How does a book choose you?

I was browsing in my fave local indie bookshop the other day … looking at all the new arrivals.  Then I got into a conversation about what makes you pick up a book – or rather, what is it that makes a book cry Pick me! Pick me!   

There are some obvious factors:

  • In particular, I’m a sucker for a gorgeous cover.  I succumbed to the lure of the  hardback of Barbara Trapido’s new novel Sex and Stravinsky without a second glance – no waiting for the paperback.
  • Ditto for a quality production – good quality paper and covers, nice endpapers etc.
  • The ‘BBC Radio 4 Book at Bedtime’ sticker on The Still Point by Amy Sackville (which I reviewed here) confirmed the promise of the lovely cover.
  • A great quote from a respected publication or author helps too – “Little Women on Mushrooms” – New York Times – makes Alice Hoffman’s latest, The Story Sisters sound irresistible!
  • Then it is a huge help if you’ve heard something positive too – be it a good review in the weekend papers, or (increasingly important for me) a recommendation from fellow bloggers and friends.
  • Then there are favourite subjects and settings – Venice, (plus Italy in general), Russia, Dystopias and Fairytale elements all tick the boxes for me.
  • I do read the blurbs, but I only flick through a couple of pages of the book to see how the words fall on the page, reading no more than a sentence or two usually.

So what makes me less likely to pick up a book?

  • I admit it, I’m shallow!  Unless I’ve heard good things, a boring or poorly designed cover is a no-no.
  • I also admit, I can be a bit of a booksnob at times – if it’s a genre I don’t normally read, romance (sorry!), for instance, I won’t look at it either, that goes the same for cover quotes from the tabloids.
  • A friend says he only has to see the words ‘studied creative writing’ now in a new author biog and he loses interest instantly.

I think it all boils down to gut instinct in the end – well, that and the feeling I get sometimes that you don’t choose books, they choose you …

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18 thoughts on “How does a book choose you?

  1. Ahh – this is a wonderful book too, definitely definitely worth buying!
    I’m going to hear her speak next week actually.

    • Excellent – I’m looking forward to reading it. I saw her recently too – she was absolutely lovely, but very rambling in a very lovely way – very chatty. Too many verys but you know what I mean!

  2. I admit I’m easily lured by a good cover too! Especially if they are art deco or art nouveau. And anything with history, mystery, gothic, interwar and medieval totally gets my attention too. I just can’t seem to help it.

    • Good covers are definitely a crucial part of the package aren’t they. Medieval settings are not something I’ve read many of – any recommendations?

  3. This is always such an interesting topic!
    I very rarely buy new books unless someone I know (usually a blogger) has recommended them. For secondhand books, the impulse buys tend to be chunky hardbacks from the 1930s… or anything publised in that decade by Jonathan Cape.

    But, if I ever do pick up something unknown in a bookshop, then a beautiful cover will be the deciding factor. And I also always flick to p.60 (or thereabouts) and read a paragraph or two. I don’t think you can fairly judge a writing style by the first paragraphs, so I dip in somewhere else.

    • When I dip in for a sentence or two, it’s always towards the middle of a book. I love the way you’re so precise about p60 then qualify it with imprecision Simon!

  4. Great post Annabel, I dont think I have ever sat down and thought ‘what makes me buy a book’, this is something I will have to look into next year when I am allowed to once more.

    • You’ll either be like a child in a sweetshop, or overwhelmed! I think you’re marvellous at sticking with it – I just couldn’t do it.

  5. Pretty covers attract me like a magpie, and at the moment anything published by Vintage, or Bloomsbury gets a second look – I’ve had a real winning streak with them recently, Virago books turn my head too, radio 4 stickers intrigue me as well.

    • Of course the best stickers are properly peelable – unlike all those Richard & Judy ones which are notoriously sticky!

  6. These days I don’t browse for books all that often; most of my books come through book swapping sites and when I go to the bookstore I try to have a list in mind. But when I do browse, it’s the unusual covers that attract me. If it’s another headless lady in period clothing or a black Twilight-esque cover I tend not to see it, but something with a gorgeous typeface or striking photograph tends to grab me. Comparisons to the current “hot” book turn me right off and will often cause me to reject an otherwise appealing book.

    And I love Simon’s idea of dipping in at page 60 or so. I’ll have to try that !

  7. I’m with you on the black covers Teresa – I’m definitely teen vampire fatigued! (BTW I am loving Fledgling though). The whole headless woman thing is a turn-off too. Apparently authors don’t like faces being imposed on their characters, so no heads – but that just irritates potential readers!

  8. A good cover wouldn’t make me buy a book but a bad cover is off-putting. I hate the headless women ones too. I tend to shop by genre too like you.

    I think it is shame that some people are put off by ‘studied creative writing’. We expect dancers to train and other artists like painters to go to art college. Why do we think our writers should emerged spontaneously both talented and able to control that talent effectively on the page? When you open so many badly written books from people who haven’t studied creative writing I think more of them should do so!

    • Apparently the headless women came about as authors don’t like a face imposed on ‘their’ characters!

  9. I’m kind of an odd ball… covers can be catchy but what hooks me is the first sentence. For some reason I get turned off if a book starts with a description of landscape (I don’t know… just a personal quirk I guess) . I prefer a great piece of dialogue or a fabulously insane first paragraph. I like to skim a few chapters in to see if the pace is consistently good. For example, the cover of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying was cheesy but the first paragraph was a killer.

    Sometimes I go into a bookstore with the intention of picking up books that I wouldn’t normally flip through, just for fun. If I spot a book/cover that I might typically ignore, I’ll reach for it and see if it passes the “first sentence/paragraph” test. I’m usually surprised by the results.

    Another reason I might pick up a book is if the film is an interesting adaptation. I ended up reading The Prestige after I saw the movie and I was bowled over by the intricacy of the book. Not to mention, The Constant Gardner; somehow the film fills in the gaps of the book and vice versa. It’s a very complimentary relationship. Or, The Hole by Guy Burt, which essentially created a movie out of the last chapter of the novel.

    Great question!

    • Hi Lydia, The Prestige was brilliant wasn’t it! Loved both book and film. I usually read the book first and see the film after – not your way around.

  10. I don’t like too many blurbs whatever they say and whoever’s quote they are. I am weak on starnge titles although aware how deceitful they can be (like Ukrainian tractors or similar).

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