Wednesday, April 16, 2003

Book clubs grow up
Readers get together in groups, at conferences or online to talk about works.

by Courtenay Edelhart
April 14, 2003

Book club meetings tend to be informal affairs. Friends agree to read a book and then gather at somebody's house to discuss it over lunch.

That's still how a lot of book clubs operate, but a growing number are far more sophisticated. Members of the Sophia book club in Indianapolis, for instance, pay dues and elect a board. A few times a year, their discussions include the book's author, and this summer, a handful of members will attend a national conference in Atlanta.

Bolstered by the success of "One Book, One City" and Oprah Winfrey, who is bringing back her club with a new focus on the classics, local clubs throughout the country are flexing newfound muscle.

Some of the larger, more organized groups have the clout to lure out-of-state authors, negotiate book discounts and receive a heads-up when new titles are close to release.

Indianapolis-area Borders stores take 20 percent off the month's selection when club members agree to meet at a store. Many Waldenbooks locations display area club selections.

That's not the only proof that book clubs are growing up. If you don't have time to visit a club in person, there are now virtual clubs online. Barnes & Noble last month launched a book-club section on its site (www, and the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library operates a Chapter a Day book club in which members receive chapters via email (

It's good business to cater to book clubs, said Borders spokeswoman Emily Swan. "They've just exploded, so we try to keep their books in stock when we know about them."

Indianapolis author LaTina Tunstall, 34, estimates she's been to about 15 book club meetings to promote her 2002 novel, "Different Shades Friends Come In" (First Books, $14.95), and she'll do the same for "Financing a Dream" (First Books, $14.95), a novel coming out this year.

Most of the clubs Tunstall has visited have been local, but not all. She's traveled to Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Virginia to discuss her work with readers.

Tunstall prefers visiting book clubs to signing books at stores, where people haven't necessarily read her work.

"You're just sitting at a table," she said, "and somebody wanders by to ask what your book's about and you try to give them a one-minute synopsis."

At book club meetings, people have read the book and ask thoughtful questions that ultimately improve her craft, Tunstall said.

Reader-writer gathering

Curtis Bunn, 41, is a sports reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes novels on the side. He's promoted his work at more than two dozen book club meetings and found them so invigorating that, in August, he'll hold a conference in Atlanta for readers and writers of black literature.

It's Bunn's first time organizing a conference, but he's already got about 150 people from 21 states registered. There are 20 authors coming, including big names like E. Lynn Harris and Walter Moseley.

"The response has been phenomenal," said Bunn, author of "Baggage Check" (A&B Publishers, $21) and the forthcoming "Book Club" (A&B Publishing, $21), a collection of short stories about book club members.

People have loved books for centuries, so it's natural to want to gather and talk about them, Bunn said.

"I found myself leaving book club meetings feeling like I felt when I left church -- revived and stimulated," he said.

Still, there are drawbacks to the evolution of book clubs into, well, small businesses. Once you reach the level of 50 members or more, it's hard to get a word in edgewise. And forget about choosing next month's book. Your turn may not come for years.

Some like it simpler

That's why Kent Kollman, a 70-year-old retired insurance executive, prefers the small, informal group he participates in at the Irvington branch library on the Eastside.

"Nobody's asking me to volunteer for any committees or anything," Kollman said. "I just read and come when I feel like it."

But Danielle Walker, a 37-year-old human resources executive, said there are perks to participating in a group like Sophia. Dues are minimal at $5 a month, and the money goes for a good cause.

Members get gift certificates on their birthdays, and presents on special occasions such as the birth of a child. The group also gives gift baskets to disadvantaged families at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Mainly, though, Walker likes meeting the authors.

"It really helps to be able to dialogue back and forth with the writer about why they wrote a certain scene the way they did, or how they developed a character," she said. "You get a lot of 'ohs' and 'ahs.' "

National Book Club Conference

• What: For readers and writers of black literature.
• When: Aug. 1-3; deadline for registration is June 30.
• Where: Atlanta.
• Cost: $230 each, or $200 each for groups of 5 or more.
• Information: National Book Club Conference or 1-888-406-6222.

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