Don’t rely on book suggestions

In which our Chad Pelly shares how to love what you’re reading

Chad PelleyIn which our Chad Pelly shares how to love what you’re reading

Whether it’s because I’m an author or book blogger, people think I’m a good source of recommendation for books. Fair enough. If you’re friends with a mechanic, and your car’s not sounding good, of course you ask the mechanic for help. But asking an author what books to read doesn’t translate, because asking anyone but yourself what to read next is no way to love what you’re reading. Much like choosing who you marry, choosing what you read is a matter of personal taste, as we all want something different from a book.

More than any industry, the book industry runs on power of suggestion. Last year, everyone was reading Fifty Shades of Grey, simply because everyone was reading Fifty Shades of Grey, and not because everyone was saying they liked it. As I type this article, last fall’s Giller Prize winner, 419, is atop Canada’s bestseller lists, simply for having won the Giller. A three-person jury declared it Canada’s best novel, but for all of us to trust them so wholeheartedly implies we must all share tastes with that three-person jury. I doubt that’s the case, the same way I doubt we all share that jury’s taste in ice cream or music. The purpose of a book award is to help writers bolster their bios and careers, and to provide them with some money so they can squirrel away and write another book. They’re great for putting books on our radar, absolutely, but the fundamental purpose an award is not to convince 50,000 readers—with varied tastes—that a book has universal appeal.

If it’s not book awards that sway us, it’s store-bought buzz, literally. When you walk into a place like Chapters or Coles and see a table promising you “This Season’s Hottest Fiction,” that’s not a matter of opinion. A publisher has bought that display table, the same way they buy billboards and ad space in magazines. But you, like me, often fall for it. Award shortlists, media hype, marketing power—and once in a blue moon, literary merit—culminate in the third flawed way that most of us choose what books we buy: bestseller lists. It’s been my experience that bestseller lists seldom have their finger of the pulse of what the best books of the year really are, but rather, as the title promises, it lists the ones that are selling the best. There’s a difference. I find buying books off a bestseller list yields a 50-50 chance I’ll like the book. How about you?

The purpose of this article is to illustrate that if you rely on hype to find your next book, you limit yourself to ten per cent of what exists, and you limit yourself to the opinions of others. I firmly believe that every reader should be finding their own next book. The right first step in this regard is to go directly to the source of new books, and familiarize yourself with Canada’s publishers. As always, it pays to have favourites, because favourites seldom let us down—be it comfort foods, go-to music, or comfy sweaters. I know my favourite publishers—House of Anansi, Coach House, Invisible, and Breakwater—and their yearly offerings rarely let me down. So go to your bookcase, find the last few books you loved, run your finger down the spine, and take note of the publisher who published it.

The most successful, vibrant Canadian publishers brand themselves as reliable sources of what they deem to be good books. As a result, it’s fair to say that every publisher has its own taste in books. If you become acquainted with the tastes of every Canadian publisher, you’ll know whom you share tastes with. One great reason to find yourself a few favourite publishers is simple: books come out in batches every spring and fall, therefore, you can go to your favourite publishers’ websites every February and August, and see what they’re putting out every season, and never be at a loss for what to buy next.

That said, there is something nice and convenient about a good old fashion recommendation, as they’re sincere, and, if you trust the person’s opinion, they’re reliable. If you want my opinion, here are the three spring releases by Atlantic Canadians that I’m positive will be worth all of our time. Lisa Moore’s Caught (House of Anansi) Darren Greer’s Just Beneath My Skin (Cormorant Books), and Shashi Bhat’s The Family Took Shape (Cormorant Books). And, well, I’ve got one out myself that I’d love you to read, called Every Little Thing (Breakwater Books).

This story was originally published in the spring 2013 issue of Atlantic Books Today

Written By

Chad Pelley is the editor of The Overcast. He has received numerous literary awards; his latest novel is Every Little Thing.

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