The WHYs of Book Club Questions

Photo by SomeHoosier
Photo by SomeHoosier

We’re thrilled to have Mollie Lundquist of LitLovers here today, who describes herself as “an English teacher gone mad.” LitLovers grew out of an online course she taught a few years ago. It was so much fun, she decided to go public.

She says:

LitLovers has brought together my lifelong love of reading, writing, and teaching. The site is about WHAT we read, HOW we read, and HOW we THINK about our reading. Approaching literature in that way can change how we see our lives and the world around us.

It’s my hope that readers everywhere will come to the site again and again to explore, learn, and have fun.

Follow  Mollie on Facebook or on Twitter.

The WHYs of Book Club Questions

So. You’ve finished your book (check), found a publisher (check), gone through the editing process (check), and myriad other steps. You’ve reached a sense of cosmic completion. Om….

But then your publisher-publicist-agent (and even your mother) tells you to write Book Club Questions. Wait. Book club questions? On top of all the other hoops you’ve had to jump through?

Let’s step back a bit.

No less an arbiter of style and trends than The New York Times quipped in a recent headline, “Really? You Aren’t in a Book Club?” The “book club boom is nationwide,” says The Times, citing five million as the number of Americans belonging to local reading groups. That number doesn’t include the millions more (25 million for GoodReads alone) who meet online.

As an author promoting your book, why would you ignore an audience so immense and influential?–Influential, because book clubs talk with one another. Just ask Kathleen Grissom, author of Kitchen House.

With an initial print run of 11,500 copies, the book didn’t get traction right away…. In an era when digital buzz is considered crucial to launching books overnight, it was old-fashioned book-club word-of-mouth that prevailed. The book is in its 21st printing, with 254,000 copies in print and 152,000 e-books sold.  — The Wall Street Journal, August 16, 2012

Among the (many) things Grissom did right was to develop a set of questions to help her readers with what is, arguably, the hardest part of belonging to a book club: the discussion. It’s difficult—and I say this as a former college English instructor—to talk about books in a way that stimulates meaningful, lively discussions. We all want to move beyond the “didn’t like her…couldn’t stand him” moments, but it’s not easy.

So help your readers. Show them how get to the gist of your book and promote a thoughtful conversation. The comments I hear over and over on LitLovers is how good discussions change minds—those who go into a meeting disliking a book come away with a deeper appreciation.

LitLovers has 300,000 monthly visitors searching for potential book club reads.There’s no data on the degree to which discussion questions influence final book choices, but I can say that I get emails from frustrated readers if they’re not available.

We have a set of Generic Questions. Please feel free to use them as a guide, tailoring them to the specifics of your own book. Come up with, say, 10 questions about

  • character development and motivation
  • point of view and structure
  • the book’s central idea and whether or not readers agree with the overall premise
  • how the book relates to the reader’s personal experience.

So, dear writers, I hope the message is clear: Go forth and propagate your Book Club Questions.

Have you written questions for book clubs? If so, what kind of questions sparked the most discussion?  

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Comments

  1. says

    I can’t imagine why anyone would ignore book clubs–I’d love to have my book read by clubs (that is, when my manuscript someday becomes a book). Thanks for this post, Mollie, I hadn’t heard of LitLovers but will check you out!
    jeffo´s last blog post ..Blathering On

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  2. says

    Wow! This is one of the most useful articles on marketing I’ve read is some time. Thank you for the post and keep up the good work over at LitLovers. I have visited with several book clubs in my area and have loved the experience. Nothing beats one-on-one contact with readers. If I had only thought about it with my first novel, putting discussion questions at the end makes so much sense. Alas, no questions there. Chalk it up to being new. My next release due out this summer will have those questions unless my publisher balks.

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  3. says

    I dreaded the idea of writing the Reader’s Guide, as my publisher calls the questions at the back of the book, for my debut novel. Then I got started on it, and discovered I thoroughly enjoy this part of the process. Now my problem is trying to narrow them down to just a dozen or so.
    Lori Benton´s last blog post ..Tamsen Littlejohn: Pinnable Graphic #2

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  4. Marcy McKay says

    Fantastic, Mollie. I have 3 published authors in my weekly writing group and have wondered when my day comes HOW will I come up with Book Club questions. Thanks to you, now I know.

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  5. says

    Thanks for the useful and incredibly simple-to-follow advice, Mollie! For some reason Book Club questions always put me in mind of high school English homework assignments – except these are, of course, for people who actually enjoy answering them!
    Lori Schafer´s last blog post ..Hangin’ with My Muse

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  6. says

    “good discussions change minds—those who go into a meeting disliking a book come away with a deeper appreciation.”

