NEWSPAPERS GO BOOK-CLUBBING

By: Joe Strupp

Many Feature Online Components


The lingering sunset over K Street slowly turned day to night as
the crowd outside the Crest Theater grew restless on a warm
Wednesday evening. With rush-hour commuters zipping past, an
estimated 1,300 excited fans slowly made their way into the local
moviehouse in Sacramento, Calif., many grinning with anticipation
at the chance to see a crowd favorite.

When the theater reached its 1,000-seat capacity, organizers were
forced to open a neighboring auditorium in the multi-screened
venue for some 300 additional ticket-holders who would be allowed
to view the program via television monitors.

Who was creating all this excitement and demand among such a
diverse and energetic crowd? Pop star Ricky Martin? Teen idols ‘N
Sync? How about opera legend Luciano Pavarotti? No, none of the
above. This Elvis-like fanaticism was for none other than Frank
McCourt, the popular Irish-American author of “Angela’s Ashes.”

And this major event was actually a meeting of The Sacramento
Bee book club, whose members had just read McCourt’s most
recent manuscript, “Tis,” and were aching to hear his views on
it. “It was an incredible event,” said Pamela Dinsmore, assistant
managing editor for features at the Bee, which launched
one of the first newspaper book clubs in 1997. “The people want
the large audience because of the attraction of meeting a major
author.”

Nationwide trend

The Bee is not alone. From Portland, Ore., to Washington,
D.C., newspaper-sponsored book clubs have become more popular
than ever in recent years, with many new groups launched in just
the past year. Seen as a subtle way to promote newspapers,
increase contact with readers, and provide a service to a
literary-hungry populous, editors have taken the traditional
social event normally restricted to living rooms and library
lounges and made it a true marketing tool.

And there are apparently no hard and fast rules for running the
clubs, either. While some, like the Bee, prefer to draw
huge auditoriums of readers that can top 1,000 or more people
assembling to hear authors speak, others, like The
Oregonian in Portland operate their reading roundtables
through small, group gatherings among a dozen or so bookworms.
“We’ve found that if it’s more than eight people, it’s hard to
stay on topic,” said Jeff Baker, The Oregonian’s book
critic and book club organizer.

Once the meetings commence, organizers say the talk is all book
and no newspaper. While some bring authors in to lead
discussions, others avoid them to unleash free-flowing opinions.
Locations also vary, from a local restaurant for the The
Journal News in White Plains, N.Y. to neighborhood book
stores for The Contra Costa Times in Walnut Creek, Calif.

At The Washington Post, which launched its club in 1999,
discussions are restricted to the Internet, with regularly
scheduled chats that coincide with coverage in the newspaper.
“It’s instantaneous,” said Marie Arana, the Post’s book
editor. “Making ourselves available in an interactive way is
important. It creates a kind of gutsy exchange.”

The Post also provides the first chapter of each book club
selection on its Web site to give readers a taste of the story
before they jump into a purchase.

Dinner conversation

The fourth-floor meeting room inside The Record of
Hackensack, N.J., grew busy on a cool January night as more than
a dozen people gathered around the conference table for an
important discussion. Just down the hallway from the daily
paper’s buzzing newsroom, the unusual gathering commenced with
participants eager to have their opinions heard.

The topic of discussion? Not a call for more local coverage,
increased attention to fact-checking, or threatened budget
cutbacks. These people wanted to talk about how Elizabeth Shulman
had broken away from her family’s religious ties and struck out
on her own. Shulman is the lead character in “Kaaterskill Falls”
by Allegra Goodman, the latest choice of The Record Book
Club, which is holding one of the intimate chats that have become
a regular occurrence every six weeks since the club launched two
years ago.

For the next two hours, the 18-person group – led by
Professor Ben Nelson of nearby Fairleigh Dickinson University and
reporter Lindy Washburn, a health care reporter who runs the
reading club – delved into everything from Shulman’s soul-
searching to comparison’s with Jane Austin’s “Pride and
Prejudice.” In between, guests sampled kosher delicacies –
in keeping with the book’s orthodox Jewish focus – ranging
from broccoli souffle to potato kugel, all provided at The
Record’s expense.

“You can really get into it,” said Robert Denniston, a 58-year-
old Record reader who spoke between bites of a deli
sandwich and cole slaw. “I really enjoy the discussions and the
interesting perceptions.”

