Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Land of Lost Readers

by Cathy Pickens

Covers are supposed to draw in readers, right? Writers focus compulsively on their covers, as if they had magical powers, akin to the Pied Piper’s flute, to lure readers in droves.

But what really lures readers? I’ve seriously pondered that question, both as a reader and as a writer. As readers, we all want a good story, though what fulfills that is different for each of us. Covers can telegraph the story … or scare us off.

But what gets a reader to even consider a book? During one week, I stood in two different bookstores and watched two different readers enter the doors. One store was a wonderful used bookstore with the helpful and knowledgeable owner at the desk and a great selection of books. The young man in a military t-shirt and bulging biceps said, “I want to read some classics.”

She told him where to look. I spied him as he stood, staring at the shelves of books. I didn’t see him pick up anything. I saw him wandering around the store, looking at other offerings. He left without buying anything. He hadn’t known where to start or what he might like, so he abandoned the search. It broke my heart.

A few days later, I was in a big-box bookstore, books piled on tables in front. A man entered the store, looking about as if he was in unfamiliar territory. He walked up to the tables, looking at the books, lightly touching the covers of a few with his fingertips but picking up nothing.

He scanned the bright, cavernous room, looking at the section signs: Fiction. History. Regional. He stood for some time, looking about, as if in a busy train station without a ticket. He turned and walked out, never moving past the tables at the front stacked with books, as if he’d been afraid of getting lost.

Twice in one week, I’d watched someone enter a bookstore—which I consider a magical land of possibility—and leave empty-handed because he didn’t have a map, didn’t know the secret language, didn’t know how to converse with the natives.

I’m still sad, when I think of it. In a library, we have guides, knowledgeable folk who will lead us, if we have sense enough to seek their wisdom. Long may their tribe prosper.

But how do we reach those who want to read, but have no idea where to start? I fear it is particularly true of males, who as boys lose interest (because their verbal skills develop more slowly than girls, so they become discouraged? Because they can’t find books that speak to them? Because it’s sissy? So many reasons.) Too many lose their way and can’t find it again.

But what of my female English professor friend who loves to read but can’t find enough intelligent, well-written cozies to keep her interest? She knows the language, she has a map, she has money to spend; she still can’t find the treasure she seeks.

So what can best guide readers to their books? How do you find your way? Is it reviews from bookstore staff? Online reviews on individuals’ websites? Reviews on Amazon or bn.com or others? Recommendations from friends? Dumb blind luck as you stand in the bookstore? The cover? The blurbs? The description?

It is a topic worth some conversation. I read Amazon reviews, believing I can usually tell who is a friend of the writer and who is an objective reader. I read newspaper reviews (the few that still exist) and talk to friends and pour through libraries and bookstores. I wait anxiously for favorite writers’ next books to come out. But I don’t spend any time looking for books on FaceBook or such; occasionally—though seldom—I find something mentioned on a listserv.

Where do you turn? What do you ignore? Writers, book publishers, booksellers, and libraries are dying to know! Any guidance for them?

10 comments:

Maribeth said...

I love cozy but since reading a lot of writers blogs I decided this year I would try at least one book by each of the writers. I have been pleasantly surprised by a multitude of different genres.
In the library or bookstore sometimes a title or cover is all it takes. I have hardly ever had success with books with raving reviews.
Maribeth
Giggles and Guns

Jen A said...

This is a hard one for me, because I just can't relate to not being able to find something I want to read. I find books to read EVERYWHERE. I read a lot of blogs, including those of my favorite authors, who frequently recommend books they've read that they enjoy. Done. They're on my list. I'm in a book club, and it's a diplomatic selection process - every month we all have the chance to recommend books for next time, and the leader selects 5 and puts them up for an online vote. Often I'll vote for one but add two others to my list because they sound good too. I work with some good friends who are readers and we trade books among the 4 of us like fiends. My husband and I are both English majors and always discovering new books independently of one another and pressing them on the other saying, "You have to read this; you'll love it." I'm friends with a number of librarians, who (lucky dogs) have to keep up with books as a JOB, and they make frequent recommendations through Facebook posts or conversations or blogs or whatever. Basically, I hear about books EVERYWHERE. I have a stack of over 50 next to my bed to read now. I have a wishlist of well over 200 that haven't been scavenged, borrowed, or purchased yet. If anyone need recommendations, I have about a billion that I'd be more than happy to share!

Keetha said...

I read BookPage and Amazon reviews and often take those recommendations and shop at our local independent bookstore.

I read blogs where people post about the books they've read and if something sounds interesting, I'll look it up on Amazon, read about it, and then decide whether to add it to my to-be-read list. I look for book recommendations everywhere!

Laura Marcella said...

I agree with Jen: I find books I want to read everywhere! There's so much I want to read and never enough time. I love reading and read everything. I don't have a favorite genre.

GoodReads is a really great site to read reviews and discover books. I've found a lot of great books there.

I'm also a browser; I spend hours in the bookstore and library. Then I lament over the fact that I have to put back some of the two dozen books in my arms because I won't have time to read them all in 3 or 4 weeks!

I don't pay too much attention to covers. Ever since I was small, I was told to never judge a book by its cover. The title and blurb draws me in.

Now that I've joined the Blogosphere, I've added a lot of books to my library lists from other bloggers' recommendations.

Patrick Brian Miller said...

Social networking has allowed readers and writers to connect like never before, although a virtual connection could never compete with a book signing, speaking event, or live interview. However, virtual connections can be established much faster and over far greater distances. The publishing industry now offers so many choices that making a selection is sometimes overwhelming, but that's a good thing, right? I am very fortunate in that sometimes authors contact me for my work on literary tourism, and I have contacted other writers for the same purpose. These contacts have led to some very rich reading experiences that I will always treasure.

Cathy Pickens said...

Wow! Lots of neat ways to find books! So many people bemoan the advent of the internet as taking away readers--and maybe we do spend time online that we might have spent with books, but it also leads me to books I wouldn't have found otherwise. I agree about having TOO much to read ... it's a good problem, but I fear one day the police report will read that my husband and I have been crushed to death by a toppling stack of TBR by our bedside. Not a bad way to go, except that I would hope we could catch up on our reading on the other side :>) I still worry about those who haven't found their way into the blogosphere--seems they are truly lost, these days, if they're unfamiliar with the land of books.

C.A. said...

The 'blurb'....and then I open the book to the near-middle, see if the writer is actually able to write prose, and if so, I get it. Simple enough. No blog reviews, no searching online, just doing what I've always been doing BEFORE the internet.

P.S. The cover is unimportant to me.

JLC said...

As the author of two books whose covers are so far from my taste I have trouble hoping anyone would pick one up, I can only say that the last comment suggesting the blurb and a foray into the middle of the book are sufficient gives me hope! And I'll remember that simple test myself when in doubt.

mandythebookworm said...

What a thought provoking post, I love it!

I haven't really given it much thought, like Jen A said, I can manage to find books anywhere and everywhere - although I guess there must be some method to my madness.

I am a member on Goodreads and have a good core group of friends whose thoughts and recommendations I trust.

Recently I have been provided with books by authors and publishing companies and must admit I have read some really great books I mightn't have picked up in the first place so am very thankful for that.

As for being in a bookstore without any particular book in mind I would probably just walk around, take my time, until a title grabs me or how that title is displayed on the spine of the book, have a read of the blurb and the first page and then decide.

The cover doesn't necessarily get me in, when books are displayed at our bookstores you mainly just see their spines. Hm, good question indeed.

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