How Do You Choose What to Read?

Recently my friend Jenny Vinyl sparked a discussion on our reading and writing group asking how we “audition” books. This came from a recent episode of the Bookrageous podcast where Paul Montgomery used “auditioning” as a term to describe how readers decide which novels to pick from the vast cast of books waiting to be read.

Since I read about books more than is probably healthy, and because my own book auditioning process is so multi-step and anal-retentive, I thought this merited its own blog post.

For me, auditioning involves the steps of discovery, researching book details and deciding to sample, choosing to borrow/buy, and continuing to read. I’ve organized my thoughts under these steps below–although of course sometimes the process is non-linear.

Because of the convenience factor, I rarely darken the door of a bookstore. Most of my discovery of books is online, primarily through ebook deal emails from BookBub, Pixel of Ink, and Smart Bitches Trashy Books. Coming in at a close second are recommendations from online booksellers (like editor picks), friends, blogs, and podcasts. Having a book suggested from multiple sources increases my chances of checking out the book further.

Researching Book Details: The Cover & Blurb
Since I’m seeing book recommendations daily, at least from BookBub and Pixel of Ink, I’ve had to hone my ability to choose books to sample into a fine art. In the past I just downloaded any free ebook that looked vaguely interesting, but you do that too long, you end up with two hundred books and a paralyzing anxiety when you open up your Kindle app.

Now I’m more discerning. With emails like from BookBub, I actually skim book covers and blurbs, which seems like the epitome of lazy but maximizes my time. I stop at covers that catch my eye and/or ones that fit into genres I enjoy like romance, fantasy, horror, cookbooks, or kid lit. I skim blurbs looking for keywords, which correspondence closely with what Smart Bitches’ Sarah Wendell describes as book catnip. My personal book catnips sound like Jeopardy categories–“I’ll take British Heroes or Small Town Cops/Small Time Crime for $500, Alex”–so when I see words that trigger these, I’ll read the blurb more carefully. I’m also drawn to book covers and blurbs that are quirky and hilarious.

I also look for anti-catnip, words indicating character types and tropes that don’t float my boat or that seem a dime a dozen, and I’ll usually bypass these. I see a lot of covers with tattooed dudes and blurbs mentioning billionaires and alpha werewolves, for instance, and while a lot of readers have catnip for these, I don’t, so I often skip them. (Although the story of a British billionaire alpha werewolf who doubles as a cop? Totally buying that.)

With cookbooks and children’s books, I’m less picky. I don’t want a cookbook for spicy gluten-free porridges and nobody here reads middle grade, but other than those, if it’s free I’m downloading. If it’s a couple bucks but it’s an ice cream cookbook, I’m buying.

Researching Book Details: Author, Length, Publisher, Reviews…& Recommendations
If the cover and/or blurb intrigues me, or if I’m getting a recommendation from a friend or other non-email source, I’ll head over to an online bookseller to find out more details like author, length, publisher, and reviews.

Author: If it’s an author whose other work I loved, I’ll likely just skip this step and add the book to my TBR list. Reading Lev Grossman’s The Magicians’ Land this summer, for instance, is a no-brainer because I like his writing and have been reading his Magicians series.

Length: Shorter is better for me (see “lazy” above), although I will read a longer work if it’s from an author I love or comes highly recommended.

Publisher: I look at this more out of interest than anything else, since I read both indie and traditionally published books, though I’m increasingly trying to seek out indies to support those authors and broaden my horizons.

Reviews: I’ll glance at the reviews, both the number and average rating, although these are not always trustworthy. (Read this great post from Sarah Wendell about choosing books with ratings graphs that are giving you the middle finger.) But sometimes if a couple of reviews note the book has egregious typos, it’ll make me less likely to add to my to-read list. But sometimes negative reviews make me want to get a book. I’m reading Nick Spalding’s Love…from Both Sides right now, and some reviewers mentioned it was crass, but I’m down with the bawdy so that piqued my interest enough to sample and then buy.

*A note* Personal recommendations also figure large in all these steps. I may not be drawn to a book’s cover, genre, or blurb, but if a book has a lot of critical buzz and praise like Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, or is suggested by a friend, I’m more likely to give it a chance.

Sampling: Choosing to Borrow or Buy
I already wrote this post on sampling, but to sum I usually only read a page or two, sometimes just a couple paragraphs, to decide if a book is in my wheelhouse. I love a great voice, humor, unconventionally. If it bores me, I’ll stop reading. But often I’ll stop reading if a book seems merely decent or okay, because with so many books out there and a mile-long to-read list, who has time for just okay?

As I said in my earlier sampling post, I’m likely missing potentially great books here, but it’s how I choose to maximize my bookful time. And, again, critical and personal recommendations loom large. If I know a book has made a lot of lists, or a friend loved it, I’ll stick with it longer. Jane Austen’s Persuasion is one of my favorite books, but I don’t know if I would’ve read past the first few paragraphs (which start with Anne’s father, not the heroine or hero or love story) had it not been for Jenny Vinyl’s glowing recommendation and Austen’s reputation.

If a book has made it this far down my tunnel of book love (not a euphemism), and I dig the sample, I’ll add it to my to-read list…or buy it if it’s on sale for cheap or free and preferably not available at the library. I’ve got to be really into it to pay, and I usually don’t pay more than $1.99 for an ebook, and more often free or .99 which some may say is yet another harbinger of the bookpacalypse, but I’ve got a mortgage, so…

Sometimes I’m desperate to read a book now now now and maybe it’s not available at my library and I’ll pay more. It’s happened.

Continuing to Read
Even if I’ve borrowed a book from the library or bought it, I don’t always keep reading. Some books are cast to play a role in my reading life, but are subsequently laid off. Sometimes I like the first few pages, or chapters, but then things get boring or unpleasant and I just don’t look forward to reading it at night. This happens to about 20% of the books I attempt, and most often with literary and/or classical fiction. I feel guilty about this often, but if I don’t read the books I crave, I’ll read less–a lot less.

But when a book makes it all the way to the closing curtains? That, my fellow readers, is a show worth experiencing.

What about you–how do you audition books to read?


  1. Jen says:

    “bookful time”!!! I’m stealing this and plan to use it constantly, as in:
    Co-worker: What did you do this weekend?
    Me: Most of it was taken up with napping and bookful time.

    1. GGAndrew says:

      Ha! I was trying to think of a better word there, but failed. Glad you like it anyway. 🙂 My time at night is very bookful.

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