This is the time of year when my science fiction and fantasy book group, which uses themes instead of a single shared book, decides what it will read in the upcoming year. Because this is a library group, I prefer to construct an entire year’s calendar at one time. It makes it easier to publicize the group and to keep member’s informed about what’s forthcoming should they miss a meeting.
Seeking the input of group members in regards to reading choices is a double-edged sword. Some group leaders find they get better results with autocracy and thus keep the reading selection entirely to themselves. Using more democratic methods to decide the schedule can end up pleasing nobody instead of everybody or result in too many awkward selections–books that are difficult to obtain, not well suited for discussion, divisive, over-specialized, or otherwise problematic.
On the positive side, giving readers a role in selecting books or topics creates buy-in, enhances involvement, and leads to choices that a single moderator might not ever discover. Readers are less likely to complain about selections when they know the group as a whole had a strong hand in the choices. In the end, which method is used is a judgment call that will vary from group to group.
I try to balance democracy with benign dictatorship, and I’ve found at least two successful methods for doing so. One is to have a “pitch” meeting, where members bring their suggestions and make a brief pitch on why the book or theme should be selected. The options are then compiled on a ballot and put to the vote. I’ve found that its difficult to make a strong pitch for a problematic book, especially if I insert a few carefully leading questions after the pitch. The results of this method are usually pretty good.
For a little more control, I create a ballot myself. It has lists of proposed themes, books, or authors. At one meeting, I circulate this list and allow members a chance to suggest other items for the ballot. At the next meeting, I’ve added these to the ballot, and conduct the vote. It takes a little preparation, but it gets good results, balancing input and control.
I allow myself the extra luxury of voting last. I compile the votes from the other ballots and give myself super-voter privileges, using my votes to break ties, and in some cases combining two related themes into a single topic. Topics that were close but didn’t quite make it go back on next year’s ballot, while those that found little interest are removed.
This ensures that I can create a schedule for the upcoming year that is balanced but diverse. In the case of my science fiction/fantasy group, I aim for a schedule of themes diverse enough that readers of many different orientations will find enough topics to keep them coming back to the group.
Have you developed any special tricks for choosing selections or themes? Share them in the comments if you have.