Showing posts with label book clubs. Show all posts
Showing posts with label book clubs. Show all posts

Author Lessons from the Past: Oprah's Book Club



Lessons from the Past


When Oprah Tolled the Bell for Her

Book Club 



By Carolyn Howard-Johnson


Once upon a time not so very long ago,news reverberated not only through the literary book community but throughout the entire book world. The first message I read was cryptic: Oprah would no longer recommend book titles on a monthly basis. I was devastated.  I wanted to know more.

I turned to The New York Times.

Oprah was quoted: “It has become harder and harder to find books on a monthly basis that I feel absolutely compelled to share…”  Now I was just plain confused.

Did Oprah mean it was harder because there are none out there to choose from? 

I can’t believe that. If rumors are true, her slush pile makes Mt. McKinley look puny. I visualize two floors of readers in a building the size Grand Central Station. Toiling nearby are young lit majors all, feverishly combing through what they “think” might impress Oprah enough for them to submit a recommendation. I see them as incredibly eager to please and not too keen on making mistakes; they naturally turn more and more to the recommendations of the time-honored publishing houses and reviewers and everyone knows those guys haven’t taken any risks on new authors for at least a couple of decades.

This of course, is my opinion, but I think if readers go back over her selections for the last few months before she quit way back then they might smell the same stagnant book-breath that I have: Jonathan Franzen of New Yorker, he of “most ungrateful artist of the year” fame, is among those chosen. So are at least three titles by Toni Morrison, at least two by Bill Cosby. Others include the totally “unknown names” of those times—Joyce Carol Oates, Isabel Allende, Maeve Binchy, Elizabeth Berg and Barbara Kingsolver. And, yes, those quotation marks connote irony. 

At first—you know—when it was easy to find “good” books—Oprah’s picks were authors of little renown. She chose novelists with important things to say and a unique way of saying them and didn’t give a T-tinkers darn who published the book or if the author’s name was known to anybody. It is said that her well-intentioned program became inundated with hopefuls. So are those the authors that come in such short supply these days of the indie-author craze? 

I’m sorry. I get diverted. I was saying that I am confused. Was finding a good book with a literary slant harder because books that fit Oprah’s priorities were becoming rarer? I happen to know that several large publishers of the time (then called embarrassingly “vanity” publishers, a term that reeks of #bookbigotry!) were flooding her offices with boxes full of their mostly poorly edited books as part of a “promotional program” they charged unsuspecting authors upward of $300 to present to her. It was unlikely, but there might have been a real diamond among the unformed hunks of carbon in those boxes! Unformed hunks with poorly designed covers by the cartsful would not have attract her attention or even the attentions of her those assigned to find the best available in the pool of new talent. 

To my knowledge, Oprah did not open those boxes. I certainly hope she did not mean that books of worth were not out there, then or now. I prefer to believe—after all, she has done for readin’ and writin’—that she is saying that her book selection program got out of hand. It was too expensive, to unwieldy, too fraught with personalities and personal agendas–to put up with it anymore. That is what I hope she was saying.

The reason I long for that interpretation is that I think she was doing the right thing and I would like the literary world to focus on that, not on the idea that she has no confidence in America’s pool of new talent. I would like the publishers and reviewers and readers to consider what she may very have well seen for herself—that the club had, in the last few months, lost the discovery quality it once had. It certainly wasn’t only the Franzen snafu. Each time a new selection was announced, I rather absently wondered where all the new blood, the new themes, the special warmth had gone. Her choices seemed to throw up the bylines of those we had already seen, those who needed no more  exposure than they already had (see the list above). It had been a long time since an obscure press or name appeared on her list and I don’t think it is because none of them had published worthy books.

In other words, Oprah was selecting books that her audience needed no “help” in finding. These were books that would have made it to the New York Times list on the momentum of their authors’ names and their publishers’ names alone—no help was needed from Oprah, thank you.

So if the expense and red tape of Oprah’s program got out of hand, and the service she was providing was deteriorating to more of the same provided by every other top ten list in the country, then she exercised the same savvy aptitude for decision making that has propelled her to the top of her field. If she is saying, “This is enough. It isn’t doing what it is supposed to do,” then I applaud her.

Trouble is, the industry missed Oprah and so do those few outstanding authors out there twisting in the wind—the ones who, without the Book Club’s support (as it was originally conceived)—will never, ever be discovered. 

I understand Oprah is back again, though it doesn’t seem she is as active as she was. Let’s just say she may have missed the best time to shoutout the good books that might have done some great good in trying times. Or we can say that what has been said before. American Greed got the best of us. We are all at fault. Desperate authors looking for the easiest way to be recognized. Celebrities like Oprah doing the best they could but missing the perseverance quotient. And some really spammy publishers who finished off the glowing possibilities of discovery we all hoped for. 


