No, I’m not talking about that list. This isn’t about the New York Times
Bestseller list, though it might be the first step toward getting there.
I’m talking about the grimy little list that every avid reader keeps,
the hastily scrawled, coffee stained, and ever expanding list jammed in
pocketbooks or back pockets, or recorded, as mine is, in the datebook I
carry everywhere: the To Be Read list.
Just like the alcoholic, who always knows exactly how much whiskey is
left in the bottle, and where the next one is coming from, the avid
reader is always trolling for his or her next fix. With all the books
published every year, you’d think finding “something to read” would be
an easy task.
Not so. Though I troll for books like a maniac, finding the Holy Grail
readers everywhere are searching for isn’t easy. And what is that Holy
Grail? It’s the Great Book, of course, the one that lifts you out of
your own messy life and lands you plop in the middle of one that’s so
engrossing you never want to leave. Like the descriptions of a beautiful
women, it is talked about in terms that are over-used, but true. It’s
the one you can’t put down, the one that haunts you long after you close
the last page, the one that disturbs your sleep and rattles your dreams.
And again like the addict or the lover, once you’ve been beguiled by a
great book, you’re not the same person you were before. You want more.
You want another. You join the ranks of the list keepers. You’re on the
I buy about eight books a month in service of my particular quest. Of
the eight, at least two are never finished, and most of the rest are in
the “Um, yeah” category. “Um, yeah” because that’s what I say if someone
on the beach or the bus or in my living room asks me if it’s good.
“Um, yeah,” is a recommendation, but it’s a lukewarm one. While it’s
better than “Nah, it sucks,” I doubt “um, yeah,” has ever sold a single
On the other hand, when I find a Great Book, no one has to ask me how it
is. In fact, they won’t get a chance to. I’m standing up on the beach to
tell everyone–even the seagulls–that they HAVE to read this book right
no. I’m waking up the poor guy who’s trying to catch a few Zs in the
seat next to me on the bus to say how much I love this story. I’m so
excited that even if the guy hasn’t read a book in twenty years, he’s
going to take the book out of my hand and make note of the title and
author–just to shut me up. In other words, I’ve become the best
marketing tool an author can ever have: a besotted reader.
But before I, the Avid Reader, can fall in love with your book and go to
work for you, it’s got to make it onto my list. Here’s how a few books I
recently bought did so:
1. Author branding I think it’s called in the marketplace. To a reader,
it’s more like loving a particular writer right down to their bones,
their invisible but very palpable soul. When Coronado Stories by Dennis
Lehane recently went on sale for instance, I knew I had to have it. And
one story into it, I was already pressing it on strangers on the bus and
anyone reading this. (Psst…Read Coronado Stories; it’s a gem.)
2. A recommendations from someone I have reason to trust: In yesterday’s
insightful post, Derek Nikitas gave a shout for James Ellroy’s The Big
Nowhere. My antennae shot up. I liked the title, and I admired Derek’s
writing in the piece. Maybe I’d have to take his word for it. Still, my
pen and notebook weren’t out yet. But then he linked the Ellroy with
Joyce Carol Oates and Michael Connelly, two of my favorite authors, and
I was convinced. The book is now at the top of The List.
Similarly, recent comments by Sandra Ruttan convinced me to check out
Ian Rankin’s Blood Hunt, and a blog reader, who extolled the virtue of A
Woman in White, the classic suspense novel from the nineteenth century,
made a sale for the heirs of Wilkie Collins.
3. A Review–even a tepid one. I bought T.C. Boyle’s Talk, Talk after
reading a review that was mixed at best. Why? Because the subject of the
novel: a deaf woman seeking revenge after her identity was stolen
intrigued me. I had to know what happened.
4. A blurb: Very rarely does a blurb alone sell a book to this Avid
Reader, but this one, splattered across the cover of Karen Shepard’s
“Don’t I Know You?” was an exception:
“Among the most suspenseful and moving novels I’ve read in many years.”
Tim O’Brien. Why did that hit me when so many other raving blurbs don’t?
I think it was the combination of the words “suspenseful” and
“moving”–two adjectives that rarely occur together and that together
spelled “Great book” to me.
And then it was the blurber himself. Tim O’Brien is not only a prose
master; he’s a great story teller. If he found this to be one of the
most moving and suspenseful novels he’d read in YEARS, I wanted to read
5. A blog. The last on my list and a weak entry at that. As someone who
spends a fair amount of time maintaining a blog, it’s distressing to me
to think how few books I’ve bought simply because I liked the author’s
I’m not entirely sure why. Maybe it’s because I read lots of blogs for
tips, and help; and that’s not why I buy novels. Thus, a highly
informative blog might produce great numbers on the site meter, and
squander a lot of the author’s time while rarely translating to sales.
However, if I love the voice of the blogger, if that voice is original,
quirky, intimate, engaging–in other words the voice of a natural story
teller, then I’m going to buy the author’s books. One example: Ayelet
Waldman’s former blog, The Bad Mother, in which she basically vented
about whatever crossed her mind was not only an addictive read, it
convinced me to buy her books. All of them.
Okay, I’m just one reader, and maybe the vast sea of book addicts we
hope to appeal to choose books differently than I do. But one
interesting thing I’ve gleaned from my little list is how small a role
the author’s marketing efforts played in my decision to buy a book.
Though promotion is important, and we all need to do it, it should never
become such a distraction or a time drain that it takes away from the
thing that only we can do: Write a really great book. Write a book so
good that it makes people on beach or the bus stand up and shout to the
nappers and seagulls: Hey you, over there, wake up and read this! Now!
The Liar’s Diary
Dutton, February 2007
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