Monday, June 14, 2010

Big boxes and buzz

by Jim

I was out for dinner with a friend and her sister recently, and I mentioned that I had finally read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

“Oh, I’ve been meaning to read that,” said friend’s sister. “I keep seeing it at WalMart.”

“I know! It’s everywhere!” I replied, at this point still enjoying the conversation.

“Well, I just don’t buy books until they’re in the WalMart,” she commented. “Once they’re there, I just know they’re good.”

After briefly choking on my tongue, I asked her to explain. Her theory, which in fairness does make some sense, was that WalMart only carries the most popular books, so once they’re there, they’ve essentially been pre-screened by the public. And okay, that makes a good degree of sense. But in a market where so much great new fiction doesn’t really have a chance to break out, it made me worried about how people choose what to read.

Have we created a system in which only books pre-ordained to bestsellerdom even have a chance? Is there such a thing as a word of mouth bestseller anymore?

It reminds me of when Jonathan Franzen turned down the Oprah book club back in 2001 and made comments alluding to his own discomfort that we trust so few people to tell us what to read and are so willing to jump on board with whatever they point us to. For me, so much of the thrill is in finding something unexpected or something no one else has talked to me about so I can go in with no expectations.

That brings me back to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo which I loved more than most folks I know who have read or tried to read it and which does seem like an honest to goodness word of mouth bestseller. It did get a huge push from its publisher, but as folks have dived in and the rest of the trilogy came out, it has expanded hugely. So the chance for books to break out is there, but…I’m still concerned about the nature of big box retail and its effect on book buying habits.

What about you guys? Do you prefer books you know other people love, or would you rather uncover an unexpected gem? And how do you decide what to read?

I won’t pretend I’m uninfluenced by buzz. I just bought Justin Cronin’s doorstop The Passage this weekend because I’ve heard so many great things. But then I started something else…


  1. I have to say, I appreciate finding the gem. I think there's something about recommending it to others that makes me think, "Hey, I'm helping out this not-so-well-known-author become just a little more well known." Being and unpublished writer myself, I certainly hope someone will do this for me someday.

    As for Walmart. It kills me that whenever I go in to look for YA for my nieces or myself, the only thing they have is fantasy. (At least at our Walmart.) I love a good vampire novel as much as the next, but I'm worn out with vampires, werewolves, witches and whatnot. I wish they'd realize that just because there's a kick for vampire books right now, doesn't mean that those are the only good books for YA to read. A few options would be nice.

  2. I have a different name for it, I call it the Oprah-effect. Ever since she started her book club and the books she names to it go on to become bestsellers, a good portion of the books published are the same type of books. My problem is that I don't have the same tastes as Oprah.

  3. Opinions vary so widely, I prefer scanning covers in the bookstore or getting recommendations from either my sister or cousin, both huge readers with similar tastes and near perfect records. That said, I really liked GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, even though it's not generally what I'd read!

  4. I won't buy books, or anything else, at Walmart but that's another story. I do buy books based on recommendations--if they're by people I know who have similar taste. I just bought "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" based on such a recommendation and I can't wait to read it!

  5. I won't buy a book until they sell it at Farm and Fleet. Then you REALLY know it's good.

  6. I feel that if a book is good enough it will shine no matter what....Even if walmart doesn't pick it up.

  7. I don't buy many books. I'm a library junkie. But when it comes to what I get at the library, I pretty much go with my gut. I LOVE finding gems. I will get books that are recommended to me, but it's usually only when I've run out of books that I've picked out. However, I like it when people tell me, "Oh, if you liked Book A then you'll LOVE Book B." I definitely check those out.

  8. I find there's nothing more satisfying then spending the day at the local bookstore jacket flap reading. Sure, we all gravitate to the 'New York Times Bestsellers', but how would one get on such a prestigious list without advertising, marketing and flashy reviews? One can only hope others who read books for the simple fact that they were recommended by a friend or colleague or that they enjoyed the jacket blurb will stand as good a chance as any of the others.

    As was said in an earlier comment, many unpublished writers are biting at the chance to even get published, never mind find themselves a best seller on a Walmart shelf! Here's to those of us who can only dream to achieve such a destiny! lol

  9. Word of mouth is powerful and I definitely enjoy getting a recommendation from someone. I have to admit it becomes a bit of a turn-off when I see a book in Wal-mart. But I can't say I haven't read books that ended up on their shelves. I tend to also go to Amazon and see what people are buying, similar to a book I have read and liked. Finally, I use a small Boston bookstore's wesbite to check their recommendations and bestsellers. They reliably post good books.