More About This #WritersontheMove Contributor

Carolyn Howard-Johnson brings her experience as a publicist, journalist, marketer, editor, and retailer to the advice she gives in her HowToDoItFrugally Series of books for writers and the many classes she taught for nearly a decade as instructor for UCLA Extension’s world-renown Writers’ Program. She is celebrating the release of the third edition of “The Frugal Editor” in her HowToDoItFrugally Series of books published by Modern History Press, with more on the way. The first and second editions of that book won awards from USA Book News, Readers’ Views Literary Award, the marketing award from Next Generation Indie Books and the coveted Irwin award. The new edition is full of updates and the stuff the publishing world keep throwing at us authors--the new stuff you need to know. She loves #SharingwithWriters anywhere she can find them. Thank you, #WritersontheMove! 



NYTs Best Seller's List or Book Club?

In this profession, they say you've made it when you are on the NYTs Best Seller's list, or at least in the top 100 on that list.  But what if you were to get your book or books as part of a book club discussion?  Do you think that is "making it"? 

I recently attended a "Reluctant YA Readers" book club (a group of adults who don't want to admit they read YA but do anyway - lol) at the local library.  I really enjoyed the discussion, even though I hadn't read the selected read for the month.  After the group left, I spent some time talking with the librarian who heads up the reading clubs.  My book, FINALLY HOME, will be either the book selected for the October reading or I may end up on a different day just to have my own book event with the ability of being able to sell my book.  The hope is that the second story in the series, THE TIES OF TIME, will be completed and published, so I can sell both books at the same time.

To me, it's not necessarily the NYTs best seller's list, but it means I have finally made it.  I'm making a name for myself, starting locally and building a readership and hopefully that will lead to word of mouth sales, which in turn will eventually lead to NYTs Best Seller's list, not that that has really been goal since publishing my first story.  It's a nice little perk.

Eight years from the first story being published online after taking a shared 2nd place to the present, putting my book out there for the librarian to put my books out in the face of the public.  I've not pushed my books in the last couple of years as much as I did when I first got published, but now I feel it is time to really step it up and put more effort into getting my stories completed and published and maybe shoot for the stars - the NYTs Best Seller's List.

This is an encouragement note, as Heidi's was a couple of days ago.  It doesn't matter the route you take to get there, just keep at it and persevere and you will get there.  Reach for the top rung!!

Elysabeth Eldering
Finally Home (A Kelly Watson, YA, paranormal mystery) - available in print, ebook, and as an audiobook
The Ties of Time (A Kelly Watson, YA, paranormal mystery - coming soon)
Elysabeth's Writing Blog

Book Clubs for Writers and Other Readers

Two members from my local writers group and I are forming a book club. We decided to get together to read books on the craft of writing because we all own books on writing that we haven’t gotten around to reading yet. (I mentioned something about that last month.J) We also have lists of books we would like to buy or borrow. In addition, the book club will offer more opportunities for socializing and improve leadership and organizational skills.

We are all involved in the process of writing for children, but books about other kinds of writing may also be read and discussed.  Mixing it up will make the meetings more interesting.

Book clubs cover many kinds of genres, such as history, romance, science fiction, etc. Some book clubs meet face-to-face, others are online. Some clubs are more intellectual, some are more social.

If you are thinking of starting a book club, the following should be considered.

  • Why start or join a book club? Perhaps a bunch of friends or a church group wishes to start a club.
  • What kind of book club do you want? What is the purpose of the club? Book clubs are great for getting to know people better, to spend more time with like-minded people, to learn about new authors and ideas, etc.
  • What is the name of the club? For example, you might want to choose a name that’s related to the locale where you live or is related to the genre that you will be reading.
  • How often will the club meet and when? Book clubs usually meet monthly, but some don’t get together over the summer. For longer books, club members may gather every 6 weeks.  Meetings can be held during the week or on weekends, in the morning, for lunch or dinner, or early evening.  
  • How long will the meetings be? A set amount of time should be allotted for socializing, business matters and book discussion.
  • Where will the club meet? Restaurants, book stores, libraries, and members’ homes are popular locations.
  • How many members will the club have? Each member could ask other people to join. Prospective members can be interviewed.  A small group, from 8 to 16 members, should be sufficient.
  • What books will members read? Each member can bring a list of book suggestions or reviews of books to get ideas. It’s ok to choose two or three books at a time to read in the upcoming months.  Some clubs read more than one genre.  Some clubs have a price limit or a limit on the number of pages. If books are to be borrowed, talk to a local library to see if enough copies can be obtained.
  • Who chooses what books to read? Each member takes a different month, and then suggests three titles. Members vote on which book to read. Or members take turns choosing a book for everyone to read each month.
  • Are guides available for the book the club is reading? Some websites, such as, have reading guides. Or write your own guide.  Also check publisher’s websites for reading guides.
  • Who will lead the meeting? Will it be the person who suggested the book or someone else? Perhaps each member would like to have the opportunity to take charge of a meeting and lead the discussion.
  • How many questions should the group ask? Each member should write two or three questions or list two or three book passages for discussion.
  • Who will keep a record of books that the club has read? Summaries, discussion highlights, and opinions are important and they will help new members see what the club has done previously.
  • Will members eat special dishes or use props that pertain to the book that is being read? Foods and decor may add to the enjoyment and understanding of the story.
  • How should the discussion go? Make sure everyone gets to contribute to the discussion during the meeting. Give each member their time to speak.  Everyone should feel welcome to share their opinions.
  • If some members don’t read the book or don’t finish it, will they be invited to attend the meeting? They may have something to contribute, so this is something that should be discussed.
  • How will you get new members? How will you advertise the club? You may need to expand your club or replace members who leave. Not everyone will be able to attend every meeting, but you want a large enough group for a healthy and lively discussion.
  • How do members keep in touch? Email, a website, and social media are ways to communicate.  All members should have a club list with contact information.

