Book Clubs in the Cloud

While many libraries built their own online book clubs, especially during COVID shutdowns, a growing array of larger options from library vendors and consumer-facing brands alike give libraries plenty of choices for connection.

While many libraries built their own online book clubs, especially during COVID shutdowns, a growing array of larger options from library vendors and consumer-facing brands alike give libraries plenty of choices for connection

The COVID pandemic caused a massive migration of library programming from face-to-face to virtual, and even as more in-person programming is returning, many libraries continue to value offering online options. While some are homegrown, several online book clubs—some that existed before the pandemic and others that either transitioned or created new virtual offerings during that time—have built national, even global audiences. Libraries can tap into this large pool of readers and materials to promote participation within their communities.



There are several options for easily starting up a virtual book club to reach audiences throughout and beyond the immediate community:

  • Library Ideas partnered with the lifelong learning facilitator Professional Book Club Guru on the Online Book Club, a self-paced program where users vote on which books they want to read, then have discussions online at their convenience. Chosen titles are available for unlimited checkout through the Freading app, and there’s no cap on participation. Library staff can choose how involved they want to be.
  • Hoopla’s Book Club Hub offers extensive checkout capabilities, along with information on hosting book clubs online or in person. It also provides discussion guides and author interviews.
  • OverDrive’s book club program is based on two models. For simultaneous use, the library pays a flat fee for a set period of time, and the book chosen can be read by everyone in the community who’s interested. There’s also an option to pay per unit instead.

Besides offering options that allow libraries to select their own books, some of these services have their own book clubs that libraries can use. Hoopla’s product marketing lead for eBooks, Andi Paris, coordinates two different book club programs for Hoopla, noting that her company also coordinates two quarterly book clubs—one a general book club and one for graphic novels. The company began these offerings in 2018 and saw an uptick in audience size once the pandemic hit. Titles chosen are available for unlimited audiences, making the option easier for libraries that can’t predict how many people are going to participate. Major library vendor Baker & Taylor also launched virtual book club offerings during the COVID shutdowns, for both mystery and romance readers, which ran through the end of July.

TALKING BOOK: (left) Alison Stewart interviews Laura Lippman for Get Lit!; (right) Katie Beverly (l.) and Christie Smith (r.) host multiplatform book clubs for the Public Library of Mount Vernon & Knox County, OH

David Burleigh, director of brand marketing and communication at OverDrive, notes that its digital offerings go back almost a decade with the launch of the Big Library Read. Given that OverDrive serves nearly 90 percent of U.S. public libraries and several thousand more in other countries, including Australia and the UK, the program has gone global, with more than 24,000 libraries and 15,000 schools participating all over the world. Participation varies based on the title and genre, says Burleigh, but the program consistently reaches hundreds of thousands of readers.

Danielle Stanley is the electronic resources manager for the Phoenix Public Library system, AZ, which has worked with OverDrive for more than 17 years through the Greater Phoenix Digital Library (GPDL), which comprises eight library systems in the Phoenix area. In 2018, GPDL decided to offer a version of the popular One Book, One Community read using OverDrive’s simultaneous use ebooks. The community voted and chose Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower. Each branch offered a digital book club event to accompany the online component, as well as a program on diversity in science fiction. Prior to being featured in the club, the book had only circulated 200 times in the previous six months. But during the time leading up to and including the book club events, it circulated 3,500 times.

Consequently, GPDL expanded the club in 2019 with three titles—one for children, one for teens, and one for adults, all with the common theme of the universe and space. In addition to the same event types as 2018, GPDL also added four talks from Arizona State University scientists who had worked on the Mars Rover. All programming shifted online in 2020, and author Neil Gaiman was brought on for a digital interview.

Stanley notes that many publishers offer options for library book clubs as well, but what’s available and for what price varies from publisher to publisher, and even from author to author. “We tried to get Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter this summer, which came out in 2012, and HarperCollins wanted over $6,000 a month for the title,” she says. “Not a lot of library systems are going to have that kind of cash for one title.”

Cuyahoga County Public Library (CCPL), OH, librarian Kaitlin Booth says her system first tried the OverDrive program in 2019 as part of a partnership with WKYC, a Cleveland-based NBC affiliate, for the WKYC Book Club. “The point of that was to really get outside the library walls and connect with people who maybe didn’t use the library or didn’t have it in the forefront of their minds,” she says. “Part of what we wanted was to make it as easy as possible to bring as many people into the fold.” CCPL discovered that the attraction of the club was about more digital and audio options, rather than print books only. “It appealed to those people that weren’t regular library users and didn’t come to our buildings,” she says. “It was like we could say, ‘Look how easy it is for you to participate in this, be part of this community. You can check out this book without even leaving your house.’”



While most online book clubs use video and web conferencing, some libraries are trying different technology to reach their audiences. Alison Stewart is the host of Get Lit! with All of It. Get Lit! started in partnership with public radio station WNYC; when the pandemic arrived and programming moved fully online, New York Public Library joined Stewart and the station. Stewart points to the library’s involvement as helping drive greater growth. A recent event with Colson Whitehead had more than 10,000 people checking out his novel The Nickel Boys.

