Sari Pabst is the book club organizing extraordinaire and fearless leader behind the book club we attend locally. She has over 8 years of experience organizing various book clubs, and was kind enough to sit down with us to talk about what it’s like running large book clubs for so long (she’s been running our current one for over 3 years!). She shares what works, what doesn’t, what makes for good discussion, book club rules and structure, venue pitfalls, guiding philosophies, book club organizer pet peeves, and advice for anyone who wants to start their own club, or improve the one they already have!
Q: What made you want to start a book club?
A: I found that as an adult it’s really hard to make friends. When I started going to book club, I had just had my baby, and went from working full-time to being a stay at home mom with no other stay-at-home mom friends. So, I joined a book club near my home. They were really great, and after a couple months, the woman organizing it asked me to take over for a while. When she moved to another city, I ended up fully taking over organizing it.
How did you find a venue?
When I was in our previous town, I just picked a coffeehouse with a big table. It wasn’t great though, honestly. You have to account for the fact that anything with coffee is going to have coffee grinders, so sometimes you’d have to yell. And then a lot of the books we read are adult material, so you’re sitting in the middle of, like, Panera Bread, apologizing to the moms with their kids at the next table. We actually read Lolita, and there was a 9 year old girl at the table behind us. So there we are having this big, graphic conversation with sexually provocative things involving children, and it just made it hard.
When I moved down to Tacoma, one of the things I did was to just go and check places out. I knew I wanted to move it to a bar, because I wanted it to be an “over 21” venue. Not because I think people under 21 don’t have anything valuable to add or to say, but because, I have two kids— whom I love, they’re wonderful—but if I’m going out for a night to have adult time, I don’t want to bring my children, and I don’t want other people to bring theirs either. I don’t want anyone to have to censor what they’re saying or how they’re feeling because there’s a 7 year old in the room. So for me, I was very specific in wanting an age limit on not just our book club, but on who could be in our immediate area.
Plus, moving into a location that was adults only, and to a time that was a little later in the evening made it so that a diverse amount of people could come, because now people could come after work. It’s appealing to come chill and have a drink with friends; it just makes for a much more casual environment. Then I just picked a space like that, one that would let me borrow a room once a month. They’re wonderful, they always let me have the room, and always make sure other patrons are clear from the space if we need it. It’s our home now
How did you pick a day and time?
We have a core group of people who have hung in there with me for years and years, so I picked a day that worked for them as well as with my schedule and my co-organizer’s schedule, because it was important to me that the core group could have what they wanted. As long as it’s on the same day of the week, most people’s schedules are pretty set, so we just picked what worked best and we’ve stuck with it.
Has keeping it 21+ affected the dynamic of the group?
We have a really interesting demographic. I’m in my mid-30’s, and we have a few people who are in their 40’s and 50’s, then we have a bunch of people who in their mid 30’s or 40’s who don’t come as regularly, and then we have a ton of people in their 20’s. It’s this really interesting range of people. There are months that I come and I’m the only person in the room who has children. So my perspective may be incredibly opposite than the person sitting across from me who just graduated from college, or the person who’s kids have already left home. I love when you get to see different perspectives, especially now that more men have started to come. Having it at our location, it’s gender neutral, and set at a time when professionals can come after work, or stay at home moms can come when their husbands get off work; it’s really opened us up to more interesting discussions.
You have a pretty large group, right? How do you manage a group that size?
Yeah! We have almost 1,400 followers on Meetup and we regularly have about 20 people show up. I was really overwhelmed when I first moved it to Tacoma, because in our previous location, the largest group I’d had was maybe 17. It’s kind of a trendy thing now in our area to mix alcohol and books, but it definitely wasn’t when we started. I was a little bit overwhelmed, and my voice doesn’t really carry very well, so at first it was little bit of a free-for-all. One of the things that helped me the most was physically standing in front of the group to have command of the room. Which sounds weird, because I’m not actually somebody who likes having all the attention on her, but if I don’t it just becomes complete chaos, with different sections having different conversations and nobody really paying attention.
If I'm actually standing, it gives the room someone to focus on, so it’s almost like passing the baton when I call on somebody, and gives everyone a chance to be heard. Sometimes there will be a great dialogue, like two people will get really heated about a topic, and I’m not going to cut that off if they’re going back and forth. If someone raises their hand to interject, I can be like “hey guys, they’ve wanted to comment on your discussion for a minute, let’s hear what they have to say,” and that will bring it all back around.
What do you think keeps people coming back to this group?
I hope that it’s that we’re creating a fun, healthy environment for people to get to know each other!
Do you intentionally structure your discussions?
Depending on what the novel is, I look up discussion questions, see what’s been popular in other book clubs, but actually my favorite is when the author has given discussion questions in the back of the book or on their website. There are also questions I’ll ask every single time. The first thing I ask as we start is “who has read the book?” and sometimes it’s just one or two people, which is totally fine. The next question is always “who liked the book and who didn’t?” because I’m very aware that I usually have the opposite opinion of the group, and it gives everyone a chance to see where people stand. Plus, just knowing who felt the same as you and who felt the opposite of you is a discussion point. Like, well, what did you like about it?