    Excellent – having a book stimulate discussion sounds a fabulous way to get the crucial ‘word of mouth’ going.

    When writers deliberately create a novel with layers and layers of connections, they should want to push some of the less obvious ideas out. It shouldn’t be done by explaining within the novel – because that will turn readers off while they’re reading.

    So the writer is stuck with hoping readers will notice and share – but actually getting a place where you can write the questions, and people will appreciate the discussion starters? I can’t wait.
    Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt´s last blog post ..Whose voice is it: the writer’s or the editor’s?

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  7. says

    Great article. I went through and wrote book club questions for my book and it was a lot of fun.

    I didn’t actually do it until after the book was out, but one of the more fun things I did was went to an actual book club where my book was the topic. As the author, you’re so close to the story that you may not realize something is a big deal in the readers’ minds until you’re with readers. In my book’s case, one character makes a big sacrifice for another and I simply viewed it as that character’s personality. But, the book club people were like, “She was such a good friend; Do you have any friends you’d do that for?” It generated such great discussion that I used it as a book club question.

    Again, great thoughts on book club questions.
    RJ Crayton´s last blog post ..Gatekeeping is Dead … and Other Book Festival Tidbits

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  8. says

    This is really helpful. With all the things a writer has to prepare before launching a book, aside from writing that next one, it’s easy to overlook something as basic as this. Thanks for the reminder of how important this step is!

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  9. says

    Book clubs are great, but I’d be wary of having an author write his or her own book club questions for publication. If you’re not careful, they can come across as pretentious. For example, here are a few questions found at the end of Where’d You Go, Bernadette.

    Bernadette often behaves as if she is an outsider. Do you think she is? If so, do you think her feelings of being an outsider are self-imposed, or is she truly different from the other members of her community? Do you ever feel like an outsider?

    The book has a very playful structure. Do you think it works? Why do you think the author chose it rather than a more straightforward, traditional structure? Think about other books with unusual structures and how their formats influenced your reading experience.

    Where’d You Go, Bernadette is, at its core, a story about a woman who disappears, both literally and figuratively. Were you able to relate to the book? How and why? Do you feel Bernadette’s disappearance was unique, or do all women, in a sense, disappear into motherhood and marriage?

    Are these questions for a discussion with friends, or essay prompts for English 101? The tone is very condescending, and they’re written in a way that feeds the “right” conclusion to the reader. (Who would have the guts to say, “No, that’s BS” to the last question in front of a room full of other women?) I wasn’t a fan of this book in the first place, but after reading these questions at the end, my reaction grew from tepid “Meh, it wasn’t for me” to active dislike. I don’t like being spoken to like I’m a child who needs hand-holding to interpret a book “correctly.”

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  10. says

    Do you think that it makes a difference whether or not the questions are in the back of the book? To avoid alienating readers like Tamara, maybe starting this discussion on Amazon would be better. There is a specific section at the bottom of the page where you can either add to an existing discussion or start one. That way those that are interested can respond, and those that are adverse to it can ignore it and not feel intruded upon and patronized.
    Rebecca Vance´s last blog post ..ANNOUNCEMENT: CONTEST #2 ENTRIES

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  11. says

    Confession time. Kathleen Grissom is a dear friend. I’ve heard her speak many times about how much time she spends courting book clubs. She’s sold well over 500k copies through word of mouth. Try doing the math to see how many she has to speak to EVERY week to maintain her growth. Her book came out in 2010. A year or so later, she hit the NYT best seller list and stayed there for 37 weeks.

    What Kathy did was good old-fashioned hard work. She contacted libraries. She asked them to recommend her book to the clubs each supported. She visited, called or Skyped in. She wrote hand written thank you notes afterwards.

    She didn’t do any of the gimmicks on social media. In fact, she barely has a footprint, but she has manners and uses them.

    Her questions helped me frame mine.

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  12. Hilary says

    I belong to a book club, and I have to say, if we “do” a book with “book club questions” in the back, we usually ignore them – because – all too often they read like school English homework! Or we read them through, and say “Nah, that’s too much like school.”
    So please – avoid the “Discuss the character of X” or “Discuss the themes …” sort of questions. They can come over as very patronizing.

    The ones I like from the “generic questions” list are 1, 4, 7, 8 9 and 10, i.e. the ones that are about the readers’ reaction, rather than just about the book. People join book clubs to have a social life, as well as to read books, and anything that allows people to use the book as a way of getting to know each other better, or as an opportunity to express their opinions, will help build the group. On the other hand, don’t go TOO far into the realms of personal experiences – remember it’s a book club, not a therapy group!

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  13. Carmel says

    I fried my computer, so I didn’t get a chance to respond sooner, but want to thank you for sharing the ten book club questions. Will be saving.

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