Thoughtful Thursday: The loss of possibilities?

Last week I got an email from my sister with the subject line “DNF without opening the book?” and the entire body of the message was this:

The Serpent M’gulfn has been destroyed, its dark reign ended – but its death has unleashed dangerous energies that threaten the Earth of Three Planes anew. Journeying to Gorethria comes Melkavesh, daughter of Ashurek, determined to harness the new potential of sorcery for good. It seems she is too late, for a ruthless usurper, Duke Xaedrek, has already seized power. Aided by a demon with malign ambitions of its own, he is working to restore the evil Gorethrian Empire. To save the Earth, Melkavesh must defeat him – even though their conflict may bring other lands to ruin, claim innocent victims, and even cause the moons to fall. Melkavesh may avert disaster only if she heeds the mysterious Lady of H’tebhmella. But can she withstand the temptation to reclaim her birthright – the dark throne renounced by Ashurek – or resist the all-too-seductive charm of Xaedrek himself? Freda Warrington’s classic, weirdly atmospheric fantasies A Blackbird in Amber and A Blackbird in Twilight appear for the first time in a single, complete volume.

I have to say that based solely on that blurb, I never would have picked up the book. It combines what seems like a clichéd plot with one of my all time fantasy pet peeves – a naming system based on excessive apostrophe use combined with abuse of the letters X and K. And that’s probably a loss for me, because Freda Warrington gets good reviews from our reviewers.

That dichotomy – good reviews paired with a book that I, left to my own devices would leave on a shelf – got me wondering about what criteria I use to select a book from an author with whom I am unfamiliar. As a reviewer, I basically read whatever Kat asks me to read [edit by Kat: Hey, that makes me sound like some sort of tyrant, Ruth! Actually, the truth, dear readers, is that Ruth reads whatever she darn well pleases and sometimes I suggest or send her books that I think she will enjoy. I think I’ll keep the next Very Best of Charles de Lint for myself, thank you! :tongue: ] [response edit by Ruth: I just want someone to blame for having read The Magician’s Apprentice! :tongue: It’s true, I get to read what I want. I just feel compelled to read more broadly now that I am a reviewer], which has been a benefit to me because I have encountered some great new (either to everyone or just to me) authors. But back when I got to be more discriminating in my reading, there were a few things that always drew me in.

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsThe first was good cover art. I can’t help it – I like pretty things. I think this may be one of the reasons I don’t read urban fantasy – the covers are all hackneyed rip-offs of one another. Give me a Michael Whelan or Jody A. Lee cover any day of the week over another photoshopped monstrosity. Secondly, I used to take the recommendation blurbs into account. For a while, I could trust Charles de Lint to recommend books that I was interested in, but then it seemed that the publishers caught on to that because he started being blurbed on every book published, along with Jane Yolen and Anne McCaffrey. So I stopped counting on that. Then I would read the description to see if it appealed to me. Sometimes that works. Sometimes the descriptions are vague, meaningless, or downright deceptive. Now, to buy a book by an author I have never heard of, it has to be highly recommended by someone I trust (hello, FanLit!)

I’m wondering how much of that evolution has to do with exposure to the internet. Now, I can find out what people think of a book before I buy it, and rarely do I go into a bookstore and just browse. I can see a review of a book that looks interesting, click over to my library’s website, see if they have it, put a hold on it, and then wait for them to pull it for me and tell me it’s ready for pickup at the front desk. I rarely browse even at the library anymore. If the library doesn’t have it (and an email to my mother and sister verify that they don’t have it either) then a quick couple of clicks and I’ve signed over more of my paycheck to Amazon.

True, this means that I don’t read as many clunkers, and I save my hard earned money. But I also feel like maybe I’ve lost something in the process. Opening a book used to be the start of a journey that could result in either breathtaking wonder or soporific ponderousness. I feel like my book buying has become more safe now that it is all pre-vetted and pre-approved. True, the lows aren’t as low, but I’ve also lost a little bit of the highs as well, the potential for the thrill of a new discovery, the true magic of reading. I guess that is one of the reasons that I love being a reviewer – it forces me outside of my comfort zone by minimizing the risks (ARCs don’t cost me anything so I wont be wasting my money) and allows me to experience heavenly delights along side the abysmal failures. And a whole lot of in between.

