Virtual Book Club: How to Start an Engaged, Online Club From Your Couch

April 9 2020
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Here at Off the Shelf, we love book club. We love gathering in someone’s home or in a coffeeshop, and talking with our friends about books, drinking wine, eating good food, and laughing about life. But we also realize sometimes it’s not always possible to meet in person. Sometimes we want to do these things with friends who live far away. Our solution? Remote book club! Whether you want to continue your in-person book club during social distancing, or if you’ve been considering starting a club from your couch for some time, here are our best tips for launching and running a virtual book club.  

1. Find a communication and coordination website or platform 

First, we recommend finding a digital space where you and your group can communicate, vote on picks, and coordinate discussion dates. There are several options for doing this, such as a Facebook group, or through dedicated book club organizational websites, like Bookclubz or Book Movement. Or, if you prefer, email works just fine as well. Here at Simon & Schuster, we use a Facebook group for our virtual book club, Book Club Favorites. Using a Facebook group allows participants to designate privacy settings, invite members to join, discuss all month long in the feed, and use voting to pick dates and titles for the group’s next read. Many book club organization websites, like the aforementioned, offer similar functions and permit club invites via email. These sites help to keep track of what titles you’ve read, allow future title suggestions, permit voting, and assist in meeting scheduling.

2. Pick a name for your book club  

Once you’ve identified where you can coordinate and communicate, pick a name for your group! I was in a club called “Bibliobabes” for some time. Get creative! You can be thematic, straightforward, or punny.

3. Consider keeping it small  

Before sending out the invites to your club, think about your ideal club size.  One of our staff members has been in a remote book club for some time, and recommends keeping it small: she says it helps scheduling and rescheduling meetings easier to manage. With a small book club size, you’ll also find there is a greater chance that everyone has read the book by meeting time. 

4. Decide on a video platform to use for your virtual meetings  

Ask your fellow remote clubbers which platform they prefer to use for virtual meetings. There are a ton of options. A few we’ve used include: Google Hangouts, Skype, Zoom, and Facebook messenger. Each platform has its own positives and limitations, so you’ll need to discuss with your members which works best for everyone. We recommend determining this in advance of choosing a book, so the framework for your club is in place before the fun part begins.  

5. Select a book and discussion date  

Next, pick a book! If you plan to alternate which member chooses, set up a rotation and let the first member pick the book. Have them announce it on your discussion forum. If you vote as a group, ask for a few recommendations, and then set up the digital vote. Once you’ve decided on a book to read, pick the discussion date and time that you will all meet on your designated video chat platform.

6. Ask questions or share thoughts all month long  

To stay connected with your club as you lead up to discussion date by posting your thoughts and questions. In Book Club Favorites, we ask our members throughout the month for their thoughts and opinions, and we also post several reminders about the discussion date. Our members also share bookish articles and the titles of other books they’re reading. While you’re reading your book club’s pick, find insightful quotes you come across, and share them with your fellow clubbers. Call for a “favorite character” vote mid-way through the book. Maybe set up a “read along” schedule so you stay roughly within the same section of the book throughout the month. We find that continual, digital conversation helps us stay connected even when we’re physically apart. 

7. On your designated meeting day, get comfy, crack open a bottle of vino and cheers!  

Find a comfy spot in your house to settle into; someplace you can talk for an hour or two without too much distraction. Ask what everyone is drinking and eating. Regardless of what you are sipping or nibbling on, take a moment at the beginning of the virtual meeting to cheers each other and check in, the same way you would at an in-person book club.

8. Use the provided discussion questions from the book’s publisher to generate conversation  

Many publishers pull together reading group or discussion guides for their books. These are created specifically with clubs in mind, and they’re often available on the publishers’ websites or on ReadingGroupGuides. These are very helpful in sparking and guiding conversation, and often help you find different ways of thinking about the book and its characters.   

9. Pick the next book before the meeting ends, or immediately after 

We find it helpful to mention the next book (or possible options) and upcoming discussion dates before closing out the meeting. Discuss who will be choosing, or if it calls for a vote, remind members to cast their opinions before a certain date. Doing so before closing out your discussion will keep book club at the front of everyone’s minds while keeping the momentum going.

We know from experience that virtual book clubs are just as rewarding as in-person clubs. Even through digital discussions, we can build community and feel connected to other readers. We hope your virtual book club is a success and as thoroughly enjoyable as we know ours to be! If you’re looking for a few books to get started with, here are a few we highly recommend:  

The Island of Sea Women
by Lisa See

Lisa See’s latest came out in paperback last month, and is our new obsession. It’s a mesmerizing historical fiction novel about two young friends from different backgrounds living on a small Korean Island, who begin an exciting life together working with their village’s all-female diving team. Spanning the course of many decades, the story follows the two girls as they grow into women who soon cannot ignore their differences, and it pushes their friendship to the limit. It’s a truly masterful tale with plenty to discuss.  

