Tue
Sep 7 2010 4:27pm

How do you find these things?

In my post on Sapolsky’s A Primate’s Memoir, Ursula asked:

Jo, how do you find these things?  

Browsing a bookstore only goes so far.  I’m curious as to what your book-choosing techniques are, as mine seem to be evolving into “what has Jo written about?”

My immediate answer was that I find things in exactly the same way Ursula does—my friends talk about them. In the case of this book that’s exactly what happened, a friend read it and discussed it, I checked if the library had it, they did, I read it. I love libraries. There’s literally no cost to trying things out. If somebody mentions an interesting book online, I immediately open a tab to the Grande Bibliotheque and check if they have it. But however I get hold of it, my number one way of finding out that books exist remains word of mouth — especially for weird books.

I’ve mentioned here before looking at awards lists for new writers. This is a good way of finding out who other people think are good—where somebody has weeded out the duds. I especially like doing this with awards from other cultures, like the Vogels, and with the Dicks, where you tend to see a lot of new writers. You can also do a lot worse than look at the Locus year results and use them as a reading list by year—you’ll read a lot of interesting stuff. I’m linking to last year’s because this year’s isn’t complete (and also because there’s a book of mine on it and that embarrasses me to recommend) but if you look at that and ignore categories you don’t like you’d have a great list that would hit a lot of what people were talking about.

However, you’d also miss a lot. There are great books that seem to pass under the radar, that don’t get talked about or nominated for awards. That’s actually the kind of book I’m most interested in talking about here—things like Black Wine and Lear’s Daughters. I found Black Wine by meeting Dorsay at a con and hearing her talk and wanting to read her books—that’s another method that really works for me. I borrowed the book from next door neighbour and fellow Tor.com blogger René Walling, as it’s impossible to find. (But it’s reassuring to know that even though I don’t own it, there’s a copy in our street.) Lear’s Daughters I found on a random library browse—and it wasn’t even my random library browse. I was stuck in bed and I sent my ex-husband out to find me something to read, and that’s what he found.

If I’m browsing in library or bookshop I’ll be trying to remember things people have recommended. I may have a list, or it may be in my head. I’ll pick up things I’ve never heard of that have interesting sounding titles. I’ll go for subgenres I know I like.

The only weird thing I do is when I am looking for older romance novels. I like gothics, as I think I’ve mentioned, and I don’t much like modern romance novels. (Except Jennifer Crusie. Love her. Starting reading her because friends recommended her, including men.) So there I am in the library romance section, and I don’t have any names and I want older romance novels—so I go for chunks of older books without coloured covers. The last time I tried this it got me one absolute hit of gothics and also the astonishingly, wonderfully weird Kathleen Norris.

I also read Dozois Year’s Best SF every year, and then read novels by all the people whose stories I like, if they’ve written novels. This was a better method when I’d read less, but I still do this. It fairly recently netted me David Marusek.

There’s also a thing I do when I’m doing research—I research a lot, all my books require a lot of research reading. If I find a good writer, someone who writes clear lucid prose about whatever I’m needing to read about, I’ll read everything else they’ve written. I may not know I’m interested in the other things, but that doesn’t really matter. If someone’s capable of being interesting about St. Germanus, they’ll be interesting with whatever they write about. I’ve never been proved wrong on this one.

There are always a pile of books I know are coming out and I am waiting for, so I check the bookshop for them, and while I’m there I often stumble across other things. And I check all the secondhand bookshops locally (in rotation, leaving them to lie fallow in between) and anywhere I visit and buy things I can’t resist.

Yet with all this I’m always aware there’s a lot I’m missing, that I’m not finding. But that’s okay. It’ll be there another day. There will come new things to read. Somebody will tell me about them. And if not, I can keep re-reading and telling you about things.

How about you?


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

25 comments
Pamela Adams
1. Pam Adams
Like Ursula, I subscribe to 'what has Jo mentioned (or written!) lately.' I also get lots of suggestions from the Big Idea posts on John Scalzi's Whatever blog. An author talking about new work will often lead me to their older work, or books that they used in research.