Washburn, an 18-year Record veteran, said she started the
club online, but switched to live meetings for a more intimate
gathering. Initially placing a 12-person limit on the meetings,
she recently increased it to 20. “I don’t like to turn people
away,” she said.

Book party

Whether offering large group forums, small living room chats, or
online discussions, most of the newspaper book clubs follow
similar routines. Every month or so, the papers run a story about
the latest book selection, often including a review or profile of
the author, and invite readers to e-mail or write-in comments. A
club meeting, whether online or in-person, is then held, with a
follow-up article on the discussion published shortly afterward.

Some of the smaller clubs that limit their gatherings to a dozen
or so guests base invitations on the best comments sent in by
readers. “We have people who write in every time and read every
book,” said Lynn Carey, a feature writer and book club leader at
The Contra Costa Times, who said she received more than
200 e-mails and letters after the club’s first selection, “The
Romance Reader” by Pearl Abraham. “People like the connection
they have with the paper.”

Editors say the main purpose is not to promote the paper, but
admit that the events are a good marketing tool. “People are glad
to see something worthwhile where they are not being hit over the
head with subscription requests,” said John Habich, senior
culture editor at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, which
created its book club just last November and simulcasts its
meetings over Minnesota Public Radio. “Public radio listeners are
highly book-minded.”

Most clubs get a helping-hand from local bookstores, which will
offer a discount to club members in exchange for publicity. Store
owners also help in the selection process in many cases, editors
said. “The bookstores say they sell about 500 extra books per
month when we focus on them,” said The Oregonian’s Baker.

Lesser-known authors, such as Katie Singer of Sante Fe, N.M.,
said the clubs can breathe new life into book sales and interest,
especially if they’re located in areas where the book has had
little publicity. “It takes an army to publicize a book,” said
Singer, whose first novel, “The Wholeness of a Broken Heart” was
a Contra Costa Times selection in December. “The reader
brings more to the book than the book brings to the reader.”

Choosing wisely

When it comes to deciding which books to choose for club members,
the process runs the gamut. Since most of the newsroom clubs were
created in the wake of Oprah Winfrey’s book club success, many
follow her lead. Others take a decidedly anti-Oprah approach.

“They cannot be best sellers, have been made into movies, or be
Oprah books,” said Mary Dolan, deputy managing editor/features
for The Journal News, which created its book club in 1999.
“We wanted to distinguish our club and make it for undiscovered
gems.”

The Contra Costa Times’ Carey chooses to avoid Oprah books
while Dinsmore of the Bee goes after children’s books or
those by well-known authors who can draw a crowd. “If we can get
a big-name, we take it,” she said.

Washburn of The Record sticks strictly to novels. “That’s
what I’m familiar with,” she said. The Oregonian’s Baker,
meanwhile, chooses to focus on books with a local flavor, such as
“Where Bigfoot Walks” by Robert Michael Pyle, which details a
nearby area of Washington state. “We have a northwest focus and
that is what people like to read in the area,” Baker said. “We do
not have the authors at the discussions, either, because then you
have a freer debate.”

In his book club coverage, Baker often travels to locations cited
in the chosen read of the month. Recent trips have included a
visit to Bisbee, Ariz. with Richard Shelton, who wrote “Going
Back to Bisbee,” and a jaunt to Salinas, Calif., for a piece on
John Steinbeck, who set “Cannery Row” and other classics in the
seaside area. “It helps me a lot when I write about them,” Baker
said of his trips. “It gives people some good balance, They’re
intrigued.

Closing the book on clubs

But while many newspapers have found success, reader interest,
and good publicity from book clubs, others, such as The
Hartford (Conn.) Courant and The Plain Dealer
in Cleveland, have dropped their book reading groups for a
variety of reasons, ranging from poor reader interest to cost-
cutting needs.

“The club was quite popular for the two and a half years it was
in existence,” said Kathy Colello, a spokeswoman for the
Courant, which disbanded its book group last October. “It
was eliminated particularly for space and budget considerations.”

Courant Features Editor Kyrie O’Connor said the paper also
sought to provide a more edgy approach to books, which he claims
is anathema to the traditional book club. “We all thought it was
worthwhile, but not something we could do at this time,” O’Connor
said. “Some people missed it, but there were not a lot of angry
reactions.”



Joe Strupp (jstrupp@editorandpublisher.com) is an associate editor for E&P.



Copyright 2001, Editor & Publisher.

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