Let me start off by saying that I love being a guest author at book clubs. First, what makes a better party than a roomful of book lovers? Second, they've all read and loved my book, mostly. And last, there is always something yummy being served, usually chocolate and sometimes wine.
My first several experiences at book clubs were true love-fests and so much fun that I couldn't imagine anything that could sully the experience. I was wrong. Feel free to learn from my experiences.
While pressing toward the deadline on my second novel, I took time out of my writing day to attend a book club at a local church. I stepped out of my usual writing gear (exercise togs) and into street worthy clothes and stashed a box of my first book in the van, just in case the ladies needed copies for all of their friends.
I arrived in the lovely fellowship hall a little breathless and a bit anxious to get back to my writing—such is the tug between promotion and deadlines. The ladies, white-hairs all, moved with the unhurried grace of those who have long since stopped wearing a watch. They offered coffee and a slice of day-old white cake from the grocer. In the course of sweetening my coffee, more ladies sauntered in, curious about the newcomer.
“I’m the author of the book you read this month,” I said to satisfy their questions.
“Oh that, I don't read the books."
“No matter, I’m just glad you came.” (I’m not from Minnesota, but I am capable of being as nice as a Minnesotan but not a Canadian, even under great stress.)
As the ladies found their seats, I was but an eavesdropper on their conversations. Soon, I realized, I was the only one present who had read my book and wanted to talk about it. The meeting never convened in a conventional sense, so I waited the requisite hour and made my excuses.
You would think from that experience I would learn to ask if the group will read my book before accepting an invitation to attend a book club. I did not. I was too flattered to be invited to the oldest book club in Denver to even consider asking.
I rehearsed my talk until I had it memorized before I drove 250 miles to spend the night in my hostess’ palatial home. After a lovely dinner at a French restaurant (yes, I was feeling the part of the celebrity), I watched television with my hostess. During a commercial, I asked, “The group sounds quite large. Will they break into smaller groups to discuss the book?”
The woman didn't look away from the Snugglie commercial. “Oh, we don’t need to do that. None of us have read the book.”
Ugh. “Ah,” I said, picking my words carefully. (I didn't want to give away my outlandish assumption that they had read my novel.) “Then I’ll just talk to them about how I came up with the idea and a little bit about the story.”
“Exactly. Then they'll know if they want to read it.”
Ohhhhh, my job was to sell my book to the book club, a very different task than what my prepared talk would accomplish. It was meant to provide background to the story and to fuel their questions.
I excused myself from television watching to go to bed at 8:30 and rewrite my talk.
The next day’s crowd was unprecedented. Not even our governor’s wife had attracted such a crowd for her children’s book. If I was going down in flames, I was happy to have a large crowd to cheer me on.
Happily, the talk went better than I could have hoped. The ladies proved a generous audience with easy laughs and applause. Not only that, they bought me out of books. All through the long drive home, I repeated and repeated the question I should have asked: Do the members of your book club read the selection before the meeting or after? Either answer is fine, but it helps to know ahead of time.
I highly recommend you ask the same question. There are as many different ways to share a love of books as there are book clubs.
I was the guest author at another book club in the home of a local woman. As the guests arrived, I was delighted to discover we had many common friends and acquaintances. After a lovely lunch, I sat in that special chair, just as Katy had talked about on Monday, and answered their many questions. I had them cowed into believing me to be a true wordsmith and creative genius. They were eating out of my hand, until…someone asked what I meant by a phrase I’d written in my first novel.
“Huh?” I said, smartly.
“Let me read the passage to you,” and she did. “What does that mean, really?” The way she sharpened her words put me on the defensive and my brain froze.
“Read that line again, please.”
My brain was a glacier, a very, very slow-moving glacier. “It’s been awhile since I wrote that. Can I get back to you?” I gathered her contact information, ran home, reread my own novel, and confidently answered her question.
Lessons learned: 1) Make sure everything you write makes sense, so you’ll be able to answer the tough questions, eventually. 2) Reread your older works now and again to keep them fresh in your mind. I never dreamed I would forget a word of my first novel, but when I was attending this gathering to talk about book #5, specifics of book #1 were a bit foggy.
If you read the comments on Monday, you may remember that an overzealous neighbor made a list of six negative criticisms of my first book and read through them all at one of my earliest book club appearances. I believe that asking an author to come to a book club without recompense (I’ve never been paid, but I've sold books) and to spend time away from her family and/or her writing time should be enough. An author shouldn't have to sit through a negative critique of her book. That’s just not polite, by any state’s standards. So I would also ask a potential host/hostess if the group critiques the book in front of the author. I know Susie Finkbeiner has been told to expect just that this coming spring. I’m sure they’ll all love her book (Paint Chips), but there’s always that one person who relishes finding a typo or a lapse in logic. Perhaps you think differently about this, and I would love to hear your comments. I think.
Allow me to preach to the choir a bit here. Most book club attendees will be in complete awe of you. Whether you like it or not, they will consider you a celebrity of sorts. That means you should pass on the spinach salad before speaking, but more importantly, this is a time to check your ego at the door. When they tell you they loved your book, simply thank them. While sipping or munching, get to know your fellow book lovers. Ask the attendees questions about their work, their families, their dreams. Connect with your audience as book lovers and friends, even if that means recommending another author’s books. In short, grab this opportunity to serve and to encourage the folks who have come out to meet you.
Can you add questions to this list? What do you ask book clubs before you agree to attend their meeting? What books have you read with your book club lately that has spurred great conversation?