  10. The last book I bought at Walmart was Breaking Dawn. It was the day of its release and I picked it up because I hadn't read any of the Twilight series and figured I'd might as well have a first edition hardback. I was able to find the other three there as well.

    These books came highly recommended to me by my peers (late 20's college educated females who also loved Harry Potter).

    I've never been so disappointed by a book that came so highly recommended.

    Moral of the story: just because it's at Walmart and your friends recommend it, doesn't mean it's your cup of tea.

    Honestly, I like books that are also movies. I love to read, but I love movies too. So I will tend to read a book if the movie version is coming out because I like to compare the two. For example, The Lovely Bones (book was better) and The Jane Austen Book Club (movie was better).

    And as for Twilight? I still think the whole thing is over the top and can't stand Edward or Bella, but I enjoy the movies far better than the books (and not just for Taylor Lautner's abs, though it helps!) ;)

  11. I'm a total hidden gem girl -- I've sponsored reading challenges and love it when people send links to my publicity blog that aren't publisher-sponsored. And I love passing on word of those hidden gems I've unearthed; a number of my readers will pick up anything I suggest now. It's very flattering.

  12. I'll read a book personally recommended to me by a friend much faster than I'll read something that's "hot." There's also something satisfying about helping out a lesser-known author or someone who didn't have the benefit of their publisher's marketing department. :)

  13. Because I hope to be one someday, I prefer to support new authors--and I can't do that by browsing the book isle in Wal-mart. I also prefer to support my local bookstore, so when I know a writer is releasing a debut novel, I'll call a bookstore to see if they have it in stock. If not, I'll ask them to order it for me. It gives them business, and plants a seed in their minds that maybe they should order a few additional copies of that book.

    That said, it may take me a while, but I love browsing and finding my own gems. I will buy a book that someone suggested to me (if our tastes align), but I'm always looking for something new as well.

  14. I'm my sister-in-law's Walmart, apparently. She prefers not to read a book until I read it first. That way I can tell her if she'll like it or not. Some people are followers and some like to lead the way.

    Personally, I think the reason she buys them at Walmart is because they're much cheaper than B&N.

  15. Like Melody, I tend to pay a lot of attention to personal recommendations of the "if you like A then you'll definitely like B" variety--though I remain skeptical of computer generated versions of the same formula--the things I like about a book are often not directly traceable to other "similar" books, but a matter of style rather than of subject matter or author.

    I've also found a lot of my recent pleasure reading at the featured sections at the library. Seattle Public Library has a phenomenal "Great Books You Might Have Missed" section out of which I found one of my new favorites (Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty) and several completely new to me books that I'm excited to get to. I like this section because it has been selected by people who are in the know about books, the books are (I think) already recognized as 'great'--either critically or publicly well received, and are not the big blockbusters of the moment, so I get a sort of guaranteed sleeper effect.

    Similarly, the university library's featured table serves to fill my reading lists quite frequently, though somewhat less reliably, I've noticed.

    Well written reviews will often steer me toward a book, as well as mentions of a book in multiple places that I respect (e.g: this blog, I see it on my friends' bookshelf or goodreads, I run across a book announcement). I also have one or two friends whose recommendations I always take promptly because I know we share a taste in books.

    I sometimes consider reading 'walmart books' out of curiosity over "what the big deal is" but rarely carry through, perhaps because I don't want to feel like I'm just following a trend, or because I know enough about the book from reputation that I don't expect to be surprised by it (this latter happened with the Twilight series)

  16. I tend to shy away from blockbusters in both movies and books. I didn't start Harry Potter until all the books were out. This works in my favor when I find something I like, because I don't have to wait a year or two for the next book!

    I enjoy taking book recommendations from others, but I don't want anyone to tell me much about the plot. I don't want any expectations to burden me.

  17. It makes sense what she said (though I hate to admit it). But I used to have a rule that I wouldn't read bestsellers until I had absolutely nothing else to read. Now I read so much that it doesn't matter. There is usually a reason they are a bestseller, sometimes not, but usually. So I pick those up, but I also love finding the needle in the haystack.

  18. Wow, that's just painful. Does she only buy the bestselling brand of cereal too? Isn't she curious about Choco-Marshmallow Cubes? Wouldn't she like to be the one person who tried something unexpected and shared it with all her friends? Oh, it hurts it hurts it hurts.

