While talking to some fellow readers the other day, I noticed something that struck me as odd. One of the concerns about buying books (as opposed to just borrowing them from a library) was that they didn’t know if they’d like the book. If they bought it and didn’t like it, there went their book cash. If they borrowed it and didn’t like it, they could just return it, no harm done.
This struck me as really, really weird. I LOVE to own my own books, which is why there is no library card in my wallet. (the rumors that I’m on the run from librarian SWAT teams for failure to return books is entirely false, though) I don’t like giving my books back; I’m a book miser!
But I also don’t keep books I don’t like. So, it wouldn’t be irrational to assume that I waste a lot of money buying books and then getting rid of them. Except… I don’t. You can count the number of books I’ve ever bought and then discarded if you use both sets of fingers. That’s right; fewer than ten.
Picking good books isn’t that complicated. (unless you’ve read all the good ones already; then you’ve got a problem) The only thing you need is a criteria more detailed than “a good book”.
First, figure out what you’re in the mood to read. If you’re after a modern adventure story, it’s going to be tough to select a good romance or a classic. Once you’ve decided what genre you’re after, start thinking about what makes you like a book within that genre. You like mystery? You like all-out action? You like a little comedy and cynicism? You like galaxy-sweeping scale? You’ll have a much better chance of picking a book you’ll like if you know what really grabs your interests.
That’s not to say you can’t step outside your interests! You can and you will; just remember that a book with something that grabs you has a good chance of introducing you to something in it that you haven’t seen before.
Second, look at the titles. Go for the catchy ones. If the title is unbearably generic… it’s possible the book will be, too. Again, this is just a starting point! Some of the best books are generic (often because they were so successful everybody else copied them). The rationale here is that an author who took the time to give his book a great name is probably more likely to have written a good story. If the great title didn’t have a great book under it… well, go back and try again.
Third, read the blurb on the back. It should grab your interest and make you want to know more, but you know that already. The blurb should do two other things, as well. It should reflect well on the story. (ie, if the blurb is badly written… be skeptical of the book). The blurb should also match the cover. Or, to put it another way, the cover should match the blurb. This is MASSIVELY important, because…
Fourth, the cover makes the impression. If the cover art doesn’t match the book, you probably ought to drop it. The rationale here is the same as with the title; if the author didn’t care enough to ensure that the cover goes with the book, there’s a real chance the book isn’t worth your effort. You can trust me on this.
Fifth, crack open the first page of the first chapter. Skip the prologue, if there is one. It’s usually not that important and it’s rarely anything like the book, stylistically. Start reading. That first page needs to draw you in; resist turning the page. If you CAN’T not turn the page… buy that book. If it’s not very engaging, do some re-thinking.
Finally, put all of it together. If the title is catchy, the blurb got you hooked, you want the cover as a poster for your wall, and the first paragraph grabbed you and pulled you under… start pulling out the cash. You’re going to need it.