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The Island of Sea Women
Lisa See


“A mesmerizing new historical novel” (O, The Oprah Magazine) from Lisa See, the bestselling author of The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, about female friendship and devastating family secrets on a small Korean island.

Mi-ja and Young-sook, two girls living on the Korean island of Jeju, are best friends who come from very different backgrounds. When they are old enough, they begin working in the sea with their village’s all-female diving collective, led by Young-sook’s mother. As the girls take up their positions as baby divers, they know they are beginning a life of excitement and responsibility—but also danger.

Despite their love for each other, Mi-ja and Young-sook find it impossible to ignore their differences. The Island of Sea Women takes place over many decades, beginning during a period of Japanese colonialism in the 1930s and 1940s, followed by World War II, the Korean War, through the era of cell phones and wet suits for the women divers. Throughout this time, the residents of Jeju find themselves caught between warring empires. Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator. Young-sook was born into a long line of haenyeo and will inherit her mother’s position leading the divers in their village. Little do the two friends know that forces outside their control will push their friendship to the breaking point.

“This vivid…thoughtful and empathetic” novel (The New York Times Book Review) illuminates a world turned upside down, one where the women are in charge and the men take care of the children. “A wonderful ode to a truly singular group of women” (Publishers Weekly), The Island of Sea Women is a “beautiful story…about the endurance of friendship when it’s pushed to its limits, and you…will love it” (Cosmopolitan).

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Mrs. Everything
by Jennifer Weiner

Our Book Club Favorites selection for April is Jennifer Weiner’s best-selling multigenerational novel about the lives of two sisters. It begins when they are children in 1950s Detroit, and follows them through the decades as they search for their places in an ever-evolving world. We see them through adolescence, adulthood, and motherhood, and often saw our own sisters, mothers, and daughters reflected in their various stages of life. It’s relevant, timely, and emotional story we will be talking about for years to come.  

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Mrs. Everything
Jennifer Weiner

In this instant New York Times bestseller and “multigenerational narrative that’s nothing short of brilliant” (People), two sisters’ lives from the 1950s to the present are explored as they struggle to find their places—and be true to themselves—in a rapidly evolving world from #1 New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Weiner.

Jo and Bethie Kaufman were born into a world full of promise.

Growing up in 1950s Detroit, they live in a perfect “Dick and Jane” house, where their roles in the family are clearly defined. Jo is the tomboy, the bookish rebel with a passion to make the world more fair; Bethie is the pretty, feminine good girl, a would-be star who enjoys the power her beauty confers and dreams of a traditional life.

But the truth ends up looking different from what the girls imagined. Jo and Bethie survive traumas and tragedies. As their lives unfold against the background of free love and Vietnam, Woodstock and women’s lib, Bethie becomes an adventure-loving wild child who dives headlong into the counterculture and is up for anything (except settling down). Meanwhile, Jo becomes a proper young mother in Connecticut, a witness to the changing world instead of a participant. Neither woman inhabits the world she dreams of, nor has a life that feels authentic or brings her joy. Is it too late for the women to finally stake a claim on happily ever after?

In “her most sprawling and intensely personal novel to date” (Entertainment Weekly), Jennifer Weiner tells a “simply unputdownable” (Good Housekeeping) story of two sisters who, with their different dreams and different paths, offer answers to the question: How should a woman be in the world?

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by Layne Fargo

TEMPER is a twisting tale of sex, lies, and ambition, making this a great pick for thriller clubs and thriller lovers. The main players in the book are Kira, the new star of a controversial play, Malcom Mercer, the director, and the theater cofounder, Joanna. Told from the alternating perspectives of Kira and Joanna, the two women explore their relationship with Malcolm and uncover disturbing truths about him and each other. Power struggles, romantic entanglements, and pushing psychological boundaries create the perfect storm, which ends with a single shocking wave. If you want to talk about ambition and shocking endings, look no further.  

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Layne Fargo

For fans of the high-stakes tension of the New York Times bestsellers Luckiest Girl Alive and The Lying Game, comes “a brilliantly paced thriller that gets under your skin in the best possible way” (Megan Collins, author of The Winter Sister) about female ambition and what happens when fake violence draws real blood.

After years of struggling in the Chicago theater scene, ambitious actress Kira Rascher finally lands the role of a lifetime. The catch? The mercurial Malcolm Mercer is the director and he’s known for pushing his performers past their limits—on stage and off.

Kira’s convinced she can handle Malcolm, but the theater’s cofounder, Joanna Cuyler, is another story. Joanna sees Kira as a threat—to her own thwarted artistic ambitions, her twisted relationship with Malcolm, and the shocking secret she’s keeping about the upcoming production. But as opening night draws near, Kira and Joanna both come to the realization that Malcolm’s dangerous extremes are nothing compared to what they’re capable of themselves.

An edgy, addictive, and fiendishly clever tale of ambition, deceit, and power suited for fans of the film Black Swan, Temper “revels in its mind games, delivering twist after twist as it races toward a Shakespearian climax. The final page will leave you gasping” (Amy Gentry, author of Last Woman Standing).

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