Book club struggling? Invite an author.
Your book club is flagging. It's all you can do to get your group, dragging their feet like freshmen saddled with Proust, to read the selection. When a meeting does finally come together, discussion tends toward the latest episode of "Lost."
Why not invite an author?
Certainly with the writer in the room, even the worst procrastinator wouldn't be audacious enough to leave a book unfinished. And meandering conversation should finally settle onto questions of character and subtext.
The chance that your anointed author, flattered, will accept the invitation is surprisingly good.
"The misconception about authors is that they're not people like you and me," says Erin Cox, assistant director of publicity at Scribner. "They're just like everyone else and they want their work ... to be loved. A group of people who elected to read your book and invited you - that's a nice invitation to get."
For a certain type of writer, particularly those who write literary fiction - a genre that tends to be more popular with book groups and critics than its sales would suggest - the invite may be especially well received. And many publishing houses consider book clubs an untapped market.
The trick, if you want the writer to appear in person, is to choose someone local. Otherwise you'll probably have to settle for a phone call, an online chat, or an appearance via webcam.
On a Tuesday toward the end of summer, Heidi Cron and her seven-person club hosted Boston-area author Steve Almond, whose account of the independent candy-manufacturing industry, "Candyfreak,"also chronicles his obsession with the stuff.
"It was easier than I thought," says Ms. Cron. "He happens to be someone who's around my age ... and so it didn't seem so far flung. But I really was surprised by how quickly he responded."
A few things to consider before extending that invitation: "It throws the chemistry off to invite a new person - especially the author," says Anita Diamant, whose 1997 book "The Red Tent," a work of historical fiction with roots in the Bible, is considered the first to become a bestseller after gaining popularity with book clubs.
With hardback sales modest, Diamant's publisher planned to pulp the remaining copies. Diamant pushed instead to have them sent to female rabbis, who in turn recommended the story to their congregations. Through this word of mouth, sales picked up. The publisher then sent paperback copies to other clergy and book-group leaders, and created a reading guide.
In 1999, the book was listed in "What to Read: The Essential Guide for Reading Group Members and Other Book Lovers."
Grateful for this pocket of readers, especially in the early days of her book's release, Ms. Diamant, who also lives near Boston, says: "When anyone invited me to a book group in my neighborhood, I went."
Ms. Cron's group spent some time thinking about how they would approach Almond. Would they bring up aspects of the book they didn't like?
In the end, they did, and Cron felt he responded well. As the group realized how freely Almond answered their questions, they actually became more critical, she says. But he didn't seem to mind.
To accommodate the "Candy" man, Cron's group supplied confections. True to his book's title, she says: "He ended up filling his pockets before he left."
Most writers can be contacted through their websites. If that doesn't work, call the publisher and ask for the publicity department. A few publishing houses have formal initiatives:
• The Ballantine Reader's Circle (randomhouse.com/ BB/read/chat_locally.html) offers access to 95 authors, including Susan Orlean, author of "The Orchid Thief."
• HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster both feature a monthly lottery. The winning group earns a call from that month's spotlighted author.
• Simon & Schuster's (bookclubreader.com) current holiday-themed selection is Jennifer Chiaverini's "The Christmas Quilt."