For our book club, it’s just the three of us for now. We may ask others to join later.  There are at least four writer’s groups in town, so it’s possible we will be able to expand our membership. 

Some helpful websites to get you started on forming a book club:

Book Glutten is a new kind of virtual book club. It uses Facebook.

This is an excellent website on how to start a book club.

This is a book club in a box.  One could do something similar with other books.

If your club wants to read books on the craft of writing, here is a list of suggestions.

If you have an E-reader, you may find this article helpful.

Reading Group Guides, an online community for reading groups.

Lit Lovers – free classes, recipes and more.

Book Group Registry - free to join, book club/group tips, etc.

Are you a member of a book club?  Feel free to post your opinions here.

Debbie A. Byrne has a B.S. in Mass Communication with a minor in History. She is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and is working on her first children’s book.

Is your Novel Attractive to Reading Groups/Clubs?

There are as many types of book clubs as there are people to belong to them. When setting up a book club, one should keep in mind one's target audience and adjust things to suit their needs. The purpose of a book club is to read the book and have fun discussing it with each other.

Genre-Specific Clubs: Book clubs are comprised of people who enjoy reading. Some clubs' members are more like-minded than you would find in a basic book club. These clubs are the genre-specific clubs, whose members prefer to read in one topic area.

One City-One Book Club: Rochelle Township High School in Rochelle, IL, is attempting the "One City/One Book" program for the first time. All high school students, staff, and eighth graders from the middle school will read Irene Hunt's No Promises in the Wind. Here are some basic steps that high school librarian Debby Van Dyke has followed to pull the program together, based on the success of other programs across the nation.

1. Van Dyke recruited faculty members from many departments to read many books over the summer. After three meetings of intense debate, No Promises in the Wind was selected due to its readability and the treatment of parent/child relationships. The railroad theme was another benefit, as Rochelle is a major railroad hub.

2. Van Dyke secured the support of the administration through the school's North Central Accreditation goals. The principal has agreed that everyone will stop work to read for at least 5 minutes a day.

3. Van Dyke secured funding through local businesses and organizations so that the books will be free to all student readers. She has also applied for several grants.

4. Committee members have planned enrichment activities for both the school day and at night. Guest speakers and demonstrations are planned. Speech classes will visit local nursing homes to interview residents about the Great Depression. Art classes are involved in the planning as well.

5. A cross-curricular group of faculty members is writing discussion questions to be discussed in the same class period once a week. By keeping the same discussion groups, Van Dyke hopes that even reluctant students will become comfortable participants by the end of the program.

6. Members of the community may pick up copies of the book in the high school library.

7. The editor of the local paper wrote an article in support of the program, where he challenged the community to get involved. The area association of realtors is distributing copies of the book to new community members.

On-Line Book Clubs: A listserv book club is an email list that discusses elements of the book. Users subscribe to the listserv by e-mail, specifying which list they would like to join. BR_Cafe is a listserv for kids hosted by Western Carolina University; click here to see subscription details.

Public Library Book Clubs: Because public libraries have such a wide patron base, they are able to offer variety in the kinds of book clubs that they sponsor. One club cannot please everyone, so clubs within the different departments address the interests and needs of the patrons. Librarians provide their expertise in book selection, while some library foundations provide free copies of the books.

School Book Clubs: Many schools have book clubs in which both students and teachers participate. These clubs often have a theme such as banned books or mysteries. The book club provides an interesting place for students to share their opinions about books with teachers in the absence of a classroom setting.