I'm at a university, so can easily order books through inter-library loan. While uni libraries aren't set up for random browsing, I have had success in doing just that. First you find the author/item you want, and then you look about for interesting titles, authors, etc.
Michael S. Schiffer
2. Michael S. Schiffer
Okay, that's the second recommendation for Jennifer Crusie I've seen on a blog in the last month. My last unsuccessful foray into romance (Georgette Heyer) was a while back, so I'm probably due to give it another shot. Given that she's been fairly prolific: to coin a phrase, where do I start with that?
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
Faking It. But you know, you could have just gone to the C post and there that recommendation would have been, waiting for you!
Michael S. Schiffer
4. photon
One method that has been relatively useful to me is to look at who blurbed/reviewed the book. If it's a new book, I see if it has been reviewed by authors I liked or other reviewing agencies that I trust.
Then, if I've read one book and want to read more like it, I'll go look up the reviewers' books.
Michael S. Schiffer
5. Michael S. Schiffer
@3 Oops. And asking before even looking up the obvious sources is doubly embarrassing for a librarian. (Don't tell anyone! ;-) ) Thanks for the recommendation.
Alex Brown
6. AlexBrown
I, too, gather stuff by word-of-mouth. I usually have a running list of Books To Buy so whenever I come across a used bookstore (or if I'm headed into/near the Mission in SF I'll make a detour to Borderlands Books which I cannot recommend highly enough) I'll pop in and buy what I can find.

And, about once a month or so, I'll pillage my Amazon wish list and scrounge up a good chunk of used books from independent brick-and-morters selling online.

I'm also a librarian who does collection development so I read a lot of reviews (I mean A LOT) and I try to stray off the major publishers and onto the indie/smaller ones since they have a much harder time getting into Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Kirkus.
Ursula L
7. Ursula
Jo, I'd just like to thank you for the massive fangirl squee  you gave me, that this is the second time I've asked a question in comments and you've promoted the answer to its own post!

Since I'm something of an outsider to fandom (never even been to a con) I'd not heard of the various awards you mentioned above, or all of the various "Year's Best" lists and anthologies.  It's helpful to know that there are these resources out there. 
Soon Lee
8. SoonLee
For me nothing beats 'word of mouth' be it RL or online. My to-read pile keeps getting away from me so I tend to be more & more discriminating.

Another good place to look might be the Hugo long list. (Link to 2009's: http://www.thehugoawards.org/content/pdf/2009%20Nominations.pdf )
It lists works that received 5 or more nominations for the 2009 Hugos, so is a great resource for stuff that people found worthy enough to include in their nominations. There might well be stuff there that was too weird & unusual to get into the final ballot but is worth checking out.
Jo Walton
9. bluejo
Ursula: You ask good questions!

I'm planning to do some posts on the interesting awards as they're announced, like the ones I did on the Vogels and the Ditmars, because I do think this is a really good source of new cool stuff.
Michael S. Schiffer
10. LAJG
Another good place is a book festival, if you have one near you. They may have displays from small publishers along with the big ones, as well as authors selling their own books. (I go to Word on the Street in Toronto almost every year. Last year I had to choose between readings by Margaret Atwood and Robert J. Sawyer that were on at the same time. I chose Atwood, but got books signed by Sawyer).
Marissa Lingen
11. Mris
For interesting nonfiction I read the bibliographies of interesting nonfiction I'm already reading, and I write down things referred to in the interesting nonfiction I'm already reading. (Or rather, I used to write it down. Now I click to add it to my online library list or wishlist.) This is actually part of how we find new music at my house: we see who appears as back-up musicians on the albums we like "by courtesy of" such-and-such other record labels, and then we see if we like what they do on those other record labels.

But one of the reasons I talk on my lj about what I read is that I like it when other people talk about what they read, so I like to return the favor.
Michael S. Schiffer
12. OtterB
I find most of my new stuff by recommendations online. Jo's posts in particular, but also others from tor.com, have been good (for definitions of "good" that include spending too much money and enlarging the stacks of books hanging around my house waiting to be read). There are a handful of blogs and LJs that I read regularly, and others I drop in on from time to time, that sometimes mention things the author has read and enjoyed. Over time, I find people whose taste seems to track reasonably well with mine, and I will often look for things they recommend. I'll especially pay attention when I see the same book or author mentioned multiple times by different people - that's how, for example, I found Seanan McGuire (who would, now, show up in the awards list as well). The "other people who bought this also purchased" recommendations on Amazon or B&N sometimes turn up interesting possibilities, most often "I hadn't realized s/he had a new book out" but sometimes entirely new to me. Also, my public library system (Montgomery County, MD) has some monthly online book newsletters. Each has a description and cover photo of four books each in a set of 10 or 12 genres. The Science Fiction & Fantasy seldom mentions anything new to me, but some of the others - biography, science & nature, history & current events - have suggested things I have enjoyed. And they have the advantage of all being available from the library.
Michael S. Schiffer
13. CarlosSkullsplitter
After a while you learn to recognize the topography of recommendation networks, whether they're culled from friends, acquaintances, blog posts, "customers who bought this item also bought" lists, story introductions, or academic references. What to ignore, what to follow through. Negative information is also important. There are tells: consistently pompous reviewers who try to do the record store clerk music snob thing, or a group of people very interested in a book because of their personal issues with the world rather than the quality of the book itself.

