How to set up an online book club

Being part of a book club can result in new friends with common interests, and the formation of meaningful connections.

Image of a book being sent across instant message on a blue background
Image: Flynn Shore for Penguin

Reading is often thought of as a solitary activity, but for most book lovers, there's a desire to share  the joy of the written word with fellow bibliophiles.

Whether you're trying to get everyone you know to read the novel you've just inhaled, or (constructively) criticising a book you didn't get on with, talking about books can be as fun as reading them in the first place.

And there's no better time to become part of a book club than Mental Health Awareness Week, which this year has a theme of loneliness, and is encouraging people to  build meaningful connections with your friends, family, colleagues and communities.

Book clubs are also a great way of relieving loneliness, and of forming connections with new people, or strengthening existing relationships. But they can sometimes be intimidating, so to ease yourself in, why not join an online book club? And if there's not already one for you to join, the only answer is to set up your own.

Read on for our tips...

What is your book club for?

The first thing you need to ask yourself is why you want a book club. It might seem obvious that you want to talk about books, but there are still things to figure out. Ask yourself:

- do you want to discuss one book at a time, or is your book club about reading in general?

- are you a genre club, interested in only talking about romance novels, or biographies, for example?

- how much time do you want to devote to socialising and non-book talk?

A good way to decide on the type of book club you want is to visualise what you want to leave each meeting thinking. If you want a reading list of new books, perhaps your book club is a chance for people to come together and discuss their recent reads, but if you want to leave knowing what everyone has been up to recently, you’re probably looking at a book club that’s got a big element of socialising in it. But, remember, you can mix and match what you want from each meeting!

When setting up an online book club, start by thinking about what books you want to discuss. Image: Stuart Simpson
When setting up an online book club, start by thinking about what books you want to discuss. Image: Stuart Simpson

How many people do you need?

The next thing to think about is how many people you want to have in your book club. Meeting in person generally means you have a limit on numbers that's dictated by space, but an online book club can be as big as you want it to be, since technology will enable dozens of you to meet at once.

But the temptation to have an almost limitless number of people in your online book club should be resisted. When you're thinking about numbers, think again about what you want to achieve. If you want to have a serious discussion about a particular book, you'll probably want a smaller group of people who you know will definitely read the book and analyse it in the way you want. If your book club is more about sharing a general book list, then maybe you want a bigger group, with people able to dip in and out, rather than "gathering" at a certain time for a prescribed length of time.

And do you want the book club to be only people you know, or are you happy to open it up to strangers and online-only friends? The latter may be a good way to expand your reading list and go outside your book comfort zone, while if you're shy the former will mean you only have to interact with people you're already comfortable with. 

You might also like:

What technology should you use?

In some ways, the Covid-19 pandemic returned us to the days of pre-internet, forcing us to spend time connecting via phone calls or letters. In other ways though, the situation made us rely on new technology more than ever, with many of us finding that we're still spending our work days (and even our social lives) connecting via video conferencing apps and websites.

There are a number of options for your online book club, and you can even combine two or more if you think that's what's best.

You'll most easily be able to recreate the feel of an in-person book club if you can see the people you're talking to. Things like Zoom, FaceTime and Google Hangouts will allow you to see your book club, and are a great way to connect.

But maybe you're camera shy, in which case it's worth thinking about setting up a group on WhatsApp, or on Slack if you already use it for work, where your book club can hold its discussions. These options also work if all your members can’t "meet" at the same time – the discussion can continue even if you're not all present, and people can catch up on what's been talked about in their own time.

Discuss your lockdown reads at an online book club. Image: Stuart Simpson
Discuss your lockdown reads at an online book club. Image: Stuart Simpson

Your first meeting

Think of your first meeting as a pre-meeting, or a prologue if you will: use it to decide how you’ll operate going forward, rather than leaping straight into book club business.

Use a poll tool to find out what the best time and date is for everyone to "meet" for the first time (this will be a useful tool going forward as well). It's best to use a first gathering of your book club to get to know one another, and to set out clearly what is expected from the group. If you're nervous about socialising, perhaps pick a few questions everyone should answer in the meeting, and circulate them in advance so people can prepare and not feel put on the spot.

If you plan to discuss one book per meeting, this is also a great time to talk about how you’ll choose books: will everyone get a turn, or will you submit selections and then randomly pick one?

Follow up with an email, text or WhatsApp message after the first meeting, reiterating what you've discussed so everyone is clear, and confirm the date for your next meet up.

Talking about the book

Bear in mind – given that online meetings are here to stay, whether people are working from home or not – that some people may be relishing the opportunity to talk about something completely different to the conversations that make up the rest of their day, while others may be talked out and largely want to listen.

Make sure you have a few points of discussion ready, or a few questions that will kick off the chat, but don't worry if it meanders slightly. People may want to talk a bit more casually, and you should embrace that.

Go beyond discussions

Consider mixing discussion-based meetings with other acitivites, especially good if you want to try and decrease feelings of loneliness for yourself or others. 

Quizzes are a quick and easy way to get people laughing and having fun. Perhaps you or one (or more) of the members of your group could put together a quiz; an emoji quiz where people have to guess the titles of popular books is fun. Or you could use one of the quizzes on the Penguin site to begin or end each meeting.

Another way to share a love of books is to have a watch along of your favourite literary adaptation, whether that's of a Jane Austen book or something else. Pick a film or TV show, and agree a time when you'll all watch together, etiher discussing it as you go on something like WhatsApp, or using video conferencing to recreate a cinema feel. Just remember to have some popcorn to hand.

Most importantly, whatever you do, have fun!

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more