This is all an introduction to the two questions I want to put out there to you, dear readers.

1. What inspires you to buy a book by an author you’ve never heard of?

2. How has the rise of the internet and social networking sources like Fantasy Literature and GoodReads changed how you buy books and how do you feel about that?

Leave us a comment and we’ll draw a winner from among all the commenters to choose a book from our ever-increasing stacks.

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RUTH ARNELL (on FanLit's staff January 2009 — August 2013) earned a Ph.D. in political science and is a college professor in Idaho. From a young age she has maxed out her library card the way some people do credit cards. Ruth started reading fantasy with A Wrinkle in Time and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — books that still occupy an honored spot on her bookshelf today. Ruth and her husband have a young son, but their house is actually presided over by a flame-point Siamese who answers, sometimes, to the name of Griffon.

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  1. I like to browse through bookstores so I’ll pick up something if either the cover or title catches my eye. Then I’ll read part of it to see if I like the writting style. I also check out reviews on the web and have found several new authors that way.

    I find that by using the internet as a resource I not only find more new books that I probably wouldn’t have found in the bookstore – I’m reading more YA books for example- but I also am reading fewer duds.

  2. In book stores the covers… online I cruise book blogs…I read alot and hate to buy a book that doesnt live up to expectations. I always check out authors on web.

  3. I used to pick up anything with art by Tom Canty, John Jude Palencar, or Kinuko Craft. This burned me a couple of times, though!

    Yeurgh, those names! I love Warrington’s writing, but I’m glad the book I read featured names like Rose and Sam and Jon. :shock:

  4. Oh, and sometimes I purposely look for authors I’ve never heard of. Sometimes this leads me to clunkers, but sometimes I find a book that’s awesome but obscure/underrated. I love that feeling, and then getting to tell everyone that it’s awesome by reviewing it.

    And I like to read the first page in the store. If it makes me laugh on that first page, or makes me drool over the pretteh wordses, I buy it.

  5. Ruth, I thought that blurb was a joke until I saw Freda Warrington’s name! I would definitely not pick up a book with that blurb.

    I always research what I read because I just don’t have time to read bad books (which is exactly why I started this website). My preference is to read authors who’ve been loved for a long time, have won awards, and those who the trusted reviewers recommend. I like to let other people (such as the trusty FanLit reviewers) “discover” the great authors and tell me about them. I was one of the last people around here to read Patrick Rothfuss. I’m very stingy with my time and I’m not willing to chance wasting it on a book I don’t love.

    Consequently, most of my reviews are rather positive because I only read books that I have reason to think I’ll love. But I’m also very willing to put down a book that doesn’t grab me soon enough, so I assign “Did Not Finish” more than other reviewers do, I think. I have better things to do than to work at a book I’m not enjoying.

  6. I DNF a lot too; in fact, you guys have no idea how many books I’ve abandoned! I just don’t write reviews for all my DNFs. I’ll write a DNF review if it’s from a publisher (though I usually try to plow through those), or if it’s an author we don’t have reviewed on the site, or if I can clearly pinpoint what made me stop reading. But if I just don’t feel like finishing a book because I’m bored with it, and I can’t put my finger on what’s wrong with it writing-wise, I don’t write a review. Because if I can’t identify the problem, I don’t know what to say in a review.

  7. Corollary: I’m actually a lot more likely to finish an abysmal book than a blah one. If a book is bad enough to become unintentionally funny, it keeps me going because I want to see how bad it gets. But if it’s just “meh,” it doesn’t even have trainwreck value to keep me reading.

  8. I’m so glad I’m not the only one. Before I started working for FanLit, (over 2 years ago I think?) it was a struggle to find any fantasy books that I really liked. Now, with the reviews here, like Kat, it’s been ages since I chose a book that wasn’t at least 4 stars.(That’s the honest truth too, not just a plug for FanLit. Although I’m not above such acts.) Somehow, I’ve even lucked-out with recent ARC’s being stuff I like too. My to-be-read list is so huge that I’ll put a DNF on a book in a hot-sec. if its not really keeping my attention. I know of just too many good books out there to waste time on something I’m not having fun reading.
    The internet, over-all plays a huge factor and now that I have gotten an E-Reader, Amazon Kindle), the only bookstore I’ve stepped foot in, in over a years is a Used-book store. Which the downside of that is; bookshops are just about the only store I would go to just kill time.

