Question For You: How Do You Decide Whether To Buy A Book?

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 13.266% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

So long-time commentor Fatbunnyghost asked this about prologues:
“When you are browsing for a book to buy and a book has a prologue, do you read the first sentence of the prologue or skip to the first chapter in order to decide if you want to buy the book?”
And I stopped, because I realized:
I no longer browse through books.
I’ve been blinded to that obvious truth because I grew up in bookstores.  Once a month, my Uncle Tommy took me to the bookstore and let me buy however many books I wanted, so I thumbed through a lot of books to make sure they were worth his money.  Then I got a job in Waldenbooks, and later Borders, and spent five years doing nothing but stocking and marketing books, and I watched people skim the first couple of pages before tossing it into their cart.  And then I got promoted to being a book buyer at Borders, in charge of determining which books Borders sold and how many, and that was all predicated on shoppers coming in and browsing.
But I don’t do that now.  I can’t remember the last time I bought a book because I read the first chapters.
Now, I buy books based on what I see online.
Which is to say that with a new book like, say, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, I’ll see a bunch of my friends freaking out about how good this is, so I’ll go, “All right” and toss it into my online cart sight unseen.  I figure if they’re all excited, it’s something interesting.  Which is a bit of privilege showing there, as I have the cash to just waste on a book I might not enjoy – but the good news is that I usually do, as the friends I trust to recommend are pretty spot-on.  As are star-reviews, custom-tailored to me.
And I realize, I don’t like reading a book’s description.  That’s why I paid the cash, buddy – to be surprised.  I don’t want to have the first half of the book spoiled for me – I want to be tossed into a raging sea of characters and plotlines and figure it all out for myself.  I get actively irritated when I accidentally read the back cover.
So yeah.  At one point, “thumbing through a book” would have done it, but I don’t even bother with Kindle’s Sample Chapters. Now, I’m not sure the text even matters – others do that work for me, and I merely surf their collective reactions.
Yet I?  Am a single data point.
Question is, how do you decide?  What factors go into you purchasing a book by some unknown factor – not the five zillionth Stephen King book, but some new author or series you’re unfamiliar with?  What’s your process for coming to decide whether this book is worth your money?


  1. I work in a library, so I don’t often buy books. However, I do get to peruse the New Arrivals before they go out on the shelves.
    A cover is what first catches my eye. I’ll look at the title, author and genre. Then I’ll read the back blurb. If it sounds good, it goes into my TBR pile. (Secret: librarians get to check out a whole lot more books than our patrons.)
    Libraries don’t often stock indie authors; the majority of our list are trad pubs. I don’t bother with reading the first few pages, because I know somewhere a beta-reader, an agent, an editor and an acquisitions board have read it all for me, and it passed their muster.
    That said, there is much to be said for personal taste. I can appreciate the mastery of a hooky first chapter. But after that, if the voice/style/subject matter turns out not to be of my taste, I’m happy to stop reading in the middle and take the book back to work (er, the library).

  2. Kri
    Apr 25, 2014

    There was once a time when I’d read/tried to read every book in the teen section of my library. Then in college I got busy and picky and jaded (I’m recovering). BUT, though I have the time and money to spend on books again, I find myself wary of back covers. I know how well formulated most of them are, especially for very genre-specific books. Nowadays I find myself looking around for thematic points that I want and don’t get to see much. I look for books that ride the line between multiple genres and address issues that aren’t discussed often. When I see a mix of interesting bits, I go for the book. It’s more difficult to find books like this, because they don’t show up in the “If you like this, read this” suggestions. So I rarely look inside the book; I read the synopsis and a review or two that seems like it knows what it’s saying.

  3. Jerilynn
    Apr 25, 2014

    I have friends who I trust to know what I like, as opposed to what they like and THINK I should like. If one of them says, I think you’ll like this, I’ll read it. I also will buy a book based on the author, because I’ve liked other books they’ve written. If a book is blowing up the internet AND is a genre I like, I’ll get it. If I’m going in blind, I just read the back, and see if it grabs me.

