I launched my memoir, Under the Birch Tree, ten months ago. My book events have wound down and are now inching along in pace with the spring weather. I recently attended three book club events in the past couple of months, and I was surprised at what I learned from them.
Book club events are underrated and I underestimated my participation in them. Sure, I knew I would enjoy talking with readers who would share in equal parts enthusiasm and discussion of a book’s story as would I. But I also discovered that book club members are like a concentrated, organic focus group. They can provide knowledge to an author about their book and him or herself they may not have known.
Ernest Hemingway once said,
“When people talk, listen completely. Don’t be thinking what you’re going to say. “You should be able to go into a room and when you come out know everything that you saw there and not only that. If that room gave you any feeling, you should know exactly what was that gave you that feeling.”
As a memoir writer, I wanted to know if my reader recognized and understood my book’s themes. Think of “inquiring minds want to know.” Perhaps it was a secret test I placed incognito upon a select group of subjects to see what they’d say. Or maybe I was looking for validation, a rubber stamp to my debut attempt at book writing. I listened intently and learned the experiences my readers identified with most, how they connected to the story because of those experiences, and how I wrote them. I built upon that enthusiasm and trust, connected with people, and fostered a following. As they learned about me, the author behind the book, they were willing to write reviews and to recommend my book to friends and to additional book clubs. Their delight and excitement was contagious; their discussion affirming. I understood why I write.
David Berner, award-winning writer and journalist, wrote in a recent post how he found “home” through his writing. “Whatever it is that gives you joy can be a vehicle to finding your place in the world. Find out what that is in all of its forms and nuances and then own it—define it and make it wholly yours. Writing did this for me. Search for what does it for you and you’ll find your home.”
I found what did it for me, taking part in a discussion about my book’s home theme with a group of my readers.
The unexpected didn’t stop there. After members had their fill of asking me questions, it was my turn to ask questions. I likened it to Willie Nelson’s “You Show Me Yours (And I’ll Show You Mine).”
I asked, “What makes you pick up a book and want to read it? Is it the cover? How about the title? Do you read a book’s blurbs?” They told me they do consider a book’s cover and title but mostly, it’s the book’s synopsis that determines if they will buy the book. Most said they learn about a book from word of mouth or from Goodreads. Few read blurbs, others don’t bother with them. I saw the effect of word of mouth and of an online reading community—book clubs and Goodreads—can have on a book’s visibility as many members do recommend books to their friends.
Does an award-winning book tip the scales for you to buy it? Does a sticker on a front cover mean anything to you? All said they didn’t pay attention to any sticker on a book. They wouldn’t know the meaning of the book award or its significance to them. I did not expect this response. As an author, I could only wish for a shiny sticker slapped on my book’s cover, symbolic of my book being raised to a higher level of recognition and significance. But from a reader who might be interested in buying a book, they didn’t understand a sticker’s significance.
I was curious; did anyone see a book as autobiography or memoir? To them, there is no real distinction between the two and they don’t make one when choosing to buy a book. “Do you think Michelle Obama’s book, Becoming, is a memoir or autobiography?” They considered it a memoir because it was the message she was giving. “A memoir has a message. Her message was one of hope and your book was too.” I was no longer curious.
Book clubs should not go unrecognized for post publication events. They should be recognized for the value they can offer to an author. After all, an author has the undivided attention of a select group who has read your book.
This was an opportunity to learn more about my readers, to confirm any second-guessing I may have had about my book’s message, and to sift out what was important to me in my book’s presentation that may not be as important to a different author.
It’s also another way for an author to discover their place to be, their home.
What has been your experience with book clubs? Did you ask any questions of the members? Or did you just talk about your book and yourself, as an author?