  9. I tend to find an author I like and read everything they’ve ever written. Once I’ve done that I have to find someone else to read. In the past I’ve always just browsed until I found something that looked good at the book store, using sites like goodreads, and various blogs I’ve been exposed to many writers I’d never had heard of otherwise (good and bad). I’ll read reviews sometimes, but there are plenty of 4 star books that I’ve really disliked, so I don’t hold ratings as the be all end all. Everyone has different tastes.

  10. 1. I buy books from authors I’ve never heard of based on reviews and feedback I’ve heard on blogs like this one and reviews on Amazon or Goodreads. I’ve found a lot of new authors that I’ve really enjoyed that way.
    2. The internet, blogs and websites have increased my desire for certain books. Before I would just pick up whatever sounded good, now I actively search for specific books that I’ve heard about.

  11. I have only once bought a book from an unknown author, and that was The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. I had no clue who he was, and I read the blurb and thought it might be about Beowulf or something Nordic. I was in a viking I was pleasantly surprised to say the least.

    I use the internet exclusively to find authors and books now, mainly fanlit. I’ve learned to watch for high praise from Greg, John and Stephen. If they have given something 4 stars or more then I’m quite certain I’ll like it.

  12. Cover art will get me to pick up a book or make me pass it up. Usually if the back sounds interesting, I’ll open it up and check the first chapter or so. I tend to have the same allergy to overuse of apostrophes and unpronounceable names as Ruth. Although, the one I’m reading now has some doozies for names. It is a new author to me, and I was attracted by the cover, and also the use of griffins. Griffins and dragons will almost always make me take a second look. So far, the story is interesting enough to make me forgive the name issue.

    As for how I find books, I still browse bookstores, but I also check out the blogs and websites. I usually check the ‘customers who bought this book also bought…’ links on Amazon. One of the nice things about fanlit is the plethora of reviewers, once you find the reviewers that share your reading DNA it helps weed out books that otherwise might take up valuable shelf space.

  13. I get a lot of recommendations, and find out about new authors and books, through Beyond Reality, the discussion group I manage on Goodreads. Our members nominate books for discussion every month, and those lists of nominations are a fantastic resource. Aside from that, I have a handful of friends whose taste I trust implicitly, and of course the reviews here on FanLit are really useful.

  14. Seak /

    First off, those Edits were hilarious. I think more posts should have people arguing through edits. :D

    Back on topic. Anymore I don’t read a book unless I’ve researched it (through blogs like Fantasy Lit) or if I get a book that sounds really interesting as an ARC. I’m also always a fan of risk minimization (maybe it’s the econ degree in me).

    A couple bloggers are going to be starting a challenge soon to just pick a random book off the shelf and go to town. I want to see first off, how people choose their books, and how many good experiences there will be when people just choose something random. Let me know if anyone wants to join in. (seaklos(at)

    We don’t have much in the works yet, but I just mentioned it to show we’re kinda on the same page here. :)

  15. Cover art used to sucker me something awful, not as bad now, because I liked more of the old school covers verses most the current ones, and with an e-reader, that’s not really a factor.
    But at one time I would’ve bought a book soley on the cover art and even go so far as try to talk myself into liking the book when the story was not near as good as the cover..
    Justin made a good point (BTW- I’m flattered that he finds my tastes often matches his own), I’ve also figured out whose reviews match my taste and will take their ratings to heart.

  16. Make sure you’re logged in to Google Friend. If you are, then try clearing your cache and cookies and logging in again.

