Recommending Books the Old-Fashioned Way

Recommending Books the Old-Fashioned Way without Keywords or Algorithms

As a bookseller, I am often asked for book recommendations both in the bookstore and online. Connecting someone with the right book can be a great pleasure, but giving an unfit recommendation can leave a bad taste in the reader’s mouth that they’re not likely to forget. It is important to realize that reading a book is a commitment, both in time spent reading, and in emotional investment. Not every book is for everyone, and it is important to keep this in mind for booksellers and authors alike.

When asked to provide a book recommendation having read the book you are recommending is the best preparation. For this reason it is always useful when an author has provided me with an ARC (advance reading copy). I prefer to read hard copies, but many booksellers are also fine with an ebook – a cheaper solution for the author or publisher. Not every bookseller will have the time to read your book, but the gesture, and the sign of professionalism can go a long way.

To connect a reader with the right book can be tricky, especially if they are a new customer and I am unfamiliar with their tastes. Because of this I always ask what was a book they loved, and what was a book that they hated. This information is extremely helpful for narrowing down the selection, both thematically and in the density of the material that they enjoy reading. For instance if someone has enjoyed Vonnegut and Adams, I know they are looking for something light-hearted and humorous. 

Biographical information can also be super useful when connecting a reader with a book. I have found that often just sharing information about the author can be helpful in piquing the interest of the reader. For this reason, I always read the bio in the back of books to prepare me for the customer’s questions. If you are an author releasing a book do not forget to put a bio in the back, as many readers will go to this section first to see if they are interested in pursuing the book. Mention awards, interests, location etc., all of this information may interest the potential reader. Many authors use humorous or caddy bios to try and attract attention. In my experience this is generally a turn off for the reader, after-all you want the reader to take the book seriously (unless perhaps it is a book of humor). 

Genre can sometimes be a factor in purchasing a book, and it is certainly a helpful tool for marketing and where to shelve a book, however in my experience most readers read more broadly than one particular genre. Often a reader can be turned off to a book they may otherwise enjoy because of stereotypes surrounding genre. Because of this, I find it helpful to try and ascertain the more general taste of a reader, and this is why it can be helpful to include interests outside of genre when writing your bio or marketing your book. 

Other factors that may help connect a reader with your book are shelf talkers and signed bookplates. The latter is useful because many readers also collect books and many of us collect signed first editions. Signed bookplates are a great way to open up a conversation with a bookseller and often offer the extra incentive needed for the customer to take a chance on the book. 

Display space is also extremely useful for catching the customer’s eye when browsing. By putting a book on display in the bookshop it is an automatic endorsement of the book and it is more likely to sell. Often authors and publishers request that their books be on display, but I would caution against this, as display space is valuable real estate and highly coveted (some booksellers even charge for the space). If you are lucky enough to get your book featured in the display space, it is important to make sure that you have compelling cover art, and this is not an area of your book you want to skimp on. For self-published authors it is also extremely important that your book has a printed spine because otherwise it will disappear into the shelves and will likely never sell.

Ultimately, when a reader reads your book you are opening up a one way relationship and it is important to treat it like any other relationship. If your book is packaged to look like it delivers a certain type of experience than it had better live up to that expectation. The more points of entry you give the reader the more likely they are to love the book, and the more likely a bookseller is to include your book in their list of recommendations. 

Jean-Paul L. Garnier

Jean-Paul L. Garnier lives and writes in Joshua Tree, CA where he is the owner of Space Cowboy Books, a science fiction bookstore, independent publisher, and producer of Simultaneous Times podcast. In 2020 his first novella Garbage In, Gospel Out was released by Space Cowboy Books and in 2018 Traveling Shoes Press released Echo of Creation, a collection of his science fiction short stories. He has also released several collections of poetry: In Iudicio (Cholla Needles Press 2017), Future Anthropology (currently being translated into Portuguese), and Odes to Scientists (audiobook - Space Cowboy Books 2019). He is a two time Elgin Nominee and also appeared in the 2020 Dwarf Stars anthology. His new collection of SF poetry, Betelgeuse Dimming has just been released and is available as a free download audiobook / ebook at He is also a regular contributor for Canada’s Warp Speed Odyssey blog. His short stories, poetry, and essays have appeared in many anthologies and webzines.