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

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?

The Prologue Tally

So after talking to some people who were firmly convinced that most people skip the prologue, my informal tally shows:

  • 64 yes
  • 7 yes but will skip ahead if the prologue sucks
  • 0 people who skip the prologue on the first read-through, though several people acknowledged prologue-skipping on subsequent rereads.

So yeah, if there are people who skip the prologue on the first read-through, they did not show up here.  And can safely be said to be ignorable.
So authors!  If you have a prologue, treat it like it’s your first chapter!  As, in fact, many people acknowledged not reading chapter headings, and they may not even realize it’s a prologue!
(This topic is of severe interest to me, as my upcoming book “Flex” has a prologue, which is basically a cross between Martin’s Ice Monster prologue and Cherie Priest’s RPG intro prologue, where you see how the magic system works.  It’s a risk, because someone may well decide, “I hate this character” or “This is too much work to process” and not move on, but I tried a lot of other structures and they all left beta readers even more confused.  I tried to start in media res, I really did, but there’s some times when you can’t just backseed.)
(And the novel’s fine, obviously, as people bought and they seem excited about it, but Perfectionist Steinmetz always seeks a better way.  And believes firmly that books without prologues are generally better structured than books with prologues.)

You Weren't "Nice," You Idiot, You Were BORING

“I was nice to girls. They all used and ignored me. Then I became a bad boy, insulting and abusing them, and oh how the poon did flow.”
That’s one of a thousand generic, whiny essays decrying “The Friend Zone,” where a man who is Too Nice For His Own Good finally learns to Be Mean and tells you all the lesson that Stupid Women Don’t Like Nice Guys Be A Dick Hurr Hurr Hurr.
Except you were never a nice guy.
Because hey, did you tell her when you met her, “Hey, I’d like to date you?”, even though you secretly went back home and masturbated so furiously you could have used your smoking dick to start a fire? No. You instead hung around her, pretending to be her friend when friendship was actually the last thing you wanted.
Hey, if you really wanted to be her friend, you wouldn’t be sitting here decades later, spilling tawdry confessions of how awful it was not to fuck her, right? I mean, I’ve had friends who were just friends, and I don’t weep bitter tears about how “Oh, what I wanted was friendship, and that’s all I got?”
No. You started right off by lying. You figured hey, I’ll sneak in the friendship door, and then once I’ve fluffed the cushions in the friendship lobby I’ll mash that glowing button to Love Tower!
And it didn’t work out for you, did it?
Well, that’s because you were a crappy friend. And not just because you lied.
Because you sucked at being a person.
See, “friends” bring interesting shit to the table. When I get together with my friends, male or female or somewhere in-between, they tell me about the interesting things that happened to them. They recommend television shows I haven’t seen, talk about restaurants, have great stories that make me laugh. They go, “Ugh, that’s not for me” and they contradict me and we tussle and it’s fucking awesome.
What you did was to sit there, rabbitlike, and nod your head to everything she said.
I know you think you were a friend, but probably you were more like an unpaid valet; agreeing to everything she said no matter how stupid it seemed, doing all of her chores because that’s what friends do, contributing precisely nothing to her life except as a rug to walk on.
I mean, you couldn’t have offered any real useful advice, because your hidden agenda was “Sleep with me, sleep with me, sleep with me” and everything got filtered through that straining urge. And you probably didn’t bring up your interests, going, “Hey, let’s watch The Avengers,” because introducing your tastes might have hinted that you were incompatible, and we can’t have her disagreeing with you, can we? Just… stick to common ground.
So you ran all her errands, and went to those awful girl movies that nobody but you wanted to watch (and you hated), and listened to all her terrible music, and went shopping with her even though you fucking hated the mall…
And then you have the gall to get astonished when she got bored with you?
No, buddy. You weren’t a nice guy: you were a boring sack of Silly Putty, pressing yourself up against her and coming away as a warped reflection of her image. You were an empty space, a computer program that said “yes yes yes” no matter how stupid the question was, as predictable as a faucet: turn you on, and bullshit spilled out.
And when that awful plan collapsed, instead of concluding, “Say, suppressing my entire personality to try to appeal to someone else is a mug’s game,” you instead blamed it all on them and went, “THEY ONLY LIKE BAD BOYS!”
Cue the Barney Stinson transformation.
No. I know a lot of nice guys who date, and date well. They have opinions. They have their own agendas, new activities they can bring dates to and have them go, “Oh, I’ve never tried this!” They have things they won’t do, because sure, they’d love to help you move, but they have enough of a life outside of their date that they’ve promised to babysit or have a party they’ve committed to or something.
And they tell their partners what they want. Because they’re not ashamed of having wants.
What you were, son, was a box with a mirror in it. She kept opening you up and finding her reflection, something she’d seen a hundred times before. And chances are she secretly pitied you, inviting you along on these mall-expeditions not because you were her friend, but because she sensed your crushing loneliness and was hoping you might accrete an actual goddamned personality at some point.
The lesson here is not that “Women want bad boys,” but rather, “When presented with a choice between a cringing sack of suet and an asshole who can carry on his half of the conversation,” she’ll reluctantly choose the asshole. But there is a middle path, one I know many men have trod successfully, where they somehow manage not to treat women like shit and somehow still get laid.
Look, it hurts to be in the friend zone. No denying. I’ve had plenty of people I wanted to sleep with who found me unattractive, and it sucks. But when you went so far out of your way to make yourself soulless, uninteresting, and dispensable, you can’t complain about being placed in the friend zone when you did everything you could to put yourself there. You didn’t tell her you wanted to date right away, you didn’t stand up for yourself, and you didn’t tell her that if you can’t sleep with her, you don’t really want the friendship, you’ll just take it as some limp consolation prize.
And you never respected those women the way you claim. If you did, you wouldn’t be writing vitriolic essays years later on what stupid whores they were.
Sorry, buddy. You were the stupid whore. You sacrificed your self-esteem, your opinions, and your labor, masquerading as someone you weren’t in a vain attempt to entice a client into your boudoir… and you couldn’t even manage to do that.
Really, who’s the stupid one here?

