Your Labor Day guide to not picking bad books

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It’s here: the last holiday weekend of 2015 before Holiday Season, that temporal catapult that casually flings us from Halloween into January. It’s Labor Day, traditionally a time for the final summer getaway, family cookouts, enjoying the great outdoors. A time for activity and togetherness.

Alternately, if you’re like me, a card-carrying Indoor Kid whose pursuits tend toward the more bookish variety, the long Labor Day weekend looks like the perfect opportunity to stock up for a hermitical reading marathon.

If this sounds like your kind of vacation, but you don’t know what to read, here are some tips to help you avoid picking the wrong book.

You can judge a book by its cover. Most of the time.  

As a bookseller, it’s cliché, borderline embarrassing, to harumph “ignore the old ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’ adage, because you totally can.” We know. You can kind of judge a book by its cover. Millions* are spent in the publishing industry each year designing and evaluating cover art for books. They want to grab the eye and quickly convey to people who might like the book that “this is a book for me.” It’s why genre fiction like romance novels all have a certain look, as do mysteries, etc. Cover art for literary fiction does this through odd, arresting, unique or spare presentation designed to intrigue.

*This is totally a guess. I feel certain, however, the number is between $100 and $100 billion.

As a reader, you make snap judgments on covers that enable you to eliminate huge chunks of books within a store, shrinking your considered set of selections. While efficient, you can miss something you would love.

fair fight badBased on the cover, this is not a book I would have any interest in. This is one of my favorite novels of 2015.

When one of my favorite authors, Lyndsay Faye, recommended it to me when she was at the store for a a book signing, the book cover on advanced reader editions looked like this:fair fight good

That’s a book I was interested in reading.

It seems that between when the advanced reader copies went out and the book’s publication date, they decided to change directions with the cover. If they were looking to attract readers like me, this decision was a disaster. I’d normally make allowances that they were not, perhaps, looking for readers like me, but for something different. In this case I can’t. From discussions about The Fair Fight with my publisher representative, I understand that they decided they missed the mark with the cover and are changing it for later printings.

Good thing I had an effusive recommendation from a source I trusted or I would have never picked it up. Sometimes, book covers miscommunicate.

More is not always better. Less isn’t always more.

Getting through a tri-fold pamphlet can take an eternity. Readers of all ages ripped through 700+ page Harry Potter novels in the course of a weekend.

Boring books are boring no matter the length. Great books are a joy no matter how long they are.

While obvious, I know readers of all levels of experience who rule out certain books because of a daunting page count. If you have on good authority that a book is a certain level of quality and you think you might like it, just take the plunge. A great, long book offers an immersive and rewarding experience that is almost impossible to get in a breezy, quick read**.

** Ihallberg just finished City on Fire, a 944-page opus on New York City in the 1970’s, the debut novel by Garth Risk Hallberg. It was pretty marvelous. You will be hearing about this one when it comes out next month. Trust me.

Besides, no matter the length of the book, you only read one page at a time.

Reviews matter. Recommendations do, too.

Avid readers tend to develop their own routines for finding out about books they might be interested in: trusted professional and/or amateur reviewers, the trade publications, friends with similar and discerning tastes, online forums, etc.

For the more casual reader, that may seem like a lot of work. They may prefer to just browse, look at covers, read book jackets and cover blurbs. This is fine, but if you’re looking to reduce your chance of picking a dud, you’d be best served looking at some reviews and/or getting some recommendations. It’s important to remember that book cover art, story summaries and blurbs are marketing, designed by smart people at the publishers to put the book in the best possible light in order to sell the maximum number of copies. It’s not sneaky or underhanded. It’s their job.

Personally, I’ve found reviews to be most helpful, especially in aggregate. When numerous critics all praise a book, I’ve rarely been steered wrong. I’ve also got friends and co-workers who know me (and vice-versa) and what I like and whose opinions I trust. I rarely get steered wrong and, as such, I rarely ever read anything bad.

I enjoy almost every book I read, not because I’m undiscerning, but because I’ve put in a little research before I pick a book.

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Ask a bookseller.

Most people want to avoid reading a not-good book, but have zero interest in putting in the work beforehand to reduce that likelihood.

That’s where we come in.

See, sales growth at independent bookstores, like Booksellers, is outpacing books sales’ growth in general. One of the main reasons for this is that booksellers know their stuff. From an article in The Week from earlier this…ahem…week:

“The well-read employee is one of the most valuable resources bookstores offer. They know the store’s unique collection inside out and can help a customer find a book just for her — in a nuanced way that’s very different than Amazon’s machine-generated recommendations. That kind of human-customized shopping experience is hard to find, and creates loyal customers.”

Yesterday, I got into a long conversation about books with a customer. After a bit, she marveled “you must have the best job in the world, getting to talk about books all day.”

She was surprised to learn how little opportunity we have to talk about books we love. Most of the day is, rightly, spent helping customers get the book that is right for them: books for their job, for their school, for self-improvement, for their esoteric (to me) hobby. Even when a customer is looking for something to read for pleasure, our interests and tastes frequently don’t overlap.

But that’s the great thing about working with other passionate readers. We have different interests and read different things, so even if a customer is looking for something completely outside of my experience, one of my coworkers usually is at least somewhat versed in the genre or subject and is eager to help.

When you’re looking for a book, booksellers are the experts and can help steer you away from picking the wrong book.

Enjoy the holiday. Hope to see you this weekend. Follow these tips and set yourself up for some happy reading.

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