An American Editor

March 8, 2010

On Books: Deciding to Buy or Not Buy (I)

I have been thinking about what goes into my decision whether or not to buy a particular book. An ever-increasing number of books are available every year — enough to overwhelm any dedicated book buyer. I suspect that the only time the decision was (relatively) easy was in the days of scribal versions and the early days of the printing press and moveable type. I recall reading that even at the time of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, thousands of books and pamphlets were being written and published every year.

Books have always been a treasure for me. I remember, in my childhood, going to the library every week to borrow a dozen or so books to hold me until the following week’s trip. And when I began to earn money, I spent more money buying books than on anything else that was leisure related. Although book buying isn’t my most expensive outlay today, I still spend thousands of dollars every year on books. Some of those books are books I plan to read some day when I have time, but which in reality will never have the binding cracked because something else will take reading precedence — and eventually time does run out.

So how do I decide which book to buy and which to pass over? The process is really more complex than I had thought, especially considering that (according to The Economist) more than 400,000 books are now published every year in the United States and United Kingdom. Plus, I need to separate ebooks from pbooks because the process is different in several respects, not least of which is that ebook purchases are always fiction whereas pbook purchases are almost always nonfiction.

Over the course of the next 3 articles, I plan to examine what goes into my book-buying decisions. Admittedly, this is a personal approach, but I suspect that many book buyers’ approaches mirror at least some of my approach. Let’s begin with reviews.

Reviews

Reviews as a factor do not need to be separated by the book’s format. The bottom line is a review is applicable to either the ebook or the pbook, unless the review is focused on formatting gaffes that are peculiar to one version rather than to both.

There are essentially four types of reviews: online starred reviews at the bookseller, independent online reviews, friend reviews, and magazine-type reviews, such as the New York Review of Books (NYRB), The Atlantic, and the New York Times Books Review (NYTBR). Each has its own credibility level. For me, I’ve listed them in ascending order, that is, least credible are the starred reviews, more credible are independent online and friends’ recommendations, and the most credible, for me, are the magazine-type reviews (including newspaper reviews).

A number of people have commented that when buying a book they look at the bookseller’s, such as Amazon, rating: What have other readers at this bookseller thought about a particular book? Some readers apparently give great weight to the online reviews, others scant weight. I give the reviews at the booksellers no weight whatsoever; I don’t even look at them.

Why? Because I believe that too few of the reviews are honest reviews of the content; instead, the reviewer has some other agenda (such as pricing or religious or political protests) and I have neither the time nor patience to weed through the reviews. If a book has 100 reviews, 95 of which are 1 star, how can you be certain — regardless of the review’s content — of the verity of the content review. Plus I have no idea who sallyfromarkana is or why I should care whether he/she liked or disliked a book: How do I know  sallyfromarkana really read the book? Or understood the book? Or isn’t bosom buddies with the author? Or isn’t a bitter ex-spouse? How knowledgeable about the subject matter is sallyfromarkana? Can sallyfromarkana really tell me how this book compares with the previous three books on the same subject, which is important in the case of nonfiction?

Then there is the “King” complication. I already know that hundreds of thousands of book buyers love to read Stephen King, James Patterson, Dan Brown, J.D. Robb, and many other authors. These best-selling novelists represent the King complication; that is, if sallyfromarkana reads these authors, how in tune with my tastes is she when I avoid their books? How do I know what other books he/she has read and/or reviewed and the quality of those reviews? Of how much worth is sallyfromarkana’s review of a Doris Kearns Goodwin book to me when sallyfromarkana gives Stephen King 4 stars, Dan Brown 1 star as a price protest, and Doris Kearns Goodwin 3 stars?

This problem also surfaces with the independent online reviews. Additionally, those reviews require searching to find and a lot of effort to discover whether the reviewer is good or bad, thorough or not. It requires a lot of time and work, something I am not desirous of expending looking for a review.

Friend’s recommendations have greater credibility for me, as I suspect they do for most book buyers. The problem is that our reading tastes rarely coincide; my taste in books doesn’t even coincide with my children’s. None of my friends have read, for example, Michael Burlingame’s Abraham Lincoln: A Life or Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. But they have read the new Dan Brown or Clive Cussler novel.

That really leaves me, as far as reviews go, in the hands of the professional reviewers, such as the NYRB and NYTBR. The reviews in the NYRB are my particular favorites. They are in-depth, tell me whether the author knows the subject matter well, and refer me to other books on the same subject or from which the reviewed author obtained information. I’ve bought several books that have been mentioned in a NYRB review that are not the subject of the review.

Alas, outlets like NYRB and NYTBR are limited, especially for nonfiction. There are only so many reviews that each can contain in an issue. So although these types of magazine reviews do influence my decision making, they do so on a limited basis, simply because of the limited number of books reviewed compared with the ever-expanding number of books published. But also worthy of mention, at least in the case of the NYRB, are the book ads placed by university presses. With all the books being published each year, one of the things I rely on to learn about a new university press book are publisher ads. They aren’t reviews but they at least alert me to something that may be of interest to me and that I should check out.

Part II, tomorrow’s article, discusses the role and importance of a well-designed cover. Part III, the final article in this series, discusses the final two legs of the decision-making process: content and pricing.

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