On Roleplaying, GMing, And Cultural References

As a GM, I’m not sure whether my pop culture references are a strength or not.
References make things more vivid for me – if I say, “You shoot, but he slides under your bullets Matrix-style, trenchcoat flapping,” then to me that’s a great visual shorthand that lets players know what’s happening.  Likewise, if I tell my players, “This robot talks like the Iron Giant” or “It’s a vast and curved space station, like the one from 2001: A Space Odyssey,” then that provides a lot of info. So I do that a lot.
The issue is, if my players don’t get the reference, then the whole image dissolves – making it a risky technique.  As they’re not likely to tell me they didn’t get it in the heat of things, leaving them out in the cold.
So I have to ponder how to do that.  Because on one level, a good pop culture reference can tell you exactly what mood I’m trying to go for – saying, “He totally Jackie Chans out from under your punches, flipping across the table and then kicking it in your direction” lets the players know that this is a fast-paced kung-fu fight.  But maybe I’m overusing it, and not allowing my own game to breathe in the process, giving players an impression that’s more pastiche than essential creation.
And certainly if I’m going to do it, I need to provide alternate explanations, because “This robot talks like the Iron Giant” is pretty bad description in isolation.  There’s no context for the culturally-bereft (though honestly, I’m not sure I’d want to play with someone who hadn’t seen The Iron Giant).  If I said, “This robot talks deep and metallic, like the Iron Giant,” then that’d be better – but when I’m GMing and trying to juggle so many things at once, I tend to shorthand.
I’m unsure whether it’s a weakness or a strength, or how to leverage that.

How Do You, As A Reader, Read The Prologue To A Book?

I had an interesting discussion about prologues yesterday.
Some folks seemed to feel very strongly that readers universally skip (or skim to the point of skipping) a prologue.  Which isn’t actually a bad approach, since as Raymond Arnold accurately pointed out, “The opening prologue either gives backstory, or shows teaser scene of who the Big Bad is without introducing why our character cares about them.”  (For more info on why authors do this, check out Dan Wells’ thoughts on The Ice Monster Prologue.)  And the anti-prologue people were vociferous in insisting that most folks flat-out ignored the prologue, and maaaaybe went back to read it later when they got better context.
Whereas I’m of the opinion that most people read straight through.  I believe this because I was shocked to discover that most people read anthologies straight through, in order.  (I’m a “read my favorite authors, then read the shortest stories, then read the ones with the interesting titles, then read the rest” kinda guy.)  So the idea that people are skipping the prologue in a book intended to be read sequentially seems crazy to me…
…but what do I know?
Well, what I know is that for purposes of being a better writer, agents and book companies do read the prologue first, and you’ll get your ass rejected if it’s not good, so you’d better treat your prologue like it’s the first thing people will read, or they won’t ever get the chance to read it.  (Unless you self-publish, of course.)
But leaving all thoughts of manuscript salability aside, when you are presented with a prologue, what do you do as a reader?  I personally read lightly – it’s foolish to get attached to anyone in a prologue, to the point where I’m considering titling the prologue to my new book “Don’t Worry, Dude Dies At The End Of The Chapter” – but I do read it.  And if I’m skimming through books at the bookstore, if the prologue’s uninteresting, I won’t get to the first official chapter.
Yet that’s me.  I could be mapping my preferences onto the world at large.
How do you read prologues?