Book Clubs have gone high tech

Test setup of a poll for our book club on GoodReads.com, a book review website.

My recent exploration of social sites and apps that might help me manage a book club has surfaced some interesting new choices, but I find myself a bit disappointed in the options.

Let’s start from the beginning. We have a book club that occasionally swells to 15 members but most often is about 6-8 people. It’s mostly a sci fi book club, although members can (and have in the past) nominate and select a book in any category. We meet in person at a local Hillsboro brewery, Three Mugs. That way, we can have beer while we visit.

Most of the members are in Facebook, so we had a group set up there for messages and polls. However, there was a need to communicate via SMS with those who didn’t have Facebook pages. That resulted in double entry.

Requirements. I compiled a list of requirements in Google Sheets. My husband Jim set up a Slack channel for testing, and fellow book club member Matt set up a GoodReads group, and I set up a Bookclubz.com group. We began to test, using the spreadsheet as a guide.

Google Sheets let us track requirements and test.

If you want to see all of our requirements, here’s the list:

  • Admins can send invites to new members via email or text.
  • Ability for any group member to add new members.
  • Ability for people to access club details and vote without needing a login.
  • Display a calendar of past and upcoming meetings in calendar view.
  • Event list view option, search calendar for specific meeting topics.
  • Send and receive messages to entire group easily.
  • Live chat.
  • Run online meetings with screen share.
  • Lists of recommendations from members
  • List of previously read books
  • List of music to read by
  • Reach book club details and interact using desktop, iOS or Android.
  • Require a login setup for security.
  • App and website access.
  • Ability for Admins to create polls with up to 50 books being considered.
  • Ability to add a line or two of text along with the book title.
  • Ability to have any group member nominate a book, and have it available for others to vote on.
  • Ability to add a link to a specific book to be voted on.
  • Ability to add a pic of the book to be voted on.
BookClubz.com user interface showing voting options.
Test setup of the book club in Slack. Notice the text-based commands.
The easy user interface of SurveyMonkey makes it a joy to use, but it’s only a survey tool.
Test setup on GoodReads. Not perfect, but pretty darn good.

I found other sites and apps, but they only addressed some of the needs. Meetup was cool but they have a monthly charge. Slack can make use of plugins for calendar and polling, but would be challenging for nontechnical people because most of the commands are text based. Bookclubz.com has the ability to vote on books and search for and link the books, but members have to rate each book from 1-10 and it doesn’t really look or act like a poll should.

SurveyMonkey is easy and visually attractive for polling – although linking to books and adding their cover images is a manual process. Many other polling sites were reviewed, but they only have polls and cannot manage a club.

It became clear fairly quickly that there was no single solution that captured all of our “need to have” requirements. But it also became clear that GoodReads had most of them.

GoodReads’ strengths. Some requirements were much more important than others – the ability to click and vote from any device or platform, to send poll invites in multiple ways, to link to a book from the poll, to add a book nomination even after the poll starts, to communicate with all members in a platform-agnostic way, and to see past and upcoming events.

GoodReads’ weaknesses. The only possible downsides were the poor user interface (polls do not run well on the mobile apps) and the need to have people create GoodReads accounts so they could join. The site has the option to place a poll into any webpage (like this blog) by clicking the Widget button and copying the code. However, the links go to 404 pages, so that feature is not ready for prime time.

Above and beyond. I feel that there are a couple of other reasons to choose the right site for managing a book club: portability and collaboration.

Portability. We’ve only been doing this club for about 6 months and already we needed to change the leader (our leader is currently about to have a baby!) We want the book club’s leadership to be easily passed along to any selected member, or to add more leaders, without a lot of technical hurdles. Because of this, the site has to be easy to use and free of charge. It can’t require either an iPhone or an Android. GoodReads works here too – it’s on desktop, and there are Android and iOS apps.

Collaboration. We want to have multiple people contributing book ideas, creating polls, and scheduling events so these duties can be shared. GoodReads lets us name several Moderators who have the ability to do that. Group members can still contribute to the discussion and add book recommendations as well as vote and add book choices to the poll.

Privacy. GoodReads may not be much better than Facebook, because it is owned by Amazon. But the fast linking of almost any book in existence to what I feel are the best reviews you can find – the GoodReads site – outweighs that doubt in my mind. I think we’ve found our new home.

In my research, I found many blog articles and even some Quora answers to the question of how to run a book club, and more specifically which social sites or apps to use. Most of them gave a few best practices and touched on a few key recommendations, but none of them gave it the thorough treatment that the topic deserves. Quora answers were overtly commercial, recommending specific polling sites that come with fees and are more complex than book clubs need.

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