Reading a book a week is nothing unusual for the members of the Girly Book Club. With more than 100,000 members worldwide, the Toronto-born group is the largest network of book clubs hosting in-person meetings in the world.
While the club votes monthly for one title that every member will read (the March pick was Christina Dalcher’s dystopian scifi novel Vox), members often share their favourites beyond these official GBC picks. “It’s like micro-influencing,” says GBC founder Erin Woodward.
Woodward started a unique partership between these engaged super readers and the publishers longing to court them: the Book Love Club, which gifts members with four or five books per month from publishers who’ve paid to enroll. The for-profit program launches in Canada in April with the participation of Simon & Schuster and Harlequin.
“You could spend all the advertising dollars in the world, and it still doesn’t mean as much as your friend saying, ‘You must read this book,’” says Craig Swinwood, CEO of Harlequin and HarperCollins Canada.
Book-club membership is on the rise. BookNet Canada’s November 2019 study, “Reading Together: Book Clubs in Canada,” found that seven per cent of book buyers belonged to a book club in 2018. Last year, that stat doubled to 14 per cent. And book-club members are ready to hear from publishers, with 56 per cent reporting that the reason they joined a book club was to be exposed to new books.
“Our community is exactly who [publishers] want to have a relationship with, and we’re the direct line to that,” says Daniela Kelloway, co-founder of BooknBrunch, a group that connects book-club hosts with venues, via its website or through an app. Each month, the BooknBrunch team suggests four books. Though the hosts are free to choose any book they wish, Kelloway has found BooknBrunch members are eager to accept their suggestions.
Last fall, when Kelloway and her co-founder, Zuzana Drakul – who is also Kelloway’s sister – held BooknBrunch events in cities across Canada, they selected Shonda Rhimes’s memoir, Year of Yes, as the book they would discuss. “All of these people in these cities went out and bought Year of Yes to show up at our event,” she says. “When I say this book, our community listens.” The sisters have started a first round of funding to raise capital to expand the program, which is already active in 40 cities in Canada, the U.S., and the U.K.
Penguin Random House Canada has opted to lead their own book club, highlighting popular Penguin titles such as Michelle Obama’s Becoming and Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age. The members meet for a monthly live chat on Penguin’s @penguinrandomca Twitter account using the #PenguinBookClub hashtag.
For its November pick, Thea Lim’s An Ocean of Minutes, Penguin held an event in its downtown Toronto headquarters that featured an onstage interview with the author. “We see it as a valuable way to connect directly with our readers and hear what they’re reading and how they in the book club are choosing what to read,” says Kaitlin Smith, publicity and marketing manager for paperbacks and audiobooks. PRHC also connects with grassroots book clubs by sharing free copies, arranging author appearances, and providing marketing materials.
The Toronto Public Library, Canada’s largest library system, hosted 14,800 members across 100 book-discussion groups in 2019. Buyers at the library consider publishers’ recommendations for titles that could be popular with various book clubs.
Gail MacFayden, one of the librarians in charge of the Readers’ Services department at the TPL, says a book club at the Yorkville branch was delighted when a publisher representative attended their event. “They loved hearing, ‘This would be a great book for your book club,’” she says. Last fall, the system held an event for all the book clubs in the system to come together to hear authors Alicia Elliott and Carrianne Leung speak. Publisher reps from Penguin Random House Canada and House of Anansi Press also spoke to the crowd of 300 about their upcoming books. “They wanted a list of the titles that the publishers spoke about and they were taking notes,” says Diana So, who also leads Readers’ Services.
While library systems are teeming with engaged book-club members, the library has a mandate to ensure that a variety of publishers are participating to avoid the appearance of favouritism. However, programming multiple publishers can be challenging. So believes it would be more achievable “if staff knew which publishers are willing to come.”
Simon & Schuster Canada’s vice-president of marketing and publicity, Felicia Quon, says that in addition to teaming up with the Girly Book Club the publisher is exploring other partnerships. S&S includes links on its website to authors who are open to attending book clubs and hosts book-club chats and contests on its social channels.
Perhaps the most compelling argument for publishers to nurture these connections is the potential to score exponential impressions. PRHC’s Smith says that when you build a relationship with a book club, the marketing message doesn’t just infiltrate one single club. “If they read a book and like it and they go out to their wider network, it just has this multiplying effect.”