    [here I am, editing Ruth again. heh heh. Seak, I added your name to the comment above (it wasn’t magic) and deleted your experimental comment. Try what Ruth said, and make sure you have a name in Google Friend Connect. It’s a google issue. ~Kat]

  17. I’m sure I couldn’t pick a book with such a blurb either !

    I’m of two mind about bookstores and reviews.
    Being French, I discovered heaven with Amazon (I didn’t need to wait for translation or a journey to England to get the books I wanted), with “We have recommendations for you”, etc. And then, after a few disappointments , I stumble upon Fantasy Literature (thank you Kat :kiss: !). So all right, I now choose after checking with FL and others blogs and avoid to loose time and money.
    But… each time I enter a good bookstore I come upon books I never heard of, never read anything about – very good books. I’m speaking of non fiction here and I sure don’t have a Fantasy Literature for non fiction :-( . So Ruth’s question is a good one : sometimes I’m afraid I’m loosing opportunities and narrowing the field – which is the exact opposite of what I want. I so love the surprise and delight to find a new treasure and being among lots and lots of books.

  18. After following this blog, I just realized that I’ve narrowed my reading fields greatly too, but in a different way. Now that its gotton so much easier for me to find fantasy books that I really like, I realized that I don’t read near as many books from other genres that I used to. My to-be-read least is like 98.5% fantasy books.

    BTW- I think that Fantasy fiction might just be more popular over-all right now too, making for more fantasy books available. It just seems that its a good time to be a fan of fantasy. :thumb:

  19. Mostly I go by the synopsis, book cover and/or reader reviews.

    I love review blogs and websites because it gives me a chance to see what like minded readers think about a book, than I base my decision on that. There is nothing worse than reading through an entire novel and feeling like you’ve wasted your time.

    Thanks for the great giveaway :)

    mrsjohnson1982 at yahoo dot com

  20. I think the point about finding a reviewer whose tastes you share is a really good point. Someone can be a great reviewer but just not have the same tastes you have, so their reviews aren’t as useful to you.

    I have learned, after 3 years at FanLit, where my tastes overlap with other reviewers’ tastes with certain types of books. For example, Stephen, John, and Kelly write great reviews and have great taste for female-focused urban fantasy, but I don’t like that subgenre, so I take their recommendations for books outside that area (except that I’m going to try their favorites like Briggs and Ilona Andrews).

    When I buy books for my kids, I buy what Bill, Beth, and Rebecca like. When I want something weighty for myself, I look at what Rob, Bill, and Stefan like. When I’m in the mood for something fun and action-packed, I’m likely to go with Greg and Justin. In general, I’ve noticed that my tastes most closely match with Rob’s, so everything he loves goes on my list. Anything that Stefan loves that doesn’t have a “message” goes on my list. Anything that Bill loves that isn’t YA goes on my list. That’s how specific I’ve gotten with this.

    I haven’t read enough overlapping books with Ruth, Amanda, Angus, and Robert T. to know where we match yet, but I certainly pay attention to books they really like (I’ve purchased Charles de Lint on Ruth’s recommendation and Peter Brett on Angus’s) and I rarely pick up a book that any of the FanLit reviewers didn’t like unless I understand the reason they didn’t like it and I think it would fit my tastes better. I definitely won’t pick up any book that any of them says is poorly written.

  21. Cover Art will draw me in, but it won’t keep me – It’s strictly the blurb that catches my attention – if it seems like something I may like, I read the first page or so. I’ve read so many good books with terrible cover art, so I try not to judge, but it can be hard.

    I think the rise of social media and places like this site have made me read MORE – I have more options. 15 years ago I may have walked into a book store and picked things up at random, or pick up things my friends recommended ( but many of them do not have similar tastes). I see so many books posted here and on other sites that I would like to read, so I go look for them in bookstores. If someone give a really great review, and it looks interesting, I will pick it up about a quarter of the time.

    In addition, I’ve started reading ebooks on my ipod touch, and it’s even more convenient.

  22. Way back in the day, I would wander around the bookstore and look at the covers and then the blurb on the back to pick out a book. This happened very rarely though, books are too expensive to buy a dud. Websites such as this have been a huge help picking books to buy. Like some previous commenters have said, I find a reviewer that highly rates some books I enjoyed and then I go through everything else the reviewer liked. I can barely remember the last time I read a dud!

  23. 1. Really interesting blurb or good reviews (associated with an at least vaguely interesting blurb) or a single very good review from someone whose opinion I have come to trust.

    2. I’m a GoodReads fanatic and while I don’t know that the social aspects per se have had a major influence on what I’ve been reading (they’ve definitely had some), as a broad source of many reviews and opinions on new authors/books it’s been a huge influence.

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