  19. Some things I pick by word of mouth like The Help. Most books I choose to read by accident, like just picking up a random book that sounds good in the book store and if I like it I'll research similar authors. I think a lot of people do walmart book shopping though, but I guess that's the point of a bestseller, even people who don't usually read or buy books read bestsellers.

  20. Ha, the only YA books our Walmart carries are Twilight and other vampire novels. I was appalled when I checked out their book section not to long is bare-bones at best.

    My favorite thing to do is spend time in the book store searching for a debut author's book to read. And I recommend books, and take recommendations from strangers, as I go. It's fun.

  21. Oh, this is probably worse than WalMart. NYT bestseller lists are my first source. Sorry, world. I like seeing who comes on as new each week... and, eventually, yes, I buy the book that is on the list for 99 weeks or something.

    I love discovering new (to me) writers who finally hit the NYT with their 4th or 14th book and then... ooooh... I get to read the backlist!

  22. Oh, boy. I'd have been hard put not to scream out loud at that moment! :) I get almost all my recommendations these days off blogs and from reader friends. A lot of the books I pick up, honestly, are by writers I "know" online, since I'm hearing about them & would love to love their writing. Sometimes I do...sometimes, not so much. But I also read reviews and go for books I'm hearing a lot about. I don't know that social-networking buzz is any more a valid predictor of what's good than the Walmart shelves, though...

  23. All I know, Jim, is that it makes me want to cliff myself.

    /melodramatic writer is melodramatic

  24. Unexpected gems are more satisfying. If I see Oprah or Richard and Judy have recommended something, I feel like I'm cheating.

  25. I think it's a mixture of the two. If I hear great things about a book and the story intrigues me, I'll probably pick it up. But I also browse Amazon and bookstores looking for unexpected books I haven't heard of, but which just sound really good to me.

    I agree with you about the 'Walmart' effect, Jim: it's a shame so many books get overlooked because they're not already bestsellers!

  26. I much prefer browsing around to find treasure (and staff recommendations at book stores seem to work well for me many times too) I might just be weird--and there is much evidence to support this--but generally the more popular a book is, the less likely I am to want to read it or enjoy it if I do.

    Invariably I'm never really satisfied reading what the pack recommends so buying books at big-boxes doesn't work out well for me unless in the rare case of a non-fiction title that goes big (I think I got The Last Lecture at Target- though I preferred the actual lecture to the book, that's another story) but more often than not I wished I could have the time I spent reading the latest 'it' book back so now whatever the 'rage' is, the less likely I am to pick it up.

    I have to echo what J.Andersen and also others have said about YA: please, something that is not supernatural for once? I'd extend that to Women's Fiction too. I like humans. I'd like to read more books about them. Fangs, fur, it's all you see. I'm weary of it, honestly.

    Thing is that the same way the big stores limit, say, the flavors of powdered drink mix they'll carry based upon available shelf space they limit what they offer in reading material too. That is troublesome to me. Besides, there are books that some of the larger stores have refused to carry in the past- what if I wanted to read one of those? If I solely relied upon the big boxes for my reading material I'd never know they existed.

    Taste truly is subjective. I happen to like grape drink better than orange even though orange seems to be fine with the rest of the world most of the time. So I shop where I can find it.

  27. I love finding gems, but I have to say it hasn't happened very often at all. I'd browse and read some books that seemed to have such great promise, only to be disappointed. I have slightly better odds with reading books that have been pre-screened: winning prizes and such. I've also been sorely disappointed by books with great buzz, so I don't know if I have found a foolproof way for me to find something I know I'd like.

    I got an ARC of The Passage and am enjoying it so far. Dragon Tattoo, on the other hand, I put down after some pages. Now that you say you love it, maybe I'll go further and see if I change my mind.

  28. I was recently at the Strand in NY and I was all 'I want to read a book by someone nobody knows.' and the sales guy was all 'lady, if it's a book and it's published then people know about it.' I always want something out of the ordinary.

  29. I find I hate Bestsellers as often as I love them. Living in Japan means I don't have access to much else. Like Walmart, English books here have been prescreened.

    But when I get the chance, I buy based on back cover copy.

  30. You mention at the end that you started something else. What was it? Another popular book or something work-related? If the latter, anything you can share?

  31. Look how many men responded to this post. Tells us a lot about the state of fiction today. Sort of like the Kindle ads or books stores that now resemble magazine racks but with women's books instead of women's magazines. Half the population lives in an alternative media culture and the publishing industry, at least those involved i producing fiction, isn't even aware or cares, I guess. Another pink collar profession has been created.

  32. Incidentally, have you finished The Passage? I finished it last night and wonder what you think of it.


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