Social media has been critical for the club’s growth. “Even more than Facebook, we found that Instagram [where she has more than 10,000 followers] has been terrific because it’s visual,” Stewart says. She’s put up polls about various aspects of the books being read, or asked followers to post photos of themselves reading the book, and both approaches have garnered interest and engagement. “I think [for] our next frontier, we really want to start a TikTok account, because #booktok is so big,” Stewart adds. “I would say that that libraries should embrace the social media aspect to connect with your readers about the book, but on a regular basis. It’s the way to hold the book club.” Adding music makes the events more celebratory, which is part of Stewart’s goal: to celebrate books and authors. She’s been able to bring in live musicians who perform their own music, which helps avoid copyright issues.

At the Public Library of Mount Vernon & Knox County, OH, Reference Assistant Christie Smith and Librarian Assistant Katie Beverly agree that social media can build bigger book club audiences. When the pandemic arrived, they focused on their Facebook and Twitter pages, including advertising heavily on Facebook. The library also has a weekly spot on a local radio station to talk about what’s going on at the library, including book clubs. Smith and Beverly decided to take the in-person book club and turn it into a podcast called What Are You Reading?, along with YouTube videos of the two discussing books together.

“We weren’t sure at first how it was going to go, because while we’re a decent-sized library, it’s technology that not everyone in the area might have,” says Smith. “We tried to make it available not just on YouTube, but on Spotify and Anchor. Word started to spread, people started to enjoy it, and our listenership has grown quite a bit in the almost two years that we’ve been doing it.” Smith and Beverly ask people to comment on YouTube or stop by the library to chat, and find that people are happy to engage. When feasible, they work with Hoopla to have extra book club books available for patrons. Both the podcast and the YouTube videos have expanded the library’s reach and audience.




Poster for Beverly and Smith’s What Are You Reading?

If developing a full-scale virtual book club feels like more than staff can manage, libraries can still tap into the virtual zeitgeist by looking for existing programming and working promotions around it. There are multiple online book clubs with significant followings, and if the books are already available in the library, including information about the book club in library communication or on-site posters can drive traffic and checkouts.

Some existing online options include several popular celebrity book clubs, many of which existed long before the pandemic. Alison Stewart’s Get Lit! was mentioned earlier. Oprah Winfrey has long been a champion of books and reading, starting her TV book club in 1996 and now posting about books on Instagram. Other celebrities have since jumped on the bandwagon, including actor Reese Witherspoon, who focuses on books by women authors. Actor Uzo Aduba joined forces with Netflix for the Netflix Book Club, which reads and discusses books that have been made into movies and series (always a hot topic for readers). Rapper and poet Noname offers monthly discussions of books written by Black authors; musician Florence Welch of Florence + The Machine has founded the Between Two Books club.

Several noncelebrity book clubs also enjoy high participation rates. In the Goodreads Choice Awards Book Club, hosted by the popular book social media site, titles that are highly rated on the site are chosen for monthly read-alongs and discussions. PBS News Hour and The New York Times offer Now Read This, a club that brings in authors for Q&As and hosts online discussions of a wide range of books, from sci fi to poetry, YA to classics, to nonfiction looks at current events. is a free site that hosts numerous online book clubs that library workers could also promote. And not surprisingly, given how popular TikTok’s #booktok hashtag is, the video site launched its own book club this summer.



“We’ve heard a couple of stories… of libraries who partner with another library,” says Hoopla’s Paris. “It removes that geographic barrier a little bit.” Crossing physical boundaries can allow libraries to share resources and build bigger audiences.

Stanley, of GPDL, has several tips for libraries looking to tap into online book clubs. “I would recommend trying to use some of your budget for simultaneous use packages,” she says. “Our budget this year is about four percent for simultaneous use. Also, plan ahead and have a schedule for the year, but also be ready to pivot if something suddenly becomes very popular. Keep checking OverDrive, because their simultaneous use options change. Having books in multiple formats is important too. If we feature an ebook, we want to make sure we have plenty of audiobook copies too.” Communication with OverDrive reps is worthwhile; if there’s a title a library would like to use, but it’s not available or not in simultaneous use, sometimes reps can work with publishers to make it more easily or cheaply available.

At CCPL, Booth points out that discounted books through companies like OverDrive can have time restrictions on their length of use. “We’ve always done it for a month,” she says. “I started doing it by featuring the book two weeks before and two weeks after the related [programming]. But I found that checkouts really tapered off after the event. So I shifted to having them available three weeks before and one week after.”

Get Lit!’s Stewart recommends including a wide variety of authors. “We really want to make sure we’re hearing and reading a lot of different voices,” she says. “That’s sort of the blessing of doing it through public radio. Because that audience is going to be very receptive to it.”

Smith and Beverly recommend bringing in local authors or personalities to discuss books, or even library staff, for interviews.

Whether libraries want to develop their own online book club programming or take advantage of existing offerings, there are now a range of options to suit every need, budget, and staff resource as libraries continue to evolve and develop new ways to engage their communities.

Amy Rea is a freelance journalist living in Minnesota.

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