Book groups are a massive force in the book world - but also a mystery. We don’t even know how many exist. Reading Groups for Everyone (which is part of The Reading Agency) has collated a list of 10,000 online and offline book groups in the UK. But academic surveys suggest that the real figure might be closer to 50,000.
It also isn’t possible to know what book groups actually read. We can check online to find out what celebrity-led clubs are recommending but what of all those others whose existence is not recorded? Whether based in libraries, private homes, offices, prisons or old people’s homes, many of them operate under the public radar.
Numbers of online book groups are also rapidly increasing. New technology has made it possible for everyone to access the community of their choice. With literary festivals and book launches being cancelled due to the virus, groups are proliferating through Twitter, Zoom and WhatsApp; Robert McFarlane's #covirusreading and Yiyun Li's #tolstoytogether are just two examples.
I myself often visit book groups, so I was intrigued when last summer I received a call from Matt Holland, who runs the Swindon Book Festival, to ask if I might like to write a short story for a book group based in Swindon. ‘I find it frustrating,’ he said. ‘At reading groups, readers often ask about the publishing process. They want to know whether the writer or the editor decides [how the book turns out].’
I recognised the problem and was intrigued by his desire to hand the editing and publishing process over to a book group. But was his idea new? Writers may once have inhabited ivory towers, or freezing garrets, but not any more. The online platform Wattpadd offers readers the opportunity to comment on stories as they are developed and boasts 80 million members worldwide. Some writers release early drafts to a community of beta readers; others consult on titles or crowdfund characters’ names.
But what Matt was proposing was a face-to-face project and, having crowdfunded three books through Unbound, I was keen to see what a longer term engagement with readers might achieve. My initial meeting with the group was positive, but their reading tastes were also incredibly varied. O’Henry, Katherine Mansfield, Thomas Hardy, Saki, Borges. Wonderful - but how could I appeal to so many different audiences?
My worries increased when I started to write. My story did not accord with any of the groups’ preferences. Then came the ‘editorial meeting.’ There we were, all shut up in a room together. No option to simply ‘like’ or not, no possibility of making a comment and then leaving. We had no choice but to get down to the details of the text.
So busy were we - discussing, explaining and debating - that we hardly noticed that some strange alchemy had entered the process. Regardless of their diverse preferences, the group were no longer consumers but creators, and that gave them a sense of ownership, a stake in its success. The story we created together, A Saint in Swindon, should have been launched as part of the Swindon Spring Festival... but that has inevitably been cancelled. Nevertheless, our brave publisher Fairlight are pressing ahead with publication; our story asks questions about what reading can do for us in times of adversity and has become relevant in ways we could never have predicted.
So what did I learn from the project? Firstly, that book groups can be a valuable part of the creative process, and that the ‘average’ reader is always bolder, braver and more discerning than we expect. So is there a way that both readers and writers can engage more fully with such groups?
Writers often attend book groups - but should publishers do the same? Publishers could certainly survey them, carry out polls or use members as beta readers. Workplace book groups could also offer valuable feedback and it may be relatively easy to contact them. Specialist book groups, which focus on subjects ranging from the environment to feminism, could be a prime testing ground for presses that align with their interests, or marketers looking to create buzz around a particular title. From one-off events to longer-term collaborations, the opportunities are rife - and, I think, under-explored.
Since the face-to-face element was certainly what made our project so exciting, literary festivals could also play a key role (even if they are currently restricted to online). Most festivals programme book group-type events but these usually discuss finished work. Could festivals become an engine for the creation of new work which is community owned? Certainly, the group I worked with loved having a story about their town and are doing all they can to spread the word.
Working more ambitiously with book groups will require both authors and publishers to see them less as consumers and more as collaborators and creators. That's a challenging proposition - but in my experience, developing such relationships can be enormously rewarding.