by Richard Parry
We’ve all been there. A book arrives on our Kindle/Kobo/iDevice, credit card already creaking from the strain of holiday shopping, and we think, Well, hot damn, but this book sucks.
At this point, it’s either suicide or push through, right?
The thing is, we also know how you got there. There are two paths.
- Recommendations from a friend. I tend to whitelist or blacklist my friends. One of my buddies kept pointing me at the most atrocious trash, with shills like, “This is the best thing I’ve ever read!” He’s been voted off the island, but I needed to burn a little time to get there. That’s no fun. One person’s gold is another person’s … you get the idea.
- Also-boughts by your retailer. Let’s be clear here: only about half the people in the world vote the way you do. Stands to reason only about half their recommendations are worthwhile. You can troll through these for the diamond in the rough, but if people’s views on Justin Bieber or their choices in interior decorating are anything to go by, most people have terrible taste. You do you.
Let’s see if we can build a sensible system for making clever purchases. I have a 5-step program that will save you time, money, and sanity. What’s not to like?
You’ve been told before to never judge a book by a cover.
This is wrong. All your life, people have lied to you. This is just one of those times. Pick yourself up, move on. Along with the lies about potpourri making rooms smell better? The mighty falsehood of covers being a bad marker of book quality.
There are a lot of reasons to judge a book by its cover, but the main one is this: if it’s got a cover that a five-year-old did in MS Paint, odds are good a similar production quality has been applied to the rest of the book. You don’t have time to wade through bad editing, clumsy prose, and poor font choices.
If the cover looks clumsy, roll on by. Don’t know what I mean by a bad book cover? Well, I’m here to help.
Social proof is important. It’s difficult (not impossible, but tricky) to scam a bunch of reviews on popular retailers like Amazon. There are two tests you need to do here.
- [Time in the Oven] If the book has fewer than ten reviews and is more than a couple months old, it’s likely a significant number of people bounced off it. Pull the ripcord, friend, and be free.
- [Pure Gold] If the overall star rating is below 4 for an author-published book or below 3 for a traditionally-published book, it’s probably bad. This isn’t a hard and fast rule; the longer the book’s been alive, the more likely review scores will trend down (as writing evolves, ideas and approaches can appear stale or archaic after a while). But if it’s a new-ish release where even the advance readers gave it three stars? Run.
This isn’t to say that reviews are the be-all and end-all, but they’re useful. Scalzi has run the One-Star Challenge, showing that even Hugo winners get doused with kerosene and set alight.
Read it. Seriously.
Blurbs tell you a bunch of things, but mostly they’ll tell you whether the story is interesting. Blurbs follow a formula that can be applied from epic fantasy through to food memoirs.
- Character intro (just one, two at the most, not twelve). You should see a name and something about them.
- The “Awww, hell no” thing that’s going on. This should be clear! If it’s a book about aliens, it will mention aliens.
- What the character has to do to fix it. If this is some complicated snakes-and-ladders story about the protagonist and their twelve friends, the book is likely more confused than the blurb.
- What happens if they don’t fix it. I’ve read a bunch of books where there was no real consequence. Friends, stories without consequence are boring.
Okay, I admit: maybe food memoirs don’t follow that exact formula, but fiction tends to. Signs of a confused story are too many characters, unclear goals, lack of consequence, and no agency for the protagonist. If you can check that list off, the book likely has a good story structure.
Review Quick Check
You thought we were done with reviews because I said, “Stars.” But we’re not. Stars are a broad-brush stroke, but they don’t dive into the heart of all issues.
We’ve all got trigger points. Maybe we don’t like books with a long time to payoff (I don’t want to read 800 pages of a 900-page book to get to the ‘good part’). Sometimes books have protagonists that are scum and kinda boring to boot (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant are an epic fantasy about a jerk who should have been euthanized in the first part of the first book). Maybe the book is a mix of eleventy-billion genres (really, an orphan, who uses magic, in outer space, against aliens? Oh, and it’s a post-apocalyptic romance).
Whatever your triggers are, look for people in the reviews commenting on ‘em. If you’re past the first two checks, this is worth your time, because despite what the blurb and excerpt might tell you, others have waded through to mine the real gold in them there hills.
I skim a bunch of four- and two- star reviews. It takes about thirty seconds to pull out my trigger points. If I don’t see ‘em, we’re almost there.
This is the last trap. I remember a cry of pure rage from my wife, who had bought a new release from Neil Gaiman for about a hundred dollars, only to find it was a novella that she finished before dinner.
What you want to have in your own head is what length is worth to you. If you’re gonna drop a bunch of gold bullion on your latest read, it needs to give you value for your time.
Check the length of the book. If it feels expensive for the length, then wait for a sale.
Despite this, I’d also encourage against absolutes, which is why this part is last. I’ve read short books that changed my life that I got for a couple bucks. I’ve read long books that weren’t expensive yet left me wanting to core out my skull with a sand blaster. Use the previous weightings to define how you feel about the particular book you’re considering.
Once you’ve passed all the tests, you may use your retailer’s preview system (e.g., Look Inside), or just go buy it. Your odds of hitting buyer’s remorse should be next to zero. You’re welcome.
About Richard Parry
Richard is the author of the Night’s Champion trilogy, the Tyche’s Journey trilogy, and a huge liar.
His latest Tyche’s Journey trilogy is a space opera where sword-wielding blaster-shooting heroes save not just Earth, but the entire universe through action scenes and clever dialogue.
You can find his Internet empire at http://www.mondegreen.co.