Thursday, June 28, 2012

How I Judge A Book (by more than its cover)

When wandering the bookstore aisles, what do I pick up? What do I put right back down, and what do I buy (later--nearly 100% of my book purchases take place on Amazon)? I wasn't fully conscious of my browsing process until I read a blog asking these questions. I knew I was a hard sell, but ... wow. I'm a hard sell.

Yes, covers and titles make a difference, especially to warn me away from the two genres I don't care for (romance and humor). If the cover and title appeal to me, and I pick up the book, what do I look for then?

These phrases cause me to put a book back immediately: "generational saga" and "quirky" and/or "winsome" characters. 

As for the first, I need a plot, or I get bored. I know that technically, these stories do have a plot, but ADD runs in the family. I can't finish sprawling family chronicles unless the family is Mafia or something. As for the second, I can never believe in those types of characters, so the bizarreness that other readers find endearing just irritates me. 

Sometimes, "quirky" or "winsome" doesn't have to be stated. I won't read a book with characters all named Bubba and Rosie Skye and Christmas Almost-Here. This might sound crazy to most readers, but there have been many instances that I rolled my eyes at the cutesy character handles on the back cover and put the book down without even reading the first page. For me, unrealistic/over-the-top names signal that the writer isn't taking his characters seriously.

Obviously, more creativity is allowed in speculative fiction, especially sci-fi/fantasy. Naming your alien "Jim" is pretty stupid (unless ... sorry, staying on topic here). But fantasy protagonists whose names are composed almost entirely of vowels and might be pronounced half a dozen different ways--to me, these smell like Mary Sues, and yes, I put the book down.

If the back blurb is interesting (and nobody is named Rainee Sue Day or Zaieqouxien), I read the first page or two. If I'm not drowned in adverbs/adjectives/gerunds, I open to a random page and read that. I also flip through without reading, just observing the white space. If nobody's talking, they're probably thinking too much. That will also make me put the book down.

Every once in awhile, a book doesn't let me finish my (insane, I know) process. I open the first page, and the protagonist reaches up and grabs me by the throat and pulls me into his head. I probably don't know yet if I like him or not. But if I'm wondering about him, and if I'm experiencing his world through his senses and his soul, then I'm in. I'll read this book. I'll even buy this book, just so I can walk out of the store without putting it down.

Now you know my process. What's yours? What factors cause you to pick up/click on a book? What factors cause you to put it back down, and what factors push you off the fence into buying it?

And does anybody out there have an idiosyncrasy, something you'll always read/buy or something you'll never read/buy? (Or am I alone with my character name compulsion?)


  1. Weird character names bug me too, but are rarely deal breakers. I also love a good romance, but if I smell a hint of what a friend of mine calls "the romantic dithering," I'm out. Can't handle it when characters just won't TALK to each other.
    I hate to admit that cheap looking (or overly pink) covers (or the ones with cartoon characters on the front) don't even get a second look, but there you have it.
    But the thing that will make put a book down even if I'm halfway through it and never look back is the author insulting my intelligence--beating me over the head with the same information repeatedly/explaining every look/etc. Can not stand.

  2. Wow, friend. That is an extensive process.

    I confess to being a much easier sell. This is because I have a book buying sickness! I have been known to spot a gorgeous cover across a book store, make a beeline for said book, and head right to the register. Sometimes this gut reaction works in my favor. For instance, I picked up Ally Condie's Matched based on the cover alone and that dystopia quickly claimed a place on my top ten list. The rest of the time, however, I am bummed.

    So, I've established several protocols to rein in the madness and save my budget. If a cover catches my eye, I'll read the back copy and then the first paragraph. I want to both recognize the story in some way and be intrigued by where it's going. I want the protagonist to grab me by the throat and not let go. If the prose is beautiful that helps too.

    Normally, I can make my "to buy or not to buy" decision at this point. If not, I commit the unforgivable sin for a reader and read the last page. *ducks down* I know, I know. I began doing this last year after getting sucked into multiple series without warning. I'd just like a little heads up that committing to this book means committing to years and more books as well, that's all.

    Okay, enough rambling from me. Do you feel sorry to have asked? :)

  3. E--Haha, pink covers! Love it. And I am with you ALL the way on Dithering. And repetition. And explanation.

    C--You read the last page?! I think that is at least as ridiculous as my name compulsion (though your reason is completely logical). I feel vindicated. ;) I'm intrigued by this: recognizing the story yet being intrigued. I think you should write a blog post on it.

  4. I rarely have time to read, and I have filled way too much of my home with books because of an illness similar to Charity's (and an enabling mother). So I had to draw the line.

    1) I'm always building my library of classics. That goes without saying (apparently not today, though).

    2) I only buy books that are recommended by people I trust.

    3) If I'm on my own, I read the first page--before I read the back. Character names and author voice are a big deal to me. I check out the dialogue in several spots. And I read the author bio. If it's doesn't cause me to smile or at least "huh," I put the book down. No harm in reading reviews first. Every word counts.
    Pittacus Lore sold me on the bio more than anything else.

