How do you decide what you want to read?

I saw this week that Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad won the Pulitzer for fiction. Miriam read it here for a recent book club and liked it a lot. It’s on my reading list, and has been for some time. I’m a fan of Egan’s, and she and I passed through the halls at The Tribeca Film Center many years ago when I was an intern there, even before she became a published writer. Then this morning I saw this article about what sounds like a fascinating new popular science book that explores an eight decade study of longevity. I’ve added it to my list as well.

It got me to thinking about what influences a person’s buying decisions when it comes to books and where they are learning about the books they want to read. Personally, I pull my reading list together based on many sources, including reviews, articles, bestseller lists, and word of mouth. But since I work in the publishing industry, it’s a different sort of research. I just ordered, for example, copies of Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, which won the National Book Award last year, as well as Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which was universally praised as one of the best books of 2010. For me, it’s not just about reading a good book, although that’s certainly a fringe benefit. It’s about researching the market and learning precisely what makes a book great. There are lessons to be learned from these examples that I can apply to projects I’m developing, and those I’m considering as well.

So, I’m curious to know more from our readers about their buying habits. A few questions:

Does anyone out there wait all year to see what the Pulitzer for fiction is and then buy it if you haven’t already read it? Or do you not care at all about the prestigious prize? Are there any other literary prizes that matter to you?

Do reviews sway you in a direction, and if so, from which publications? Do you swear by one reviewer over another whose taste you feel is in sync with your own? Do you wait each year for the annual best-of lists from the New York Times and others, and pick a handful from there?

Does the occasional ad on tv remind you to go out and buy the latest commercial blockbuster (I always find books ads so painfully awkward and not at all convincing)?

Or do you simply walk into a local bookstore and peruse the shelves? If that’s your preference, do you look at the new and noteworthy tables, the bestsellers, or the general fiction or nonfiction shelves by genre or category? Do you spend 10 minutes looking or 2 hours (and do you sometimes start a book in the store and put it back if it’s not working for you?)?

So many questions to think about what brings us to the books we read. Thanks in advance for the feedback. And whatever way you come to your choices, keep on buying books!

5 Responses to How do you decide what you want to read?

  1. JP says:

    Reviews DO sway my opinion — but more in one way than the other: If I keep seeing reviews of a book that I planned to buy that are negative and bring up things in the book I know I wouldn’t like, I’ll take it off my list of books to read. That said, how I choose what books to read? The synopsis. I go into a bookstore, go on Goodreads on my phone to look my to-read list, and choose what I think I would like (mostly by the synopsis.)

  2. Stephanie P. says:

    Reviews? No in that I ignore the opinion in them (and tend to not read them in full because they often give too much away). But they might make me aware of a book I hadn’t heard of, and I opt to go out and buy the book up simply because of the author, subject or setting. And I’ll buy it hardcover and new to support the industry (unless it’s available only overseas and I don’t want to wait for the US publication date). The only review that swayed me to immediately buy a book is the Tiger’s Wife because the themes it tackled and style seemed similar to my own novel.

    Ditto for Prizes. Makes no difference to me if it got a prize.

    Way I select a book? Go to independent bookstores if I want to find a really interesting book. Go to the chains to see what’s hitting the mass market (or if I’m not convinced a book will be a decent read and so I don’t want to pay full prize and so will take advantage of coupons). Read synopsis, author bio and MAYBE who’s reviewed it. But it’s never the same thing that will make me buy the book.

    And if I’m really into a subject or author- will use amazon.com to help me find related books.

    Used bookstores helps me find ones out of print. I might start a love affair with an author’s new books that way too.

  3. If the author isn’t already on my “buy everything they’ve ever written” list, I have to read the first couple of chapters in the bookstore before I’ll buy.

    I browse randomly until a title interests me. I don’t even read the back cover. If the first couple of pages don’t grab me, it’s all over.

    If it passes the “first pages” test and I’m still interested after the first chapter, the book comes home with me. I can usually select three or four books in less than an hour at the bookstore.

    I don’t pay any attention at all to prizes or reviews. An advertisement or a good review might send me to the bookstore to read the first couple of chapters, but the review itself isn’t enough to sell me the book.

  4. Peerless says:

    That’s more than sesnible! That’s a great post!

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