What are your criteria for choosing the next book to read?
The question occurred to me the other day when I discovered a guide to navigating National Public Radio’s (NPR) Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy Books. It’s an interesting way to find something that appeals to my tastes. However, keep in mind the chart I linked is over ten years old and there’s been a lot of great sci-fi and fantasy published since then.
But when I’m browsing the shelves in a local bookstore I don’t have a flowchart to guide me. All I see are rows of spines displaying an array of fonts in various colors. Every so often there’s a front cover facing me from one of the shelves or at the display at the end of the aisle. I see some authors that I’ve previously read, a few whose names are familiar to me, and many strangers who I’m not sure if I want to meet.
I think the first thing I look for is the title. Does it sound interesting? Mysterious? Does it stir my curiosity? It goes hand in hand with the cover art. Does the cover art look interesting to me? Does it make me wonder about the story and characters?
Cover art has always been a big selling point for books, especially in the sci-fi and fantasy section. Cover art catches the eye, makes a potential reader pick up a copy and take a few moments to look it over before turning it over to read the synopsis on the back cover or, as with hardcovers, the inside sleeve. Back in the early days of publishing these genres, cover art didn’t always provide an accurate picture of what the story was about.
This isn’t to say the cover art was bad, it wasn’t, but the imagery was usually exaggerated or simply didn’t have any relation to the story inside. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, I think it was smart marketing, especially when you consider the target audience back in the early days was teenage boys and young men.
I took this into account with own self-published books. I created them myself using images with a Creative Commons license and Pixelmater Pro. I wanted cover art that would both catch the eye and convey what the reader might expect from the stories inside.
Once the book is in hand, I always flip to the back cover and read the synopsis, the recommendations from reviewers or other authors, and then I open to a random page near the front of the book. I do this so I can read a paragraph or two and try to get a feel for the writing. Does the author write in an engaging way? Do I like their style, their voice? It’s sort of like getting a sample at a bakery or deli. Try a little bite and see if it pleases the pallet.
After that, if the sample sits right with me, I’ll flip to the first page and read a bit. Depending on how the opening catches my attention, I may read just a few sentences or maybe the entire first page. If the first few lines don’t catch me, then the book goes back on the shelf. If I read the page, it’s a sale.
That, more or less, is how I choose a new physical book. Online shopping is different because I can use search terms and filters to narrow down my search to something specific. It’s convenient, but I find it takes the fun out of the search. That’s why the majority of the books I buy are physical. I want to feel them in my hand, smell the paper and ink, flip through the pages and let my eyes take it all in. Digital books just don’t give me the same experience.
So how do you choose the books you read? Do you have a formula? Go with your gut? Just pick up random books and trust your luck?