How I started a book club for Asian women (and you can, too!)

Group discussion at our first book club event discussing “The Leavers”

How the Cosmos Book Club Was Born

Thus began my fervent reading and discovery of Asian American works. I had been gravitating towards reading contemporary literature written by women, so I devoured recent works written by Asian women — Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang, Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee.

I loved these novel yet familiar worlds that I was inhabiting through these Asian women writers, in ways I had never read before. I had a huge stack of books I wanted to read, years of lost time to make up for. If it had taken so long for me to find these works that I didn’t know I desperately craved to read, how many others were out there? How many women wanted to read and discuss these books, but didn’t have the time, space, and community for it?

Rosa, Cosmos Book Club lead (through September 2018) & facilitator: Around that time, Carolyn and I met over coffee after connecting on Twitter and bonded over wanting to read more literature by Asian American women. There aren’t very many other people I know who occupy the narrow space of being a young AA woman in a very white, male-dominated space like software engineering. It felt like a badly under-watered part of my identity that I was happy to start nurturing with a friend.

Carolyn: Mid-March, I asked Rosa about starting a book club. I had no idea what format it would be or what it would look like — but even if it were the two of us chatting in a cafe together, that sounded great to me.

The text that started Cosmos Book Club!

Rosa: Soon after, Carolyn sent me an event for a gong fu tea ceremony + self-care workshop run by The Cosmos. They crafted an event that combined learning something completely new (particularly slow and deliberate) with the sudden vulnerability of talking about self-care, womanhood, and a sense of community among Asian American women.

When we found ourselves in that environment, we started sharing the idea with others there and garnered a lot of interest. I think I walked away from the tea parlor that night with several email addresses of people who were up for joining us, including a handful of people who worked in publishing.

Carolyn: I met Cassandra, the CEO and co-founder of The Cosmos that night. She was genuinely excited to help us launch a book club for the Asian women community and offered her support with initial branding and marketing. She also introduced us to Julie, a marketing director at Penguin Random House. Thanks to Julie’s support and connections, we connected with AAWW to host our book club events there on a regular basis. While planning our first book club to discuss The Leavers by Lisa Ko, we also got in touch with the author’s publicist so that Lisa could stop by the gathering for a Q&A and book signing!

Rosa & Carolyn in conversation with Lisa Ko, June 2018

Rosa: I remember the first book club in June 2018 being intimate and a little surreal. It felt a bit like you were somewhere you weren’t supposed to be, sneaking back into school after hours (the classroom vibe of the AAWW space helps engender that feeling). Given the themes of the book and our small number (around 20), the discussion at times would turn deeply personal. But I think for the most part all the attendees navigated it with sensitivity. Then Lisa actually showed up, which I still can’t believe actually happened.

Carolyn: Since that first gathering over a year and a half ago, the Cosmos Book Club in NYC has had 185 total attendees across 10 book club events, 3 social events (book swaps and holiday craft parties), and 1 writing session. We have had the privilege of hosting and interviewing wonderful authors — Lisa Ko, Sona Charaipotra, Nicole Chung, Crystal Hana Kim, Jia Tolentino, and Angie Kim. We’ve been featured in the New York Times as a prime example of the resurgence of book clubs in recent years.

Small group discussion at one of our book club gatherings
Carolyn in conversation with Jia Tolentino, September 2019

Rosa: The entire experience for me is a testament to the hard work Carolyn and everyone else involved put in, the boldness to just ask for stuff, and how many people actually felt drawn to the same thing we were when we first met. I hope it served as a beacon for people looking to understand themselves in the context of their culture and upbringing, and helped them find their people, so to speak.

Carolyn: I am so grateful to Rosa for the year we spent together planning conscientious, welcoming events and facilitating thoughtful conversations. Thank you to Aseah, Alice, Chery, and Liya for kindly volunteering to facilitate discussions as well. My utmost gratitude to Cassandra, Karen, and the Cosmos team for believing in my vision and coaching me through moments of doubt and burnout, to Julie for advocating for us within the publishing industry and making all of the magic we created possible, to our venue sponsor AAWW and various food sponsors throughout who provided delightful snacks to our members.

Most of all, thank you to every Asian woman author who believed in her story and shared it for the world to see, so that we as a group of Asian women readers could meet up and laugh and cry over your words. And thank you to any of you who have attended a Cosmos Book Club event in the past and have helped to create and shape this community. The book club would be nothing without your stories, curiosities, and musings. I have witnessed the formation of many beautiful friendships, the vulnerability and connectedness during book club discussions that some are experiencing for the very first time, and the inspiration that all of us have felt not only from the visiting authors and impactful words they’ve written, but also from the power and strength of sharing with each other.

