How do you pick out a book?

Once upon a time I lived in a town with big box bookstores, used bookstores and independent bookstores, all of which carried fantasy and sf along with a bazillion other books.  And oh, don’t forget awesome libraries.  I used to depend a lot on serendipity to find good books.  I’d go wandering the stacks, picking up books and reading the backs, judging by the covers . . .

But now I live in the middle of nowhere.  Let me put some context on that.  I live in a county that is the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined.  There are less than 9K people in the county.  The cows outnumber the people by something like 20 to 1 or more.  The nearest Walmart is 70 miles away.  The nearest Costco, Home Depot and Lowes are 180 miles away.  A couple of years ago we got a rinky-dink Chinese food place in town.  I was ecstatic.  The point is, it’s no longer feasible to find books by serendipity.

So now I rely more on the web. Yep, I’ll read Amazon reviews, but I find I ignore them a lot. I just can’t tell if the readers have the same taste as I do.  I read people’s blogs and find what they like.  But usually I have to know their tastes a little to find if I’ll like the same sorts of things. I read recommendations on Bookstore sites like Mysterious Galaxy. Sometimes I’ll go looking for excerpts on authors’ websites.  A lot of times I’ll read the books by people I know.  After all, they are interesting people, likely their books are too.

But I’m wondering.  How do you find the books you read?  Do you read everything, even stuff that isn’t that interesting to you (like I once did when I had fewer children and fewer deadlines)?  Do you read reviews? Do you take friend recommendations?  Do you wander the bookstores judging books by their covers?  Do you read the first bit to see if it’s what you want?

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  1. 1. SMD

    I’m a terrible person when it comes to buying books, at least when it comes to going to a store without knowing what to buy when I get there.
    Generally it starts with the cover or name recognition. If that has me interested I’ll pick it up and read the back. If that keeps me interested then I’ll look inside the book and look at some of the writing from a random page. And if I’m really interested at that point and like the style of the writing I will buy the book.
    But I’m so picked about covers it’s hard to get past that point. I know, don’t judge a book by its cover, but I can’t help it. I’ll see something that just looks really awesome and that will be what catches my attention and makes me pick up a book.

    On a side note to that, I read a lot of review blogs and such and if I find something there that is interesting I’ll often investigate further on Amazon and figure out if I want it. I bought a Sean Williams book that way.


  2. 2. Tom Barlow

    I used to use the Nebula and Hugo as guides, but I feel like I’ve been burned so often by them I quit. They both seem to be awarded more on terms of lifetime achievement and con- cultivation than true value.

  3. 3. Karen Wester Newton

    For mainstream (rarely), and mysteries (more often) I rely on the Washington Post book reviews, especially the Sunday Book World section. For spec fic, I look at SWF. And of course, if I see someone at a con who sounds interesting, I might check them out later.

  4. 4. Bran fan

    Word of mouth is always number one. I think it is with everyone. After that, I rely heavily on reviews. The serendipity thing doesn’t really work for me. The cover and blurb are so often misleading. If a reviewer likes the book, then I get it from the library, and if I like it after I read it, I buy a copy (even though I’ve already read it) because I want to reward the author.

  5. 5. Kate Elliott

    I use multiple strategies for purchasing fiction.

    Word of mouth is probably key (as mentioned above), if only because it bring things to my attention.

    But browsing in the bookstore is probably my favorite. Despite knowing better, I will pick up a book based on the cover alone but I won’t necessarily buy it. In general, I avoid back cover descriptions and check out the opening scene to see if I like the voice and style and situation.

    Like you, and despite knowing better, i can have trouble getting past a bad cover to a good book within.

  6. 6. Alma Alexander

    Word of mouth is like wild magic. It isn’t remotely controllable or aimable, it happens or it doesn’t happen, it sometimes happens for things on a basis which passeth understanding and it sometimes doesn’t happen for things for similar reasons, it doesn’t seem to matter whether something is INTRINSICALLY good or not (and what does that mean, anyway?) it simply seems to matter that someone, somewhere, liked it, said so, started an avalanche. It’s beyond price, this word of mouth thing. It’s what writers pray for by canclelight to whatever deity is passing by and willing to listen. One drop of good word of mouth – the kind that starts a buzz – can be worth a barrel of useless publicity of the kind that does nothing except sit there and point to itself.

    Word of mouth is magic.