Although it's impossible to select a book to please everyone, there are some suggestions to consider when selecting a book for the school book club:

1. What is the reading level of the students? The book club is intended to be fun, but a truly difficult word might me more challenging than fun.

2. What are the interests of the students? If students are allowed to offer their suggestions, they will feel greater ownership of the group.

3. For what age/maturity range is this book club? A fifth grader may not enjoy topics that an eighth grader finds fascinating, while a freshman may not be mature enough to handle a work that challenges a college-bound senior.

4. Are there any special curricular themes we could tie in? During Red Ribbon Week, the club might read a book about drug abuse. During Latino History Month, the club might read a book by Sandra Cisneros.

Example of Book Club Questions:

The Secret Life of Bees

Set in the American South in 1964, the year of the Civil Rights Act and intensifying racial unrest, Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees is a powerful story of coming-of-age, of the ability of love to transform our lives, and the often unacknowledged longing for the universal feminine divine. Addressing the wounds of loss, betrayal, and the scarcity of love, Kidd demonstrates the power of women coming together to heal those wounds, to mother each other and themselves, and to create a sanctuary of true family and home.


1.      Were you surprised to learn that T. Ray used to be different, that once he truly loved Deborah? How do you think Deborah's leaving affected him? Did it shed any light on why T. Ray was so cruel and abusive to Lily?

2.      Had you ever heard of "kneeling on grits"? What qualities did Lily have that allowed her to survive, endure, and eventually thrive, despite T. Ray?

3.      Who is the queen bee in this story?

4.      Lily's relationship to her dead mother was complex, ranging from guilt to idealization, to hatred, to acceptance. What happens to a daughter when she discovers her mother once abandoned her? Is Lily rightwould people generally rather die than forgive? Was it harder for Lily to forgive her mother or herself?

5.      Lily grew up without her mother, but in the end she finds a house full of them. Have you ever had a mother figure in your life who wasn't your true mother? Have you ever had to leave home to find home?

6.      What compelled Rosaleen to spit on the three men's shoes? What does it take for a person to stand up with conviction against brutalizing injustice? What did you like best about Rosaleen?

7.      Had you ever heard of the Black Madonna? What do you think of the story surrounding the Black Madonna in the novel? How would the story be different if it had been a picture of a white Virgin Mary? Do you know women whose lives have been deepened or enriched by a connection to an empowering Divine Mother?

8.      Why is it important that women come together? What did you think of the "Calendar Sisters" and the Daughters of Mary? How did being in the company of this circle of females transform Lily?

9.      May built a wailing wall to help her come to terms with the pain she felt. Even though we don't have May's condition, do we also need "rituals," like wailing walls, to help us deal with our grief and suffering?

10.  How would you describe Lily and Zach's relationship? What drew them together? Did you root for them to be together?

11.  Project into the future. Does Lily ever see her father again? Does she become a beekeeper? A writer? What happens to Rosaleen? What happens to Lily and Zach? Who would Zach be today?

I don’t know about you, but book clubs intrigue me. As I finish my first novel, Winnie’s War, I’m going to keep in mind how it would fit into various reading clubs. I’m going to create questions in the appendix for clubs to use.

Recently I discovered that you can set up a book club on Goodreads! What ideas do you have about getting your books into book clubs?
Author Bio:
Award winning author, Kathy Stemke, has a passion for writing, the arts and all things creative. She has Bachelor degrees from Southern Connecticut State University and Covenant Life Seminary, as well as graduate coursework from New York Institute of Technology and Columbia University. Hanging her hat in the North Georgia Mountains, she has been a teacher, tutor, and writer for many years.
As a freelance writer and ghostwriter, Kathy has published hundreds of articles in directories, websites and magazines. She is a reviewer for Sylvan Dell Publishing and a former editor for The National Writing for Children Center. As a retired teacher, Kathy has several activities published with Gryphon House Publishing. Kathy is also part of the team at DKV Writing 4 U, a writing services company that includes ghostwriting, copywriting, editing, proofreading, critiquing, and resumes.
Kathy’s first children’s picture book, Moving Through All Seven Days, was published on Lulu. Her next two picture books, Sh, Sh, Sh Let the Baby Sleep, and Trouble on Earth Day were released in 2011.  These two books were awarded the Classic Literary Seal of Approval. Visit her book blog at
Mrs.Stemke offers great teaching tips and children’s book reviews as well as a monthly newsletter titled, MOVEMENT AND RHYTHM, on her blog.

Don’t Depend 100% on Your Publisher

By Terry Whalin (@terrywhalin) In 2007, America’s Publicist Rick Frishman invited me to participate on the faculty of MegaBook Marketing Uni...