    I'm blessed in this: My sister saves me a lot of time. She's got impeccable taste. (Or maybe it's just similar and I'm full of myself.)

  5. First off, in high school I latched onto a handful of authors that I trust completely to entertain me no matter what the plotline is. Some of these geniuses are John Steinbeck, Ray Bradbury, and Shirley Jackson. John Steinbeck could probably describe a paper bag in a unique and charming manner. He has lead me to read about homeless crooks and prostitutes—two categories of people I wouldn’t be drawn to otherwise. I mostly stick to “classics”, because the classic authors had brains in their skulls and could write intelligently. The few modern authors I follow (Joshilyn Jackson, Dennis Lehane) also have that gift of constructing sentences and ideas in ways that give charm and, dare I say, “quirk” to mundane things.

    I look for unique titles that sound intelligent, but not pretentious. When I examine the plot on the back of the book, I look for a story line or setting that is nothing like my own life. I need something that makes that world unique and worth exploring. I live my own life in my own world every day, and get bored reading about it. I could go for anything from dystopian, to scifi, to fantasy, to historical fiction. I prefer plot that is complex, but not convoluted. If I see the words “romance”, “erotic”, “intrigue”, or “sexual”, the book goes back on the shelf. (Sorry, 50 Shades of Gray, I don’t care how popular you are.) Total waste of brainpower. If I read a review that says “plot holes”, the book probably goes back.

    I don't abandon a character solely because of their name, because I've had enough experiences where the characters grew into their names beautifully, and any other name wouldn't fit. Joshilyn comes up with some names that might make you cringe (Rose May Lolly, Ona Crabtree, Mosey Slocumb), but once you get to know the people, the names don't seem silly anymore.

    I read a few pages to see if the characters are flat or interesting. I’ll lose interest in good plots if I don’t care whether the main character lives or dies. I’m not very likely to read a book with a female lead if it’s written by a man, because they usually get it wrong. I dig comedy, as long as it’s done intelligently. I appreciate when characters are able to crack jokes in dark circumstances. Working in the health care field, I have found that it is extremely human to cling to laughter in situations where you should really be crying.

    The only book I remember buying solely because of the cover was “Julia’s Chocolates”. I thought the title was stupid and girly, but the front picture caught my eye from across the room. The picture was of a wind-blown wedding dress hanging in a tree. I absolutely needed to know why there was a wedding dress hanging in a tree, so I took the book home. No regrets.

  6. B--You're right, gaining classics should go without saying, yet it definitely doesn't these days. I've read some I didn't buy, but I've bought some I still haven't read. Hopefully, I'll be able to remedy the latter someday. Also, judging a book by the author's bio--that has to be one of the most unique processes ever. Fascinating.

    A--You're right, Rose May Lolly's name on a back cover would make me cringe. The others aren't over-the-top, though, just regional, which is fine and accurate. Regardless, Joshilyn is at the top of my to-read pile, now that I've survived Mockingjay.

    Love the successful bought-because-of-the-cover stories of Matched and Julia's Chocolates. Now I want to read them, too! And it's neat to know other people have complicated book browsing processes, too. ;) Anyone else out there care to share with us?

  7. Most of my book purchases are for my sweet little darlings (more on that later), so I’m rarely in the position to buy books for myself. Instead, I go the library route, and one of the first things I note are the date stamps on the back. If they indicate the book has been checked out frequently and consistently over the years, I read the inside jacket. If it makes mention of any of my three big no-no’s I drop it - eye opening bla bla bla, dysfunctional whatever, or *gag* a love triangle.

    Next I read the first few paragraphs and if I like what I see, I flip back to the author bio or the dedication page and try to imagine if we could be BFF or at the very least amicable acquaintances. Lastly I try to determine if the book will either a) take me to an imagination wonderland of awesome or b) change my life. If the answer to either of these is a yes, I’m in. Not too high maintenance right?

    For children’s books my process is much simpler:

    1) Collect childhood favorites (yes!!!)

    2) Look for beautiful, adorable or whimsical illustrations - it’s quite often the case that quality illustrations are paired with lovely stories, and a gorgeous picture book allows you and your child to craft any tale of your choosing. We love Just One Day by Laura Leuck, Little Miss Austen Pride & Prejudice by Jennifer Adams & Alison Oliver (whether you have kids or not, you'll must get this book!), Flotsam by David Wiesner, I’m a Big Sister by Joanna Cole, and of course the Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd-Jones.

    3) Look for humor that appeals to both children and adults - Diary of a Wombat by Jackie French and Bruce Whately, anything by Mo Willems, and of course Duck for President and the J.J. Tully mysteries by Doreen Cronin

    Thanks for such a fun and engaging post! I enjoyed reading all of the comments too. :)

    1. ack! YOU must get this book, not you'll ;)

  8. R--Another reader who looks at author bios. Very cool. And your date-stamp-checking for library books makes perfect sense.

    Haha ... I try to steer clear of love triangles, too, simply because they're never (and I mean almost literally NEVER) done in a way that satisfies me.

    Humor for both kids and adults is one of the things I love about Pixar. :)