  7. 7. Thomas

    To pick books, I usually do a bit of investigative work. I look at the authors I like to read— Alfred Bester, Heinlein, Bradbury, et al. Then, I dig into what authors they like to read. And expanding deductively in a somewhat concentric circle, the authors and topics I like to read expanded.

    For instance, Stephen King and Bradbury liked or were greatly influenced by Richard Matheson. So I go read Matheson. Matheson, I found, wrote Twilight Zone episodes which I enormously enjoyed. So I queried, “Who else wrote Twilight Zone episodes who are also novelists?” Then I go find that.

    And so on and so forth in this every expanding area of interest. Sometimes I take recommendations from friends, BookTV interviews, walk-throughs of a bookstore, etc.

    For me in my walk-throughs through the bookstores, covers don’t hold too much weight for me as far as the selection of a book. It certainly helps (I mean, we’re talking about aesthetics after all, and I personally prefer the minimalistic covers rather than the busy thousand different directions cover.), but it’s not decisive. I usually quickly read about three or four pages to see if plot is compelling and to see if the writing style isn’t jarring. Then if it is and it isn’t, then I’ll look more into it… perhaps even buy it.

  8. 8. Blue Tyson

    LibraryThing pretty much, these days, although have made myself large lists of stuff in the past to look for, so as far as not knowing anything to get, never have that problem.

    But for new, LT is good.

  9. 9. Edward Greaves


    If I read an author’s blog long enough, and I enjoy what they write in their blog, then I give a book a try. If I like the first book I read, I’ll try more. Its sort of like word of mouth (which I use as well) except the “friend” in this case is the author.

    Prior to this, it was fairly hit or miss. I have half a shelf of books that I tried, and for various reasons I never connected with.

  10. 10. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    SMD: I recently judged a book by its cover and coveted it. Then I read a random page or two and discovered that it used the word reckon. It was epic fantasy and I couldn’t get past the reckon. I kept expecting a stetson hat and spurs somewhere.

    Tom: Amen and Hallelujiah.

    Karen: I like SFW too, but the problem is that they don’t review that many books and usually just the big names that get a lot of reviews elsewhere. I definitely like them for the screen stuff though.

    Bran: Good thought on the library. I like (as an author) that you go ahead and buy the book. Since so much in this biz relies on cold hard sales. How do you decide if the person reviewing or word of mouthing is good?

    Kate: I think of all those godawful 70s covers for books. They are so fun, but wow, chicks in chainmail. But a Tom Canty cover almost always gets me. Some others too.

    Thomas: I’m so impressed with your system. Methodical. Tres cool.

    Blue: I’ve not really used LibraryThing that way. I should try one of these days.

  11. 11. Keilexandra

    Word of mouth is the biggest for me, like most, but I also rely on blogs and trusted review sources. I rarely buy books, especially unread; I have a huge list of library books to read and a much shorter buying wishlist.

  12. 12. Mer

    I usually take word of mouth recommendations, but if I do happen to find myself in a bookstore, I go with 1) the cover, 2) the back cover, 3) the beginning, 4) some random page near the middle. If I like what I see on all of those, I’ll typically buy.

    As for online purchasing, more and more books on Amazon have a “look inside” feature that lets you read the beginning. That helps for me.

  13. 13. Kristin

    The major factors influencing my reading choices usually are:

    1. Reviews. I’m an avid reader of the New York Times book review, and almost every week, I end up purchasing at least one book that was reviewed favorably that week and sounds interesting. This makes up a LOT of my reading.

    2. New books by authors I’ve read before and enjoyed. If I really love a book by a certain author, chances are I’ll purchase some of his/her other efforts, at least eventually.

    3. Recommendations from friends or family. This doesn’t happen often, but if it’s really something I’m interested in, I might give it a try.

    4. Books I find randomly on Amazon, for example, through the “recommended for you” feature. This doesn’t happen often at all lately since I (purposely) don’t browse through their site as much as I used to looking for these things, but it still happens on occasion.

    That’s about it. Oh, and I also belong to a book club, so once a month I’m reading something that was chosen by the group.

Author Information

Diana Pharaoh Francis

Diana Pharaoh Francis has written the fantasy novel trilogy that includes Path of Fate, Path of Honor and Path of Blood. Path of Fate was nominated for the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award. Recently released was The Turning Tide, third in her Crosspointe Chronicles series (look also for The Cipher and The Black Ship). In October 2009, look for Bitter Night, a contemporary fantasy. Diana teaches in the English Department at the University of Montana Western, and is an avid lover of all things chocolate. Visit site.



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