For 20 years BookBrowse has been providing reading recommendations to book clubs and readers in general through its website and newsletters, so we at BookBrowse know that the perception many have of book clubs—as primarily social groups with minimal serious discussion—isn’t accurate, but until recently we didn’t have the hard data to prove it.

Last year we set out to look beyond the who, what, and where of book clubs, and to instead explore their group dynamics. For example: What do people want from their groups? What motivates them to join in the first place, and why do they stay? What do they look for in the books they read? In the process, we conducted two surveys of more than 5,000 book club members, plus 500 non–club members, parsing responses to many questions. In February, we published our report, titled “The Inner Lives of Book Clubs”—the results of the first survey to get to the heart of the book club experience.

So, what did we learn? Among much else, we learned that the stereotype of book clubs being primarily social is far from reality:

• Most book clubs stay focused on discussing a book for at least 40 minutes of each meeting, and, generally speaking, the longer a group spends on book discussion, the happier its members are with the club.

• Overwhelmingly, book club members want to read books that will provoke good conversation—97% of book club members consider that a core criterion in the books they choose, while 73% also actively seek out books that challenge and 55% look for books that are controversial.

• It’s not all women: 88% of private book clubs are all-women groups, but almost half of public groups, such as those hosted by libraries, include men.

• 70% of book clubs primarily read fiction, but they aren’t the bastions of “women’s fiction” that some believe them to be. For example, 93% read nonfiction at least occasionally, and the longer a book club has been together, the broader its selections tend to be.

The report also shows how much book club members value respectful discussion as well as learning from books and each other.

• Club members are in almost universal agreement that respect for each other’s opinions is critical; 98% consider this very important (although members are not always respectful, as the report details in its section on the 12 most common book club challenges and how book clubs resolve them).

• 91% of book club members say that they value being exposed to books that they otherwise wouldn’t have read. This is particularly intriguing, as the leading reason given by readers for not being interested in being in a book club is that they don’t want to have to read books that they did not choose themselves.

We also learned a lot about how book clubs choose books, how critical the selection process is to the group’s happiness, and how publishers can best reach book clubs.

• Most book clubs require a member to have read a book before recommending it to the group—or, at a minimum, to have thoroughly researched it. In short, to reach a book club, publishers first have to reach at least one individual in the club.

• Book club members discover books in the same places as readers in general, so the key is not so much to promote “to” book clubs; rather, it’s to position titles so that the features book clubbers look for are brought to the fore. The report outlines 13 core factors to achieve this, many of which publishers can influence.

• 43% of book clubs choose their books at least four months ahead, but the informal selection process for a given title (individual members becoming aware of the title) starts as soon as the book is published—sometimes even earlier, due to the prevalence of early-reader programs. So, it’s important for publishers to position to book clubs early.

The vast majority of book club members describe their groups as vital and fun aspects of their lives. They enjoy a sense of community and, often, personal friendships—but above all else, and counter to what some believe, they value intellectual challenge and growth. I find it reassuring to think that, whatever might be happening at the national level, there are these amazing microcosms of intellectual debate known as book clubs, whose members are sharing and growing together.

Davina Morgan-Witts is the publisher of BookBrowse, a website founded in 1997 for readers and book clubbers. The report on which this essay is based is available online.