  4. nex0s
    Apr 25, 2014

    I buy books:
    – that are by my friends
    – recommended by friends
    – that are by authors I already like
    – occasionally by description
    – More recently – a first chapter download

  5. Gina
    Apr 25, 2014

    The title/cover art usually catches my eye first. They say don’t judge a book by it’s cover, but I’ll admit that I do. Judge me all you like.
    I’ll read the back cover/inside flap to get the synopsis if there is one. If that interests me enough, I read page 50. My grandmother always said if a book doesn’t pick up by page 50, it isn’t going to. If page 50 seems interesting enough, I’ll get it.
    (This is assuming, of course, that the book is something new to me – not something recommended by a friend, by an author I already know and like, or the next in a series I’m already reading.)

  6. Platypus
    Apr 25, 2014

    I try not to trust reviews that show up online. I don’t trust reviews from friends because my friends’ tastes tend to be different from mine. I don’t trust reviews from my twitterstream because my twitterstream is mostly authors, and I sometimes get the icky feeling that they’re trading endorsements.
    Books can catch my eye through the Amazon recommendation engine, or through Goodreads. I read the description before getting the Kindle preview; I read the Kindle preview before buying.
    Sometimes I refuse to buy a book on the grounds that “the description sounded awesome, but the main character spent the whole Kindle preview moping about being sorry for him/herself.” I always get the feeling I’m missing out on an awesome book, but I don’t want to risk getting a book full of mopery. (Besides, if the author hasn’t figured out that the first chapter needs to catch my interest somehow, they’re probably bad in other ways too.)

  7. Ellixis
    Apr 25, 2014

    I buy books almost solely via word-of-mouth recommendations these days. There’s a lot of dreck out there. I know which friends and acquaintances have tastes in reading that are similar to mine, and we share recommendations accordingly. I’ll still skim a couple of pages whenever possible, but I barely bother picking up books if they don’t come with a trusted endorsement. Now and then I’ll have a glance at a random novel, but that so rarely produces good results.
    That said, you’re in my pool of trusted recommendations these days; if you plug a book I’m more than likely to pick it up. You’ve got good taste, good sir.

  8. Courtney
    Apr 25, 2014

    Most of the new authors I find come from a few book review blogs I read, although they trend towards YA. If the review sounds like something I’d like, I’ll probably push the kindle button and then read it eventually; if it doesn’t sound like my thing but the reviewer is all OMG AWESOMETASTIC YAY, I might get it anyway. Some of the funny things to me are when they review books I have loved in the past and are like “yeah, this pretty much sucks” and I’m like sure, all the things you hate are true, but I loved it anyway. I don’t know how to find a reviewer who can identify “Yeah, this maybe is bad in XYZ ways, but it is tolerable because this, and has this particular characteristic that Courtney will love and thus forgive the series forever and ever amen.” Like, I am a sucker for a Super Stylin’ Evilicious Evil Constrained To Be A Goodish Guy. Usually there’s some kind of Mostly Pure Good Guy Struggling With Corruption on the team, an Apparently Pragmatic One Who Dies When They Play With Evil (often the Traitor), The Actually Pragmatic One Who Is All Like Whatever Lets Save The World, and the Damsel. The enemy is usually Evil Without Style, which is actually kind of hilarious when you think about it.
    Reviewers are all “Yeah, that book was lame and was all about the conflict between these two dudes, whatever” but they never say anything about stylin’ evil.
    Anyway. I also buy books from authors I like. I’m a completionist about authors’ catalogs, so I sometimes hesitate about authors who are very prolific, out of print, or overpriced by some loose estimation of my satisfaction. I also try to avoid the kind of epic fantasy with thousands and thousands of words that go on forever and the books are bricks and I just want an editor to beat the author about the head with their own books… and the next book in the series comes out like five years later and the author dies before resolving any plots and then their kid writes something to try to wrap it up and it’s kind of annoying and does not satisfy anyone, anywhere, just stop it, if you shorten your book like I should shorten this sentence, everyone would be much, much happier.
    Finally, I have started buying the entire backlog of author’s books based on other things they do, because the way to be all “Hey, Author, I like what you do!” is to give them money for their books. Ferinstance, I bought all of Jim Hines because of the cover posing thing he did, and because I liked the other things he says on his blog. I buy everything Ursula Vernon writes because I want Ursula Vernon to continue being Ursula Vernon, hopefully in public. I buy books associated with blogs I like, especially first books, as long as they’re not “The Accumulation Of Blog Posts Book”. Usually I know nothing at all about these books other than that I like something about what the author does in the world.
    Occasionally I’ll buy a book because everyone in my community makes references to it and I am missing the cultural reference. Usually I regret this. Often the book is asstastic, one of those things that everyone read when they were teenagers and loved because they were idiot teens and haven’t reconsidered as adults. Ender’s Game. Conan. Stranger In A Strange Land. Robert Jordan. Illuminati trilogy. (I have refused any Ayn Rand).

