In May 2019, I wrote a PW Soapbox column to share findings from BookBrowse’s “Inner Lives of Book Clubs” survey. This October, 17 months later and eight months into a global pandemic, BookBrowse revisited book groups to see how they are faring. And I am glad to report that, based on 3,417 responses from current book club members, they are mostly proving themselves resilient and flexible, and many are making changes that will be with them for the long term:
• Three-quarters of respondents are in book clubs that are currently meeting. Some members reported having experienced sickness, quarantines, and fatalities among those close to them, and many feel drained by current events, but it is precisely these factors that contribute to half saying their groups are even more important to them than they were last year.
• Among respondents in groups that used to meet in person, 65% said their groups are now meeting virtually (96% of those on Zoom) and 17% are meeting outdoors, with some looking for new winter locations.
• A quarter of those who are currently meeting say their attendance rates are down from last year. But 14% of virtual groups have increased attendance, mainly due to the fact that members who had moved away permanently or live elsewhere for part of the year are able to join virtually.
The pandemic has been an impetus for clubs and members to embrace technology that they had previously avoided (such as e-books and virtual meetings), with many groups proactively helping members to master these new skills. Respondents meeting virtually greatly appreciate that technology allows them to stay connected and maintain a sense of community:
• In general, technology adoption is viewed as a positive, with Zoom described as a “lifeline.” However, some clubs struggle with technical issues and virtual etiquette, and many groups are temporarily missing members who are unable or unwilling to meet virtually.
• Virtual book discussions tend to be less free-flowing. This is seen as a positive by some, who say their group’s discussions are more focused and inclusive due to fewer side conversations; others miss the organic flow of an in-person discussions.
• The great majority of respondents are looking forward to meeting again in person when conditions allow, but many who are currently meeting virtually expect to retain a virtual element. Only 3% expect all their meetings will be entirely virtual in the future, while 29% expect to continue using video technology to allow absent members to join in-person meetings, or to host entire meetings virtually sometimes, such as when weather conditions are poor. In our past research we found that some former or potential book club members were not in book clubs due to childcare costs, frequent travel, disabilities, and other obstacles. Virtual or hybrid clubs would likely be appealing options for many such people.
• As an added benefit, some groups have discovered how easy it is to invite authors to join them on Zoom.
The events of 2020 have also had an effect on sourcing books.
• Many respondents are turning to their library’s e-book collections, with Hoopla frequently mentioned as a favorite for its unlimited downloads. However, using the technology has been a challenge for some, who look forward to returning to borrowing print books.
• One-fifth say they have bought books this year that they would previously have borrowed, and many are sharing books more than they had in previous years.
• Politics is a challenging topic for many U.S. groups. While 37% of U.S. respondents said their group has discussed politics in general this year, 27% said politics was off the table in their meetings. This is up from 11% in 2018.
Clubs that meet in public seem to have been more adversely affected by the pandemic than those that meet in private. For example, 24% of respondents who are not currently meeting would normally gather in a library, compared to 15% of those in groups that are currently meeting. Those in groups that are not meeting are equally likely as those that are meeting to say they were happy in their group in 2019, and they look forward to being able to meet again soon.
The complete “Book Clubs in Lockdown” survey is available at bookbrowse.com/wp
Davina Morgan-Witts is the publisher of BookBrowse, a website founded in 1997 for readers and book clubbers.