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A Modest Proposal for Podcast Book Clubs

I’ll be upfront about this: I have never been part of a successful non virtual book club. My friend tried to start one in a pub in Clapham, South London, in 2012; we waited all afternoon but nobody from the Facebook invite turned up so we downed the “for the table” wine ourselves and I donated our chosen tome to the free shelf by the bus stop on the way home. I’ve always assumed that even when they do get off the ground they mostly go like the book club in the 2010 movie Date Night: one person (Steve Carell) will read the book cover to cover but nobody else (Tina Fey, Kristen Wiig, Mark Ruffalo) will bother, making proper literary discussion basically impossible.

I have, however, been the main organiser and an enthusiastic member of a podcast book club for just over a year now. I run it for the paying supporters’ club attached to my podcast Shedunnit, and every month we read a different mystery novel and discuss it. I make a bonus primer episode about the chosen book each month just for club members. The discussion takes place at the end of the month in a private Discourse forum, which both has the benefit of being asynchronous (so there’s no need to pick one night when everyone has to be free) and of fulfilling my nostalgic need to pretend I still live in the age of dial up. The tone of the book conversations is kind, respectful and knowledgeable, to an extent that they routinely give me warm fuzzy feelings about the internet as a force for good.

Now, this is by no means a revolutionary concept I’ve got here — I know there are plenty of other online book clubs out there in the world fighting this good fight. (Shouts to Well Read Black Girl and The Rumpus for being luminaries of this space.) But since in this time of lockdown and social distancing online book clubs are getting a lot of attention, I thought it was worth taking a look at where this intersects with podcasting.

There is suddenly a lot of interest in the potential for sharing literature online, especially through audio and video. I felt like for the first few weeks of isolation that you could barely move on social media without seeing a celebrity reading a book to their followers, for instance. Podcasts are part of this too, with Criminal’s Phoebe Judge reading a chapter of a mystery novel a day on this feed and British comedian Frank Skinner doing poetry here.

Pop up free audiobooks aside, articles about how to run your own online book club are suddenly everywhere. Being already part of this space from the podcast side, I was interested to see how others in audio might be responding to this trend. I spent a few days hunting through my various apps therefore, and while there are plenty of shows that bill themselves as “book clubs,” I found that a lot of them are clubs only in the loosest and most passive sense of the word. There are lots of shows where the hosts read a book and then record themselves discussing it, and perhaps even interview the authors of their chosen titles. And that’s great — there’s nothing wrong with a literary interview and discussion show. But in most of these cases, the experience of being in the “club” is really just the same as being a listener of any podcast. The sense of everyone sitting round to talk about a book together that is peculiar to a book club isn’t really there.

So, this is where my proposal comes in. I think, especially now when people are craving connection and routine, podcasts of all kinds should consider putting the “club” back in “book club”. Community moderation takes time, of course, and is not a task to be undertaken lightly. But there are lots of relatively low-stress ways to add this element, and you don’t necessarily have to be suddenly trying to host a Zoom session of 200 people with literary hot takes in order to have a go at this.

The much-touted intimacy of podcasting is already doing a good job of making people missing their socialising feel more connected, but offering an option for active participation in your show as well as the passive listening experience is both a service to your audience and a potential listener growth strategy. A core group of really engaged and loyal club members is far more likely to recommend your podcast to friends, and it’s a useful way to attract and reward supporters on a platform like Patreon or Memberful (the latter is what I use). I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but if you’d like to try this here are five guidelines based on what I’ve learned in my first year of podcast book clubbing.

Pick your platform. If a Discourse install is a bit too much to handle right now then Slack is a tool that I’ve seen used with success for book club discussion, as is a Facebook group. Even a Twitter hashtag can do the job in a pinch. You just need a way of separating your book discussion from general chatter that doesn’t also require members to jump through a lot of technical hoops to take part. You can run a live video chat for your club, of course, but I’ve personally found that a forum style conversation where members can drop in as and when they have time is more realistic for most people’s lives (including mine).

Make it opt in. Don’t spam your entire audience with your longform book thoughts. Only a diehard group of core fans are going to want to take part in this, so tell them where they can go to find it but don’t fill your whole show or social media presence up with book club business. If you’re going to allow listeners to leave voicemails with their book analysis, make a separate bonus episode to share them so that those who aren’t taking part don’t have to wade through that stuff to find the regular show.

Set a timetable and stick to it. I’m not good at this one, but I recognise the value of it! Think very carefully about how much time you have to invest in this, and then set the schedule accordingly. Don’t promise to do monthly author interviews if you don’t have the bandwidth for that. Maybe your audio element happens every other month, or is really short. My bonus book primer episodes are almost always under 10 minutes for this reason. Do open the discussion on the day you said you would and keep members informed about what’s coming up next.

Voting can be fun. Maybe you want to run your podcast book club as a benevolent dictatorship, and that’s just fine. I’ve found that introducing a democratic element is fun, though. In my club, we vote each month for the next title to read from a shortlist of suggestions from the group. This has the advantage of making it not my fault when someone’s favourite isn’t chosen, and also means that members have a stake in the club’s organisation.

Use audio creatively. The biggest advantage of doing a podcast book club over a regular one, I think, is that you can use an RSS feed for your club to distribute… any noises you want to make, basically. If you’re making the group exclusive to paying supporters (like I do) then a system like Patreon, Memberful, Glow or others will allow you to have a private podcast feed only for members’ ears. And you can put anything you like on it! Interviews, primers and essays are probably the most common choices, but you could also run listener voicemails, relevant bonus content from your main show or just the sound of your dog snoring at your feet while you read. Do some improv as the main character in this month’s book. Chat through a reading list inspired by a recent pick. Record yourself going for a socially distanced walk and talk about how you’re finding the book as you go. Having only a small group of really invested fellow readers listening is liberating and at the moment it feels really good to be part of something together. I can’t recommend it highly enough.