band in the 1970s explores everything from their inception, rise to fame, and infamous breakup. Told through interviews with the band members and others who were around and involved during the height of their popularity. This novel is inventive, engaging, and an all-around wild, fun ride. (If possible we recommend listening to the audiobook version. Every character is voiced by a different actor, making it an incredibly immersive experience.)
The Vanishing Half by Britt Bennett
- Following twin sisters from a small, southern Black community The Vanishing Half is a tale of how our past shapes our future. Spanning from the Deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s, readers see how the sisters’ paths have diverged and watch as their daughters’ worlds collide. With primary themes of family, identity, and the history of race in America, this novel is emotional and poignant.
The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah
- The Four Winds is the harrowing story of a mother, Elsa, and her two children as they escape from dust-bowl Texas in 1934 to California. Instead of finding the riches and opportunities they were told would await them in the Golden State they find hundreds of thousands of displaced migrants struggling to survive day by day. Despite always being told she was too stupid, too weak, or too sickly Elsa is determined to protect her family.
Educated by Tara Westover
- The true story of a woman raised by survivalist parents in the mountains of Idaho, Educated depicts the story of a child forging an unlikely path to higher education and the life she always dreamed of. Growing up in a home that didn’t believe in school or modern medicine the challenges that Westover faced are so extreme it is at times hard to believe. You’ll find yourself needing to be reminded that the events depicted in Educated are real things the author lived through, not fiction.
Becoming by Michelle Obama
- The memoir by one of the most influential, important women of our time is fast-paced and full of intrigue. Becoming starts with Obama’s life as a small child on the South Side of Chicago and carries readers through her journey of pushing boundaries and reaching heights so many told her she never would. Narrated by Obama herself, the audiobook of this memoir is a uniquely immersive experience that shouldn’t be missed.
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
- In her iconic memoir, Walls depicts a life of adventure, uncertainty, and endurance that shatters expectations and keeps readers guessing the entire time. Walls writes of her parents as two people with fiery passion and unconditional love that have flaws so deep they almost destroyed her family. Both through her experiences on the road with her family and, in many ways, in spite of them she was able to achieve success and tells her story in The Glass Castle.
Science Fiction / Fantasy
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemison
- The Fifth Season is the first book in a groundbreaking fantasy trilogy by N.K. Jemison that centers around family and the unconditional love that exists between a mother and her children. We follow three women in a continent plagued by earthquakes that quite literally shatter the world. Every single book in this trilogy won the Hugo Award (the premier award in sci-fi/fantasy fiction); what other reasons do you need to pick this up?
Circe by Madeline Miller
- Circe is a fantastical retelling of various Greek myths including The Odyssey, where the titular character Circe is originally depicted. The story follows Circe’s life, from being born to a titan and eventually exiled to the island of Aiaia, as she encounters many familiar characters such as Hermes, the minotaur, and Odyseus. A story of love, femininity, and discovering one’s own worth, Circe will keep you engaged and entertained with every page.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab
- This fantasy novel follows Addie LaRue, a woman from early 1700’s France who makes a deal with the devil to live forever—but there’s a catch. The second Addie leaves someone’s sight they immediately forget about her. That is until she meets Henry, the first person in over 300 years that remembers Addie the second time they cross paths. Schwab’s book spans countries and centuries while always remaining grounded in the characters we follow. This is a perfect book for fans of historical fiction that are looking to read more fantasy.
Mystery / Thrillers
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
- A classic, And Then There Were None is a murder mystery that will keep readers guessing every step of the way. No, seriously. The second you think you’ve got it figured out, Christie does what she does best and changes the game yet again. Following ten strangers on a mysterious island, this novel starts to pick people off one at a time, getting deadlier and deadlier with every page.
The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides
- This psychological thriller follows a woman who murdered her husband and the therapist determined to figure out why. The twist? The woman hasn’t spoken a word since the murder. Readers follow the therapist’s journal entries as he tries to understand why she stopped speaking and what really happened the night she killed her husband. With twists on every page, this thriller will keep you on the edge of your seat from page one.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
- In The Secret History, dark academia meets mystery as we follow a cast of characters at an elite New England college. Readers are forced along for the ride as the characters’ actions slowly move from immoral and corrupt to full of betrayal and, eventually, evil. Tartt expertly builds tension and suspense as the actions of one horrible night begin to unravel everything these characters have built.