Guest blog by Carolyn Porter, author of Marcel’s Letters: A Font and the Search for One Man’s Fate (Skyhorse, 2017).
In the five months “Marcel’s Letters” has lived in the world, I have been honored to join ten book clubs, and I look forward to the half-dozen more who have arranged events for the coming months. The visits have been delightful. If I sound surprised, that’s because as an introvert, I had not expected multi-hour visits with strangers could be so enjoyable. But, it has been delightful to engage readers in in-depth conversations about the book. That, and the perks: French wine, delicious macarons, lots of laughter, goose-bump-inducing personal stories. And the pool party.
Jill asked me to share some of these book club experiences along with observations about what has made these events enjoyable and successful:
Arranging the Book Club
- If you don’t have a personal connection to an author, but love their work, visit their website. Do they proffer an easy way to contact them? If so, inquire if they would be willing to chat with your group via phone or Skype. If they are local, ask if they would be willing to join your group in person. There’s no harm in asking!
- I have heard some authors follow a “rule of ten.” That is, the book club needs to have ten or more people (or the group needs to buy ten or more books). I don’t enforce that rule, though I understand the sentiment.
- If you do not have a personal connection to the author, consider offering to gather in a public space such as a coffeehouse or bookstore. In my case, I won’t go to a book club at a stranger’s home—unless someone I know vouches for an individual in the group. It is simply an issue of personal security and people seem to understand.
- Propose multiple dates, if possible.
- If your group gathers during the daytime, disclose this upfront and understand that time might not work if the author has a daytime job. As a freelancer, I can make up work hours in the evening, but not everyone has that flexibility.
- If your book club functions as a social outlet where book club members vent about work/life/kids, consider dedicating time at the beginning or end for those conversations. Allow the author the option to join late or leave early.
- Do not invite an out-of-town author to your book club without offering to cover travel and hotel expenses. This might sound obvious, but I have been invited to two out-of-state book clubs. After asking a few questions, I discovered they expected I would pay for airfare, rental car and hotel. Or, perhaps they believed my publisher would cover those expenses.
During the Book Club
- If your book club functions better with structure, find out if the author has assembled book club questions.
- A few hosts had prepared questions, but most gatherings have been a multi-hour free-for-all of rapid-fire questions. It is simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting! At three of the book clubs I’ve attended, readers have brought books filled with sticky notes flagging specific paragraphs or sentences they had a question about. One woman worried her questions were too specific, but I loved how prepared she was.
- Letting the conversation wander organically allows for some powerful—and perhaps surprising—conversations. One book club talked a lot about genealogy; one woman even shared a newly discovered family secret. Another group asked detailed questions about the publishing process. Another group swapped heartbreaking stories of relatives who lived in Europe during World War II. At another book club I was deeply touched to hear one woman felt compelled to read her father’s handwritten World War II letters after reading “Marcel’s Letters.” Through his letters, she said, she felt as though she got to know him as a young man. And at another book club—hosted by friends of Kathy—we shared memories of our departed friend (Kathy, who is in the book, passed away before the book was published).
- On a handful of occasions, conversation wandered too far off track. In those cases, I was grateful when the hostess politely redirected the conversation back to the book.
- A handful of people have prefaced questions with the statement, “This might be too personal, but…” I have been asked questions about money, about my marriage, about plans for the future, about religion. In my opinion, no one has crossed a line with questions. Not yet, anyway. But I speculate this line will be different for every author.
- Take photos during the event to post on social media.
- Many of the book clubs indulged in French-themed treats: wine, pastries, crusty baguette, savory cheeses, macarons, and more. The extra effort and thoughtful planning made book club feel like a celebration. Of course, French-themed goodies are easy to find, but I was impressed to learn one book club matches food and drink to the geography of every book they read.
- Two book clubs come to mind as being extra special: One was attending Dixie’s book club. Dixie, as readers know, played a critical role in uncovering Marcel’s fate. The evening was filled with laughter and easy banter. I was also invited to a book club pool party. I was confused, initially, since books do not play well with water. But the evening was a delight. The hostess had an in-ground pool, and it was a warm, cloudless summer evening. Attendees took turns floating in the water, then joining me near the pool’s edge. Whether they were in the pool or sitting on a lounge chair, they engaged in lively, thoughtful discussion.
After the Book Club
- Publishing a book is a business; author visits are likely part of a deliberate plan to help promote the book. If you enjoyed reading the book, help the author get the word out. Tell your friends. Encourage other book clubs to read it. Suggest the book to your local library and recommend it to your local independent bookstore. Write reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. Post photos on social media with you and the book, or photos from the book club. These may seem like small actions, but they make a difference!
- A few book clubs have given me thank you gifts. While I appreciate the thoughtful gesture, know that it is not necessary.
At these gatherings, the benefits have gone well beyond book sales. I have relished the thoughtful observations and many questions (even the tough ones). I have enjoyed hearing personal stories about handwritten letters readers hold dear. I have been amused to hear theories about Marcel’s letters—including some theories that had never crossed my mind! I have enjoyed hearing readers have a new awareness of fonts and French forced labor.
I have been deeply touched to hear my book has encouraged people to write, to read old family letters, and to pursue curiosity. Perhaps more than anything, it warms my heart to hear readers have gotten to know a part of history that has been largely forgotten, and am honored to know they have welcomed Marcel into their heart.