Anna Ford founded Bookclubz five years ago, inspired by the book club that she started with three friends in Philadelphia in 2011. “I became our club’s de facto leader, scheduling meetings and tracking books through email,” she recalls. “When our club ballooned to twenty members, our email threads got tangled. People were asking, when’s the next meeting? What book do we read next? As the logistics grew complicated, we met less often, attendance went down, our numbers dwindled.”
Around that time, Anna’s friend Ian had graduated from business school and was teaching himself to code. “Ian was casting around for a coding project to practice his new skills,” Anna recalls. “When he agreed to tackle my book club’s logistics problem, I was thrilled.” That’s how Bookclubz was born (and not-so-incidentally, how Anna and Ian fell for each other and, four years later, married.)
“We designed Bookclubz for my wonderful club in Philadelphia. But within months,100 new book clubs had signed up! We realized we’d stumbled across real-life book club people who, like me, who were looking for help. Over the next year, Ian and I listened to their feedback, adding tools that made Bookclubz even better.” Now 5,000 clubs with over 20,000 individual members rely on Bookclubz to organize meetings, vote on books, track discussions, even post recipes. “The response has been beyond surprising and very gratifying” Anna says. “We are growing every day—and we’re just getting started.”
Today, Anna happily manages five book clubs (yes five) using the tools she and now-husband, Ian created for their brainchild, Bookclubz. “I’m grateful to my Philadelphia book club. We based the site on how we operate; they’re my inspiration and have become my very best friends. We still meet today,” she adds. “Now that our lives are busier than ever, Bookclubz gives us time for each other and what we love best: gathering over great books!”
Q: How do you juggle five books clubs—along with managing Bookclubz?
Anna: Bookclubz was designed as a tool to help busy people share their love of books and stay connected—so I rely on it to keep my five clubs on track. I hope Bookclubz will convince people who think they don’t have time for a book club to start one.
Q: What can you tell us about your first book club?
I call it The Original, or the First Bookclub(z). We were four friends in Philly when we started in 2011. Now, although many of us have left Philadelphia and our families have grown, we continue to meet virtually, over Zoom. We travel home a few times each year for in-person meetings; but Zoom allows us to keep in touch, and we recommend great books through Bookclubz. We read literary fiction with the occasional memoir or narrative nonfiction book thrown in. We take turns suggesting books and choosing our next read during virtual meetings.
Q: When you moved, you started another club?
Anna: Yes! I moved to Cambridge from Philadelphia for graduate school where I founded a club with six classmates. We called ourselves Grad Students Finding Time for Fiction. We were four women and two men, studying government and public policy. Our membership is international—with two from Spain, one from Costa Rica, one from Lebanon, and three Americans—so we decided to focus on women authors from around the world, often with feminist themes and perspectives. Sometimes we read contemporary writers, other times we pick classics. Back in school, we met every-other-month. Now, we meet monthly via zoom.us. It's a fantastic way to stay in touch with a group that spans multiple continents.
Q: So how did you accelerate from two clubs to five?
Anna: When I moved to Camden, Maine after grad school, I wanted to meet new people and continue my love for hosting in-person meetings. So I started a club with a neighbor and a few friends. I call that one The Local. We’re now a co-ed club with four dedicated members and ten more who rotate in. I usually host in my home, trading off with a few others. The host makes a simple meal and the guests bring wine and dessert. We strive for a variety of books, so we love the Bookclubz polling feature, which democratizes the choosing process.
Q: How did your family get in on the book club act?
Anna: They support everything I do! My love of reading definitely came from my mom, and the thousands of books on her shelf while I was growing up. As we developed Bookclubz, my mom, aunt, two sisters, and step-sister decided to pick books, too. We discuss them three or four times a year, during holidays and family vacations. We usually choose at least one self-help or philosophy-type book, which opens the conversation to what’s happening in our personal lives and careers.
Q: What did your husband’s family think about the idea?
Anna: We recently started a club with Ian’s family, too. My in-law book club includes Ian’s mother and father, his sister and brother-in-law, and brother and sister-in-law. When we’re together for holidays, vacations, or family weddings, we read one novel (often a classic) and one nonfiction book. We’ll start an online chat on whatsapp before we gather in person. Afterward, we keep the conversation going on whatsapp. With both family groups, the books gives everyone something to talk about besides politics!!!
Q: Does this mean you polish off five books every month?
Anna: I’m usually reading three books a month for my five book clubs. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to coordinate the same book for two clubs. And when I really love a particular book, I’ll suggest it for my family groups. So it’s possible to participate in multiple clubs and keep the reading at a level that’s enjoyable.
Q: What books have earned a spot on your greatest-hits list?
Our first book club book-pick in Philly was Abraham Vergese’s Cutting for Stone followed by Patty Smith’s Just Friends, (still my favorite book club book of all time!) Runner up is Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. That got me hooked on the club format; the discussions really open your perspective. A favorite family book has been Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. My international group introduced me to writers like Merce Rodoreda, Magda Szabo, and Hoda Barakat. Right now I’m reading Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney and I’m excited to dig into The Overstory by Richard Powers, the next pick for my Camden group.
Q: What’s your favorite book club hack or organizational tip?
Anna: Let club members do what they like best. Most clubs rotate duties every month—someone hosts, another suggests a book, while someone else researches the author or plans discussion topics. The first instinct is to share these responsibilities, equally. But, if you’re good at something—and you love it--it’s okay to stick with it, as long as everybody agrees.
I love playing host, for instance; so in Camden, we usually met at my house. For three of my book clubs, leading the discussion is not my responsibility. I coordinate our schedule through Bookclubz and host meetings—because that’s what I love to do. Book clubs, above all, should be fun.
Constance Costas has covered book clubs for skirt! magazine and now works with emerging authors to develop nonfiction books and memoirs.