5 Tips For Being Great at Recommending Books

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I spend a few hours every week recommending books to people on the podcast I host with Jenn Northington, Get Booked. People write in with their questions and book recommendation requests, and we answer them! Easy peasy– except not even a little, not at all. Everyone who recommends books for a living, from booksellers to librarians to people in the book media (hello!) have different techniques and methods. Here are a few that have worked for me:

  1. Recognize Readalikes. If the person asking you for a recommendation is asking for a book that is like another title, you’re looking to match two things: motifs and tone. Motifs are recurring elements in a book that give it its particular flavor; tone is atmosphere, how light/dark the book is, whether it’s cynical, hopeful, funny, etc. For example, if someone asks you to recommend a book to read if they loved The Night Circus, look for a book that has similar motifs (magic, Victoriana) and a similar tone (romantic, lush, hopeful, tense). Comb your book memory for a title with all or many of those things; of course, if you don’t have an encyclopedic memory of everything you’ve ever read, you’ll need to…
  2. Keep Good Records. If you have trouble remembering what you’ve read, keep a book journal, an account on Goodreads, a spreadsheet, or some record of your reading life. It should be easily accessible, so when you’re at dinner with a friend and she asks you for a rec, you can pull it out and quickly consult it. For 201 level record keeping, add tags to each title for its genre and the format in which you read it. Someone wants an excellent audiobook about nature? I can find one in my spreadsheet in about three seconds. Need a romance that you want to read digitally? Done and done. I can even tell you if it’s available at our local library.
  3. Ask the key question. “What’s the last book you read that you loved?” is the only question you ever need when someone is asking you for a reading recommendation and you don’t know anything about their taste. The answer will give you motifs and tones to pull from; if you haven’t read it, you at least have a genre to pull from. If the person can’t remember or isn’t a big reader, ask the same question, but about movies. You might luck out and find they last watched a book adaptation, but even if that’s not the case, you’ll get an idea of what kind of story they enjoy.
  4. Read wider. If you only read the classics and bestsellers, you’re not going to be a very effective or interesting recommender of books. No one needs you to tell them to read Dickens or Stephen King or Agatha Christie or whoever won the Pulitzer this year. Branch out. Read in the genres you haven’t read yet, pick up books from small presses. Read diversely from authors in translation, from authors from different ethnicities and sexual orientations than your own. Become a source of serendipity for the people you’re recommending for. Help them discover gems.
  5. Abandon snobbery. No one is going to ask you to recommend their next read if they think you’re going to judge them for their current one. If you still hold onto outdated ideas about science fiction or romance or comic books, you probably haven’t read from those genres for the last few decades: go do so. If your James-Patterson-obsessed dad wants a recommendation and you happen to be a little snooty about JPatz, you’re going to have to move away from that attitude to fairly consider what it is about those books that has your dad enthralled so you can give him the next book he’ll love. Books have readers for reasons. Be open to those reasons.

That’s just a handful of tips and ideas for being good at recommending books to the people around you. Please add yours in the comments!

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