Better Book Selection through Balloting
Posted by: Neil Hollands
It’s the time of year when many book groups set the calendar for the upcoming year. I’ve had good luck with balloting as a means for selecting themes or titles. Ballots give democratic input to the selection process while still allowing group leaders to retain some measure of control. Here’s how:
First, filter which books or themes go on the ballot. The ballots I’ve used offer about 50 choices. Eleven of those will become selections for my upcoming year. I draft a list of possibilities myself, then add the optional step of running the ballot by readers a month early to ask for further suggestions. That may seem like a lot of choices, but books or themes are easy to generate, and splitting the vote among many possibilities gives a better sense of what the group likes and doesn’t like. It’s hard for anyone to complain when choosing from that many options. As a rule of thumb, I suggest that you offer between four and five times as many options as you have spots. If your group uses themes, keep descriptions short but meaningful. If you select individual titles, add a brief description, probably copying and pasting from a short, positive review.
To keep some control of the agenda, divide the ballot. Instead of letting members vote haphazardly for any number of items, which gives heavy voters more influence and possibly leaves the agenda with too many similar books or themes, split the ballot into balanced subgroups. For instance, for my science fiction and fantasy group, which uses themes, the ballot has four categories: mixed themes which apply to both genres, fantasy themes, science fiction themes, and individual authors. Break your ballot down by genre, style, subject, or whatever other categories will provide the desired mix of selections or themes.
Readers are required to vote for a specific number of options in each category (between one half and one fourth of the possibilities in each category). They can write in other themes or writers as well as one of their votes, but these mostly become entries on the ballot the following year.
Tally the votes. Every vote counts equally, but I allow myself to vote last, after seeing the results of other votes. This allows me to break ties in a way that keeps our schedule balanced. Take the top vote-getters in each category (not just the top vote-getters overall) to obtain good variety. Save results as the basis for the next ballot, dumping suggestions that found little support and retaining those that missed the cut by just a few votes.
You might choose to play with this system, perhaps keeping a few slots open for serendipitous selections or for use at the group leader’s discretion as the year unfurls. I’ve been in groups that used much smaller, more frequent ballot, making only a few selections at a time. No matter how you apply this process, your readers will appreciate the transparency of selection, the opportunity for input, and the sense that topics are chosen democratically.