Also, even if I really loved a book, I’m probably going to have to act like I hate it if everyone else loved it too, just so I can be that opposition. My job when I show up to book club is to make a discussion happen and to keep it going. Sometimes it’s really easy, but of course, sometimes it’s really hard. We’ve only ever had one book that had a discussion that lasted under an hour.
What was the worst discussion you’ve ever had?
Good Omens. We’ve done all kinds of books, and usually there’s some kind of hidden nugget you can pull on to really get everybody going and there was such satire, and such slapstick comedy in that book, but there wasn’t enough depth to have any feelings about it. Most of the group felt the same, and it was just really hard to create a discussion off of one-liners.
Why did you choose Meetup to advertise the group?
Mostly because that’s originally how I found the book club. Six years ago, members suggested we move it to Facebook, but what happened was we went from having 15-17 people come, to having maybe 6-8 people coming, because it just wasn’t getting out there. Also, it just lost something. I love when new people come and offer fresh perspectives, versus when it’s just the same people, you kind of already know what they’re going to say, and who’s going to like or not like the book. When I moved and re-started, I decided to put it back on Meetup because it seemed like the best way for us to get the most exposure, and I genuinely don’t mind paying for the service as long as people are showing up and they’re enjoying it.
As long as it continues to be something I look forward to every month and not something I have to do every month, I’ll keep doing it, because I really appreciate that I have this platform to invite people to come enjoy and discuss books. Also, I think a lot of people really underestimate how difficult it is to put yourself out there. Walking into a room of people full of people you don’t know, it’s scary and it’s hard-- I definitely remember how hard it was for me to walk into my first one. I used this club to make new friends and build community, because I didn’t have it, so I want everyone to feel comfortable walking in. I try to shake each new person’s hand and introduce myself, because I want people to feel welcome, and I do appreciate how hard it is just to walk in the door.
What is it about a book that makes it create a good discussion?
Controversy. And it doesn’t even have to be big controversy. One word I can say that will always set somebody off in the room is “sexuality”. It doesn’t matter what we’re talking about, but if I say that word the entire room is going to explode, and there are just little triggers like that. It could be the most tame book in the entire world, but as soon as somebody says a key word, all of a sudden it’s like a bomb went off. So you have to feel the book out, and see what that thing is going to be. Sometimes even just bringing up something I didn’t like will outrage somebody and spark a conversation.
How do you pick what your group will read?
Everyone in the room can bring whatever books they want to recommend, they just have to tell the room what it’s about, and it gets put on the list. We then let people vote for every book mentioned. The first time through, everyone can vote for any book on the list that they’re interested in, and if it’s unanimous, or there is a situation where one book got like 15 votes and the others only got a handful of votes, that’s our book. If two books are close, we do a second round of voting where you can only vote for one book. The reason I do it that way is because I want people to feel like it’s their book club too, instead of it being like “ugh, what is she going to make us read this month.”
I want to read what the group wants to read, and I get to read so many things that never would have been on my radar, so it’s really exciting for me too. Another thing that really worked for us, is that while we used to pick the book two months in advance so that people would have plenty of time to get it from the library or listen to is as an audiobook, we switched to just picking the book for the following month. I realized that people were fighting for the book that they want to read now, and by the time we were actually getting around to that book two months later, nobody actually cared about it any more.
Do you have any other book club rules?
If you show up, whether you’ve read the book or not, we are going to talk about the end of the book, because it’s not fair that everybody read it and we can’t talk about a part of it because somebody didn’t finish it, even if that person is me.
Is there anything that you, as an organizer, would not have thought about as a member?
I get a lot of messages behind the scenes. One of the most frustrating things for me is when people don’t bother reading the actual event details on Meetup, because I try to make sure that when you click the event listing, all the information is there about what time we meet, where we’re meeting, how to find us…everything. People will inevitably private message me asking the same questions over and over again, and every single month having to answer the exact same questions when you’ve already posted the information, can be really frustrating. I try to be understanding and give a gracious reply, but it’s one of those things, that as a participant, I didn’t realize was so frustrating.
I also get messages from local authors who want us to do their book, as in have us all buy copies of the book. It’s not that I don’t want to support local authors, it’s that I’ve been working on this club for 8 years. It sounds like a really silly thing, but I’ve literally put 8 years of my life into these book clubs to be able to cultivate it to be the way it is, and I care a lot about it. So I get frustrated when I feel like somebody is trying to financially profit off of my hard work, especially when I go out of my way to make sure that there’s no financial hardship on my members.
Is there any advice you have for people who want to start a book club?
I would say have an idea of what you want it to be. I know that sounds silly, like of course you want to read books, but decide how you want to run it and what you want it to feel like. If you come to my book club, be aware that I curse, and I drink, and I’m a really laid back person who tries to be really open and non-judgmental. It’s easy to take things personally if your space isn’t the right space for someone, but try not to.
Know what you want your group to look like and feel like, and be okay if its not the right fit for someone. I want my group to be people who enjoy being around each other and enjoy coming, and I don’t want someone to have to censor themselves because another person isn’t comfortable with swearing. Be aware of what your goals are, and be okay that you’re not everybody’s cup of tea. Just make sure you don’t take it personally, because I know it’s hard when you put your heart and soul into something, and it feels like a personal rejection, when in reality it’s just…he’s just not that into you.