  9. Megan
    Apr 25, 2014

    I read 1-3 books a week. That might seem small in this group, but I have two small kids and a full time job!
    So when I choose a book, I usually use Bookbub. Or on the word of a friend. If I’m just going to Amazon, I start with the genre I’m in the mood for. Then I sort by rating, and then I make my selection by price, description, and yes, by the cover.

  10. Kelly Ness
    Apr 26, 2014

    I will definitely take the advice of a friend, especially if it’s about an urban fantasy or teen sci-fi/fantasy. But I read this like Old Man’s War based solely on recommendations.
    However, I love going to the brick and mortar bookstore and actually browsing the books with my nook there with me. When I find a book I want I buy it on my nook right there.
    I have a list of go-to authors which I check first. Then I scan the new release sections. If the book title suggests vampires, modern day super heroes, our most especially some kind of thing about robots, ai, vr, or something like that, I will pick it up and look at the cover, reading any subtitles or blurbs on the front (“someday, we will all die, except for Evy”). I do skim the back blurb to ensure the subject is what I think it is (I hate getting a book I think is about cyberspace but turns out to be espionage or something). But you’re right. Spoilers! It’s why I don’t search out movie trailers on the web before a movie.
    Last step. I read the first line, or skim a page somewhere in the middle. I need to know the writing doesn’t absolutely suck.
    Then I buy it on my nook or take a photo of the cover to remember it for later.

  11. Rosemarie
    Apr 26, 2014

    I like to go to the secondhand bookstore in my area and look through their clearance stuff. I scan them for titles that grab me, then read the descriptions on the back or the inside flap. If it intrigues me, I’ll look at some random pages to see if the style is any good, and if it is, I put it in my “purchase” stack. I do this with the clearance books because, hey, if I’m wrong, I’ve only wasted two dollars.
    And I like getting books I’ve never heard of. It’s less certain overall, but some of the best books I’ve ever read have been things I picked up on clearance because their titles grabbed me. I think there’s a special joy in that, a sort of magic, even.

  12. Russell Bittner
    Apr 28, 2014

    Good piece! Thank you!
    I’m frankly a bit disillusioned (reading the comments here) by how many people judge — and buy — a book by its cover.
    I would’ve thought serious readers knew better.

    • TheFerrett
      Apr 29, 2014

      They never did. When I worked at Borders, the cover was important. And why not? There’s literally 50,000 books in the store, and are you going to read the first page of every one of them?

  13. Ziv W
    May 1, 2014

    I have different types and styles of book-buys.
    I have authors I love, and authors I support; those are easy picks for me, and in the last couple of years my reading budget is quite comfortable, I get to go for these practically whenever the opportunity presents itself.
    I like discovering books and authors who are new to me, so I buy some books on the combination of “never read ’em,” “heard something good about ’em,” and “the concept appeals to me.” I’m fairly picky in my novel-length reading, so I usually key onto reviews or elevator pitches that intrigue me, and then I burrow through online reviews. I’m not looking for “thumbs up/thumbs down” details; I’m looking for comprehensive reviews that detail what worked and why. Personally, what I look for in these reviews is a plot that feels substantial and unusual to me. I’ll also go for SF/F premises I find intriguing.
    My other discovery-mode is short fiction collections. For this, I subscribe to a magazine or two, and supplement with some online e-zines. I’ll occasionally buy an anthology if the theme strikes me, and I’ll often snag a short story (paid or free) if I like either the author or the premise. Short stories don’t take much thought; if something about them interests me, I’ll take ’em. (Whether I’ll get around to reading them all is a different question.)
    Lastly, I’m nurturing a newfound interest in mystery stories. Here, I’m still very picky, and I’m also not very familiar with the genre. So occasionally I’ll actively go looking for a new mystery book to read. Here I’ll try well-known “classic” titles, and look for recommendations. I find that mystery stories that I dislike, I really really dislike, to a much greater extent than F&SF and mainstream fiction. But the ones I enjoy, I’m really pleased with.

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