Photographed by Michael O'Neal.
Recently I went into a bookshop and bought a book that I liked the look of — a bit radical, I know. I didn’t do my usual trawl through the internet, searching for books that might appeal to me. I didn’t stand in a corner of the shop and sneakily check online to see that other people had enjoyed this book before I parted with my money. I just did that old fashioned thing of judging a book by its cover (although shouldn’t the saying really be “Don’t judge a book by its spine,” as that’s what we’re normally looking at in the shop?), reading the back cover to check that it was something I was vaguely interested in and then buying it.
The book was Penelope by Rebecca Harrington and I loved it. I had that lovely feeling of knowing that I’d found an author whose future books I would buy as soon as they came out. After I finished the book I hopped onto Twitter to follow Harrington and then sashayed over to Amazon to see the reviews, I was convinced that other people would love the book as much as I had, that I’d be greeted by enthusiastic praise. Turns out I know diddly-squat, as it had more one star reviews than five star reviews. And, honestly, if I’d have seen that before I bought the book then I would’ve put Penelope right back on the shelf.
Online book shopping can be great. The online world can introduce us to books that we would’ve otherwise overlooked, we can discover great new authors and be recommended books that we might like based on what we do like. But, it does take the chance out of book shopping a little bit. How many of us skip over the books that get an average customer review of three stars or under because we think that there are better books out there? Because yes, we could be that one person that thinks that it’s worthy of five-star status. But, chances are we’ll probably be one of those people in the one-star category, so we really should pick something safer instead?
Photographed by Molly Cranna.
You also have to add into the equation the fact that you can’t trust all the reviews on ratings based websites. The majority of reviews are most likely from legitimate people who just want to voice their opinion. But, ever so occasionally, a scandal breaks revealing an author who has trashed other peoples’ books under a pseudonym and left glowing reviews of their own books and you’re reminded that anyone can write almost anything they want on the internet. People (well, trolls) can even write damning reviews of books they’ve never set their eyes upon just for the “fun” of it. And, if a book has such a poor average rating then people, like me, will often overlook the book entirely rather than reading the good reviews and giving it a chance.
And, surely this has to harm a book’s chances of success. 20 years ago publishers and authors feared bad reviews from newspaper and magazine critics, but, odds were the average person in the bookstore looking for something to read hadn’t seen them. Now, we can look up anything we want, whenever we want. Money’s tight for a lot of people and so if you’re buying a book you want to give yourself a good shot of purchasing something that you’ll actually read to the end and hopefully will like so much you’ll re read it in the future. So, we look things up online to get an idea and the popular books become even bigger bestsellers and the less popular books get dragged down to the bottom and sometimes forgotten about even though there’s surely an audience out there for them.
I guess there’s a happy balance between scouting books out on the internet and letting ourselves be drawn to a book in a bookshop for no other reason than liking the look of it. Yes, we might end up with a dud or two, but we could also stumble across things that are really quite spectacular and shouldn’t book shopping sometimes be about chance? About reading something and letting the words of the story do all the talking?
How do you guys choose books? Do you rely heavily on online reviews? Have you found any hidden gems without the help of the internet?