Card catalogs used to be great for looking up interesting non-fiction. You'd look up a call number, and then breeze through a hundred or two hundred similar titles and see what seemed interesting. Some of the older library search programs were the same way, until they decided to build user-friendly front ends. Walking through open stacks is similar, but more of a whole body experience, like visiting a museum. If I am pressed for time, I will take photos of a shelf and investigate the titles later.
Paul Eisenberg
14. HelmHammerhand
I go to used book sales/recycling events, snatch up everything that's remotely interesting and pile it in the back of the garage. That allows me the time to fully browse and look at back cover synopseses at my leisure in the comfort of my own, well, garage. It's how I discovered my Current Favorite Writer, Vernor Vinge. I've subsequently ordered the rest of his books and only have "Tatja Grim's World" left. Once done with that, I'll briefly be despondent and then it's back to the garage for me.
Paul Eisenberg
15. HelmHammerhand
I have to add a word of warning: My method of new book finding detailed above may anger one's spouse.
Michael S. Schiffer
16. Foxessa
I read many book reviews, particularly in the UK Guardian, the NY Times, The London and New York Book Reviews. SF Site used to be pretty terrific.

Friends recs are very important.

I get updates from the NYPL of their new acquisitions in various areas.

I check the New Books shelves in stores (though not much these days) and libraries.

Love, C.
Michael S. Schiffer
17. JustinS
I used to live near a dedicated SF bookstore, and still visit the area on occasion.
I've taken to walking in and asking the owner/proprietor to give me a stack of new things I've likely not heard of from the past year.

It is interesting how some books bubble up among friends and contacts, and some don't.

The important thing I'm learning is to figure out my friend's tastes, and when I'm in the mood for certain kinds of books, to ask the right people. I have a friend who is great for YA. I have a friend who is great for convoluted plots and conspiracies, I have a friend who is good for really out there ideas.

Now I'm wondering how they see me in terms of a book recomendation resource (I'm a frequent lender of things myself)...
David Dyer-Bennet
18. dd-b
I don't make nearly enough use of the library, and hence am more careful trying new stuff. Much of my new stuff is loans from friends, which has the zero-cost benefit.

If I went to the library regularly, then adding a book to the list would have zero cost. But in fact my reading time is constrained enough and I reread enough that getting through a stack of library books in two weeks is problematic. I've said I can't afford to check out books from the library, and that's sort-of true.

And I learned somewhere about my second school library that if I didn't own a book, I couldn't reread it.
Michael S. Schiffer
19. dancing crow
I'm delighted to see Crusie on someon else's list of happiness inducing authors. I've been trying to read things that made her happy (found courtesy of her blog Argh) but that has been more hit or miss.
Pamela Adams
20. Pam Adams
And I learned somewhere about my second school library that if I didn't own a book, I couldn't reread it

My solution to that is to check it out again. The protagonist in Connie Willis' Bellwether checks out books just to keep them from going inactive and being purged from the collection.
Jo Walton
21. bluejo
DDB, Pam: I think of the library as shareware. I can check things out for no cost, and if I like them, then I can buy them and keep them and re-read them.

This only works with books that are in print. There exist books that I have read several times from the library. There are even some books that I have read several times from different libraries in different places, even on different continents. Joan Aiken's _The Embroidered Sunset_. I'd love to have a copy if I could find one!

There are even library books I renewed so often they think they're mine -- Lancaster University Library's copy of Bromwich's _Triads of the Island of Britain_ for instance. But eventually there was a new edition and I now have my own copy!
David Dyer-Bennet
24. dd-b
Pam@20: My point was that I no longer had access to that school library; I was in another school.
Jeff Jones
25. qiihoskeh
The public library here never has the first book of the series, which is why the Tor download some time back was so useful.
Soon Lee
28. SoonLee
http://www.aussiecon4.org/hugoawards/files/2010HugoVotingReport.pdf

The 2010 Hugo voting report is out: after the voting results, it lists a bunch of works for each category that didn't garner enough nominations to make the final ballot.
Michael S. Schiffer
29. Douglas Kretzmann
in the old days I'd spend hours at the library just browsing (I love libraries with a passion). Nowadays it's mostly via online recommendations, reviews in NYRB and LRB, also anything that Michael Dirda recommends. At one point Tor.com was offering free book downloads, which was a rich source of new authors for me.

"If I find a good writer, someone who writes clear lucid prose about whatever I’m needing to read about, I’ll read everything else they’ve written."
Yes indeed. John McPhee is the exemplar of this.

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