Jill Santopolo is vice president and associate publisher of Philomel Books, as well as the bestselling author of the novels More Than Words and The Light We Lost (a Reese’s Book Club pick). In this article, Santopolo offers tips on how to make your experience as a book club guest worthwhile for all involved, whether you are joining a local gathering or tuning in via video conference.
The first time an email arrived in my inbox inviting me to be a guest at an NYC-based book club that was reading my novel, I was surprised. I hadn’t known this was something people did—and by people, I mean both book club members and authors. After the surprise wore off, I was impressed—impressed that someone took the time to find me and issue an invitation. And I was also honored that they’d gotten so much out of my novel that they wanted to talk to me about it. So I said yes. And what came next was one of the most fun, rewarding evenings of my life as a novelist.
The women had questions they were dying to ask about my book and characters, but more than that, we ended up talking about the themes of the book and how they related to the people in the room. We stayed late chatting about love and careers and friendships and what it looks like for a woman to “have it all.” I left so happy that these women had reached out to me, and so happy that I’d agreed to visit with them.
I soon realized that my experience was not unusual. I was invited to more book clubs, both in-person and via FaceTime or Skype, and whenever I could, I agreed to go. Now, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, with many book clubs moving online as a way of maintaining a connection and a sense of normalcy, I’m looking forward to visiting with readers on Zoom and other social conferencing platforms.
So, here are a few tips for writers visiting with book clubs, some that deal with the online component and some that are relevant for in-person meetings, too (which I hope we’ll be able to get back to soon!).
Let People Know You’re Interested: If you want to visit with book clubs, let people know! They might be worried that you’ll say no, so if you let them know in advance the answer could be yes, they’ll be more likely to ask. Post this on your website or social media, or even offer a contest with your visit as the prize for a certain number of book clubs who enter.
Make Sure You’ve Downloaded the Necessary Program and It Works on Your Computer: Running into technical difficulties is no fun. It’s stressful and frustrating. I always try to do a quick pre-meeting with the book club’s leader to make sure the technology works on both ends.
Choose a Nice, Quiet Space: I visit book clubs from my home office or living room—after I’ve cleaned it up. I also ban my husband from entry. It’s super-distracting when people walk through the video or when people on the other end are staring at the mess behind you, trying to figure out if that’s a bra strap hanging out of your drawer.
Drink and Be Merry! If I know if I’m calling into a book club that will be sharing a bottle of wine or—even more fun—drinking a themed beverage to go with my book, I make sure to get myself a glass of wine or a cocktail, too. And definitely a glass of water, so I don’t have to disappear from the screen mid-meeting.
Let Them Run the Show: Every book club is used to running a particular way, and will come to this event with their own thoughts and ideas. I always try to be flexible and go with what they have planned.
Be Prepared for Anything: I’ve found that once I’m comfortable with a book club, the members offer a level of intimacy that I try to match. I’ve answered questions and been part of conversations about exes, regrets, dreams—and those conversations have been really rewarding. Also, readers often offer honest critiques of my books, and I always try to be gracious and thank them for sharing their point of view before talking about why I made a particular choice and what I’d hoped readers would get out of it.
Offer to Sign! Sometimes readers are too timid to ask, so I always offer to sign books (if I’m there in person) or send bookplates to the book club leader (if I’m not there in person). To be honest, I sometimes forget the bookplate offer, but have been working on it!
Set a Time Limit: Make sure you work out in advance how long you’ll be part of the meeting. Is it fifteen minutes? An hour? Until it’s over? It’s good to know on both ends, so no one has expectations that aren’t met.
I truly have enjoyed every book club I’ve visited with and have come away with new ideas, different perspectives, and an expanded appreciation for readers who care so much about the fictional characters and worlds we create. I hope you enjoy the experience, too!