By Hook or By Crook, How A Reader Chooses A Book

Looks like I am tardy to the party. My apologies! I have had one of those days where you drink a bracing cup of English Breakfast tea in an attempt to stay coherent enough to write your nearly overdue blog post and fall asleep with the mug still clutched in your hand. So this will be a short one, since I need to crawl back to bed. I want to write about In His Majesty’s Service, but not as a review, exactly. Rather, I want to talk about why I chose to spend $20 on an author I’d never read before.

The last time I was at the bookstore, I decided to pick up the relatively new omnibus of Naomi Novik’s first three Temeraire novels.

This was a little bit of a gamble since I had not read any of her work previous to the purchase. However I had consistently heard good things about Novik, and the last time I picked up an omnibus apropos of nothing, I was very happy with the contents.

Let’s break down the thought process that got me from the SF/F aisle to the cash register.

I initially picked up the book because I liked the cover art.

It gave me an idea of the contents without being embarrassing. Let’s face it, the speculative fiction genre as a whole is pretty notorious for having terrible book covers.

In fact, I can still remember the first book I didn’t buy because of the cover, Crisis on Doona.


Urrrrmmmmmm…. NO.

So, purchase factor #4, a decent coverIn His Majesty’s Service was shelved face-out, so that’s what caught me first. As a writer, that’s frustrating, since it’s out of your hands unless you’re Neil Gaiman or somebody. But I think that publishers are starting to realize that robed cat-men are kinda passé. So let’s move on to…

Purchase factor #3, good word of mouth. I had heard very good things about Novik for the last few years, enough good things that I felt I was missing out by not reading her books. How does someone get that good word of mouth? By honing her craft. Novik received the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer,  and the Locus Award for Best First Novel. That is nothing to sneeze at.  I know aspiring writers hear a lot about platforming, networking, audience building, but you know what? I honestly think it really doesn’t matter if the writing itself is good. You don’t win awards, especially Campbells and Locus Awards, by turning out sloppy prose.  I think writers overall should direct more energy into their prose and less into marketing. Yes, writers should blog, and tweet, and what have you, but don’t put the cart before the horse. Most of us aren’t really people-persons anyway. That’s why we’re writers, for God’s sake.

Purchase factor #2, personal interest. I was curious about the Temeraire novels for other reasons, too. I knew they were alternate histories, the main premise being Dragons in the Napoleonic Wars. I love dragons. I love alternate histories.  And I also had a professional interest, since I have war dragons in my WIP and wanted to see how someone else had successfully handled the issue. This purchase factor was kind of a no-brainer- if I weren’t into dragons I probably would not have been standing in the SF/F aisle in the first place.

Purchase factor # 1, THE FIRST SENTENCE. I almost never buy a book without reading the first page. The exception to the rule is when I am buying a book online, and if I am buying a book online, it’s because I am familiar with the author and already know I want it. Here is the first sentence of the book.

The deck of the French ship was slippery with blood, heaving in the choppy sea; a stroke might as easily bring down the man making it as the intended target.

It is a little wordy. I mean, look, there’s even a semicolon up in there. A properly used semicolon, indicating that the writer knew what she was doing, but nonetheless. But you know what? I never made it to that semicolon. I read, The deck of the French ship was slippery with blood -HOOKED AND SOLD. Closed the book and took it to the cash register. Those first words were not fooling around. They not only promised action, they said, hey, shit’s already going down! You’re tardy to the party, friend!

It’s a perfect example of the in medias res hook, something I mentioned I am working on in my very first PLC post, The Evolution of a Fantasist. Still working on it, for those of you keeping tabs. Because my own purchasing tendencies have illustrated how crucial that first sentence is. Without a good hook, I would have plunked In His Majesty’s Service back on the shelf. Granted, I usually give a book at least one page before rejecting it, but IHMS didn’t need it.

So, those are my four purchase factors. A decent cover, word of mouth, personal interest and THE FIRST SENTENCE. What about you? How do you decide what book to buy when you’re just browsing the stacks?