Though I will be stepping down from leading the Cosmos Book Club, it will continue to live on under new leadership in 2020 — and in various hubs across the United States, no less! I am thrilled that this space can continue to live on and thrive, and hope that we can find and reach you in a Cosmos hub near you.

But what if there is no Cosmos Book Club nearby, or you want to start a book club for another community or interest? Read below!

Tips to Organize Your Own Book Club

Next, do the research. Are there similar groups out there in your local community? Can you help out and collaborate with existing groups instead? If there are but you still want to start your own, what are the primary differentiators?

What is the right size for a book club? Depends. Are you a book club of regular members that requires schedule coordination to allow for maximum participation, or a recurring event that is flexible on which members join and participate? A quite small number will be ideal for the former (likely no more than 10), while the latter can allow for larger numbers.

The Cosmos Book Club set its cap at 25 people, which has slowly increased to 30 over time. This was made possible by breaking up into small groups and having dedicated discussion facilitator for each group. An ideal size for a group would be around 8–10 people — the conversation flows quite naturally while also opening up moments of stillness for everyone to think and speak.

Where do I host my book club? Wherever you can! Your own living room, a friend’s office space, or a local bookstore are some good options. As long as there are places to sit and a setup area for snacks and beverages, anywhere will do.

How do I choose books for my book club? First, ask your members and community — readers love recommending books! For the Cosmos Book Club, Rosa and I started a master list of books written by Asian women that we knew of and would want to consider reading. The list grew over time from community recommendations and new releases.

From there, we would select a short list of six books every quarter to put up for voting. Members would vote their top choices through Google forms. You could conduct the voting locally at the end of your book club event if you are a book club of regular members.

Factors to consider when selecting books:

  • Availability e.g. “Is this book out yet? Is the release date too close to the date of the gathering and will that give members enough time to read it?”
  • Price e.g. “If this is a new book, is it only available in paperback? Are there e-books online that are cheaper? What does the stock look like in the public library catalog?”
  • Representation e.g. “Does the book offer a unique POV relative to previous picks?”
  • Structure e.g. “Does the format lend itself well to group discussion?”
  • Author Availability e.g. “Does the author live close to one of the hubs and could they possibly join for book club Q&A?”

How do I facilitate conversation in my book club? At the Cosmos Book Club, we found it most helpful to have designated facilitators that would be responsible for guiding the discussion. Facilitators would gather pre-event to ideate discussion questions that could spark conversation within the group.

As a facilitator, take notes and highlight passages while you read! You can use any system for this: Post-its, dog-earing pages, and handwritten or digital notes. Books will also frequently have reading guides online (example here) for further ideas on questions to ask and topics to discuss. You can also read author interviews and book reviews to gain more knowledge around the context of the book and author (and share any noteworthy quotes or facts with the group).

A tip: note page numbers whenever possible! At Cosmos Book Club, we found that members enjoy finding the relevant page and reminding themselves of the passage before discussing.

Remember the discussion questions are a starting point. Very frequently the discussion will veer off in completely different directions, sometimes unrelated to the book, and that can be perfectly okay! Use the questions as a tool to spark dialogue but be open to and receptive toward what the group wants to discuss. Also, make friends with long pauses or breaks in the conversation — while scary, these can allow time for members to think and craft their responses.

As with any facilitation, you may choose to verbalize guidelines or ground rules to the group before discussion starts. Some examples would be “speak from your own experience — use ‘I’ instead of ‘they’ or ‘we’” or “avoid interrupting when someone else is speaking.”

How do I reach out to authors? Authors will most likely have websites where you can find their PR/marketing team info or their personal contact info. Email the author personally whenever possible (typically more casual events such as book clubs are coordinated with the author), if not, reach out to their PR team.

It is best to have a venue secured and potential dates in mind for optimal chance of the author appearing in person or calling in for the book club. Make sure to check the author’s event schedule to ensure there are no date conflicts before reaching out.

If the author confirms, great! Reach out with further details and link to the event page when you are ready to share so she can help publicize. Also ask if she wants any questions or information shared with her in advance. And remember to thank her post-event for her time and generosity!

What other advice do you have?

  • Define and know your values. Do you want to keep events free and accessible, or do you want to charge a fee to provide delicious food? Do you want to have facilitated discussions, or have it be a free-flowing chat initiated by anyone? There will be plenty of decisions to make as you go, so defining your values beforehand will be crucial to know what to choose.
  • Be clear about and manage expectations around food. If your event is in the evening, people may want food to be provided or know whether they can bring their own dinners. This doesn’t always mean you need a large budget for food — you could ask attendees to each bring food items, potluck style.

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