Following Seattle's Read: Citywide Book Clubs Sprout Up Throughout the U.S.

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It’s doubtful that either Nancy Pearl, executive director of the Washington Center for the Book at the Seattle Public Library (WCB), or Chris Higashi, associate director for WCB, realized just how influential an idea they had conceived when they launched "If All of Seattle Reads the Same Book" in 1996. Today, over 50 cities, counties, or states have begun programs that encourage communities to read the same book at the same time and then to discuss it in numerous venues. (To read about one city’s efforts, click here.)

Working together with the WCB, Bookselling This Week has compiled a listing of citywide book club efforts. Thus far, over 45 different community reading initiatives are listed, involving programs that have occurred, are occurring, or will occur sometime in the coming weeks and months. To go to the listing, click here. (Undoubtedly, the list will continue to evolve and grow, and the current BTW list does not include every community effort. If your citywide book club is not listed, please contact Dave Grogan, BTW associate editor, via e-mail to [email protected].)

In the meantime, for those bookstores, libraries, or other groups looking to help launch a community book club, the following tips are adapted from WCB’s "Building a Citywide Book Club":

Tips for Choosing an Author and Book

  1. Choose a major author with a body of work. To encourage broad participation, the author should be well known and have a national reputation.
  2. Choose an author who is willing to engage in discussion with readers. Assuming the author you choose will participate in the event, try to pick an author who is friendly and is comfortable interacting with the public. Talk to other booksellers, librarians, journalists, or anyone else who may have personal contact with the author you want to feature.
  3. Choose a book that offers strong potential for discussions. Books that make successful subjects for discussion tend to have characters who are dealing with issues in the their lives with which readers can identify.

Help Readers Get the Most Out of Reading

  1. Create a reading group "toolbox." To introduce readers to the featured work, the WCB develops "A Reading Group Toolbox for the Works of [Author]." The toolbox contains a brief biography, an interview with the author, sample questions for several books, and an annotated bibliography of the author’s works, and tips for book discussions.
  2. Promote critical reading. To help book groups prepare for discussion, present a training session for interested book group leaders and members that focuses on reading critically and constructively, analyzing literature creatively, and nurturing passionate discussion. For instance, the WCB toolbox includes "Book Club How-To’s." The suggestions cover how to organize the first meeting, what makes a good book for discussion, how to lead a book discussion, suggestions for participants, and sample questions that can work for almost any book.

Promoting the Event

  1. Organize a film screening. Consider showing a film version of your featured book. Discussions of a film adaptation of a book, and the differences between the two media, can add to readers’ appreciation of the work.
  2. Organize a radio reading. To reach a large, diverse audience, partner with your local public radio affiliate to broadcast a radio reading of the book. For instance, four Seattle actors recorded The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks. Public radio station KUOW, WCB’s primary media partner, broadcast a complete reading of the novel in 17 30-minute segments. The reading -- along with public service announcements about the broadcast, a radio show with call-ins, and Banks’ appearance in Seattle -- helped promote the project to a large listening audience. Alternately, an unabridged audiobook may be broadcast.
  3. Secure print media sponsorship. Get at least one print media sponsor to publicize your project through stories and advertising.
  4. Develop displays and promotional materials. Create eye-catching displays and promotional materials that feature your project. Get bookstores and libraries to put up displays. Arrange to put up posters wherever other arts and events posters appear. WCB materials included a poster, a Plexiglas display for toolboxes, a brochure of events, flyers, and a red button ("I’m Reading Russell Banks").
  5. Network with existing book groups. Publicize the program to book groups through bookstores, libraries, cafes, senior centers, and community centers. Include a feedback/evaluation form for users of your reading group toolbox to help you assess its effectiveness.
  6. Partner with other bookstores. Work with bookstores in the community to generate interest and participation by the book-buying public through prominent displays of posters, displays, and such promotional materials as buttons. Many bookstores support book groups by offering advice, meeting space, reader’s guides and, sometimes, discounts for group purchases.

Author "Residency" (the time during which the featured author is available for promotional events)

  1. Put the author on the radio. In Seattle, public radio station KUOW hosts a live, one-hour program with the WCB featured author, during which listeners are invited to call in with questions. Additionally, a KUOW morning show host and WCB’s Nancy Pearl interviewed Russell Banks (1998 featured author) in between his taking questions from listeners.
  2. Help Readers meet the author. Hold events where readers can meet the author, such as in local bookstores or libraries. Invite readers and book group members to meet the featured author and to ask questions about the featured book and other works. Don’t have the author give a reading -- instead set up these programs in question-and-answer format. Collect audience survey/evaluation forms from as many participants as possible. These will help both to create a database and to assess the value and effectiveness of your program.
  3. Host an evening with the author. Local independent bookseller associations and libraries can join forces to sponsor a prepared talk for the general public, followed by a reception. Again, collect audience survey/evaluation forms from participants.
  4. Hold a luncheon. WCB holds an informal lunch and discussion in the library auditorium. It sends advisory board members copies of the book and invites them to have lunch with the author. It also invites branch librarians who helped to promote the project, lead book discussions, and facilitate borrowing of books.

Post-Author Residency

  1. Broadcast a videotape of the "main event" (whatever you choose that to be) on the local cable television channel.
  2. Distribute a taped author interview, by request, to public libraries in your community for additions to their collections.
  3. Assess and evaluate what worked, what didn’t, why, and what to change in the future.

For more information on creating a program similar to that of "If All of Seattle Read the Same Book," or for a copy of "Building a Citywide Book Club," e-mail Chris Higashi at [email protected], or visit the Washington Center for the Book.