The mysterious world of book discovery

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Recently I was browsing in Waterstones when I overheard a customer speaking to the staff. She was a fan of a particular author and was working her way through his backlist but was struggling to find a couple of out-of-print titles. I was intrigued and immediately went home to research the author online. I learned that he writes historical mysteries, which is a genre I enjoy. He is also a prolific author. I pursued him to my local library and borrowed one of the three of his titles currently in stock.

I’d love to end this story by saying that reading his work was a transformational experience. The truth is, after I went to all that trouble, his writing didn’t really appeal and I didn’t finish the book. (I’m not naming him, he’s just an innocent bystander in my obsession, and he’s clearly a talented writer with a devoted fan base.)

It led me to think about the lengths a committed book lover will go to, driven by curiosity, passion and the more unedifying fear of missing out.

Of course most people would not have been curious in that situation. I’m equally interested in what does motivate the casual reader, the person who buys a book for their holiday or read for ten minutes each night before they fall asleep. Even people I know who read a lot but are not engaged in the worlds of blogging or social media often tell me they don’t know what to read next. (It’s not true that ‘everyone’ is on social media, I had colleagues in my last job who were reluctant to even use email.)

There is plenty of research on this, but it never quite rings true for me. Word of mouth is often cited as the main way people discover books, but I think word of mouth for books works differently from other products. If I’m alone in the lift with a work colleague struggling for small talk, I might tell them that I visited a new restaurant at the weekend and that it’s definitely worth going. I wouldn’t feel the need to enquire first about their dietary preferences or whether they enjoy dining out.

However I’d be unlikely to share the fact that I had read a really good book, or discovered a fascinating author, unless I already knew they were a keen reader. Reading is a more private activity , and one we mainly discuss with people we know share our interest.

Maybe when people say word of mouth what they really mean is they don’t know how they heard of the book, but when they looked for something to buy it was already familiar to them. They may have spotted it in an ad, or read about it, or seen someone reading it on the train, but it didn’t register until later. I have a friend who likes to read but doesn’t get much time. She will grab a title from the front table of a bookshop without reading the description or the first page, just on the basis of that familiarity.

These days I mostly discover new books via bloggers, reviewers and social media along with marketing emails from publishers via Netgalley (although their targeting is erratic, for some reason they think I’m a massive fan of commercial women’s fiction).

There’s also serendipity. Unfortunately as libraries are ever more starved of funds it becomes harder to borrow the book you want, but it does encourage you to pick up something you wouldn’t normally have considered. I used to like the random nature of charity shops and second-hand bookshops as well, though I must admit I’m more likely now to buy books that are discounted on Kindle.

Things I don’t rely on: I don’t read broadsheet reviews anymore. I just feel that they cover the same narrow range of authors and opinions. I also don’t tend to trust their impartiality – often the reviewer will have some kind of connection with the author, in that they’re in the same social circle or have the same agent or whatever.

The famed recommendation engines of Amazon and Goodreads don’t often turn up things that interest me but it does happen, as do other chance discoveries while browsing. There are also more unconventional means. I am that terrible person who reads over your shoulder on public transport, the one who has to steal the book they hadn’t finished from the holiday cottage (but I’d leave another in its place, so it’s really more of a hostage exchange).

Perhaps more mysterious than the discovery process is what tips us from knowing about a book to actually buying it. The longest I can recall is over a decade.

Someone recommended Jane Smiley to me back in the nineties. I got as far as looking for her books in my local library but the only one they had available was Horse Heaven. This didn’t really appeal to me because it was about horse-racing. I don’t know why I didn’t reserve one of her other titles, perhaps because in those days there was no online catalogue and it was quite a cumbersome process involving index cards and filling out forms and talking to staff. Or maybe I just didn’t care enough. I certainly didn’t buy any of her books.

A decade later I was listening to  World Book Club  on the BBC World Service when Jane Smiley was on talking about A Thousand Acres. I decided that I would look for a copy and then forgot about it. A few weeks later Good Faith was in our local convenience store for £1.50 so I splurged. I went on to read and enjoy most of her books (including Horse Heaven) and wondered why I’d waited so long.

What are your odd book discovery stories? Where do you normally find new books?

10 Comments

  1. Such an interesting piece, Kate. I spent so long in the book trade in one capacity or another that my own reading has often been dictated by that. I find bloggers an excellent source of recommendation these days.

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    1. Things have changed dramatically for me in just a few years. Before that it was mainly bookshops, broadsheets and browsing. I used to look for upcoming releases in The Bookseller in our local library – I’m not even sure they stock it any more!

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  2. When I wasn’t on any social media (all of 5 months ago!) I would go to the library or bookstore and “shop” there like your friend. I would grab books with interesting covers, or sometimes with weird names or something that just caught my eye! (this is how I discovered the amazing author Banana Yoshimoto… On the sole reason that her name was Banana… I know. Dumb. But I’M SO GLAD I DID IT!!)
    My mother is not on social media, and she gets most of her reading ideas from the newspaper where they have weekly reviews of books… Unfortunately this means that she mostly ends up reading a lot of AAA bestsellers like “Girl on a Train” and such garbage. But, every once in a while she finds a good one that she passes to me as I RARELY look at the bigger titles myself. She also has me to trade with, so there is definitely REAL word of mouth going on. I agree that it has to be with someone who wants to hear it though, otherwise you’re just wasting your breath… Sorry about the novel! Ha ha! It’s a subject I love! Thanks for the post! 💖💖

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    1. Sounds like you and your mum have got everything covered between you! I swap recommendations with my mum too but she’s such a fast reader I think she goes to the library and selects books by weight. She always has a pile of hardbacks the size of a small family saloon.

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  3. Reading to me is like eating: I tend to go for what I’ve got used to, staying cautious but occasionally tentatively trying something new, extending my range if I find I’m pleasantly surprised. So I’m not omnivorous, which is why I from time to time indulge in Reading Challenges — to push myself out of a comfort zone.

    Now I do read and enjoy the broadsheet reviews, I don’t mind saying. But as I’m a bit of a neophobiac — suspicious of the new just because it is shiny new — I rarely read anything hot off the presses. It takes me a week or more to read the Saturday Guardian, and even then I haven’t time to even glance at two or three of the supplements. So when I finally get round to reading what I first saw reviewed it may be several months or even years down the line.

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    1. I think sometimes it’s good to read books a while after publication, when the hype has died down. I can be more sure then that my opinion isn’t influenced by what everyone else is saying . It’s also interesting when books get a lot of marketing buzz at launch and then disappear without trace!

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  4. Hi Kate, I was very interested by this. I get many recommendations from blogs, recommendations by people I have been following for a few years now. Some others come from prizes, especially the Women’s Prize for fiction and some of the less prestigious prizes, but like you I find that broadsheet newspaper reviews are so dominated by men (books reviewed as well as reviewers) that I get too cross to read on!
    Thanks for your thoughts oaths.
    Caroline at Bookword.

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