Booktalking Books You've Never Read (And May Never Read)

Alex Byrne
Pierce County Library System


Washington Library Association Conference
5 October 2020

The Plan

By the time this presentation gets done, you should have the following new or refreshed skills:

  1. Leverage Genre Knowledge to find good read-alikes
  2. Use the materials present on a book to find a good match
  3. Successfully booktalk a book that you haven't read

[Memo from Alex's Future Self: Much of the material in this presentation works on similar aspects to other RA services, like Becky Spratford and Robin Bradford's "RA for All" program. We think of this as "Ooh, two cakes!" rather than any sort of zero-sum game when it comes to Reader Advisory and Recommendation Services. So, if this looks familiar, it's because a lot of people are saying the same thing about how to go about doing this.]

You Cannot Know Everything, So Stop Trying

Wait, HOW Many Books?

According to the International Publishers Association and the World Intellectual Property Organization's publication "The Global Publishing Industry in 2018", there were 3,485,222 International Standard Book Numbers (ISBNs) registered in the United States in the year 2018.

Yeah. Nearly 3.5 million book numbers issued in one year alone.

The Library and Book Trade Almanac for 2019 said there were 194,679 books published in all the places they tracked for the year 2018. Which is more than an order of magnitude smaller than the issued ISBNs, but still, no library staffer that I know of, not even Librarian Georg, has been able to read 200,000 books in a year on work time. It would require reading and comprehension at approximately the speed of Time Lord to try and get through everything that had been published in any given year.

So, it's pretty clear at this point, that no one library worker is going to be able to read all the things they're supposed to have read and know everything about to do recommendations over.

Fall Down Seven Times, Get up Eight

So, since we can't know everything, our goal has to shift from finding the perfect book for someone (which only works if you have infinite time and resources to carefully consider everything and find the item that's just right) to finding the next book for someone. Sometimes you're going to hit one out of the park, sometimes you're going to bomb horribly. Most of the time, though, even if you fail or you don't hit the mark as well as you would like, you're not going to alienate the person you're giving recommendations to so much that they refuse to listen to you ever again. Keep your wins in mind to try and build on them, don't get personally attached to losses, but instead see them as more information for you to refine your work into something better so that you're more likely to get a win for the next time.

Now that we've set our sights on reasonable goals, it's time to examine the wealth of information available to the library professional to help them recommend a book to someone, even if they haven't read it all the way through, or at all.

Leverage What You Already Know

Know your Genre Conventions

One of the first ways that people think about books and book recommendations is the genre that a book falls into. Genres, for the most part, are as much about marketing categories and decisions about where to put a book in a bookstore rather than rigid boundaries, especially with the increased amount of multi-genre or genre-blending works that are harder and harder to classify. All the same, if you have a general feel for what genre a book lands in, you have a basic framework to layer more personalized knowledge on top of so that you can steer someone toward the part of the genre they're likely to enjoy first.

There are some rules, however, that can't be violated and still be part of a particular genre. Romances, for example, require a happy ending at the end of the book. It doesn't have to be a Happily Ever After (HEA), but if it isn't, there had better be a Happy For Now (HFN) at the end, or it's not going to be accepted as a romance.

The fantasy and Science Fiction genres have combined writer's associations and usually are on the same convention circuit , regardless of what specific purists may tell you about how they're entirely separate things, based on whether they have robots and rayguns or dragons and swords. Often times, the first decision to make about whether something is fantasy or science fiction is how much effort they've put in to making the science (or the magic systems) realistic, logical, and plausible.

The style of the writing is also often a way of differentiating between the two genres, as Science Fiction tends to have a different narrative pace and characterization than Fantasy does, such that you can have fantasies with robots and science fiction with swords and dragons. Genres are weird, okay?

Friends Across Genres

We don't use the term much any more in genre fiction, but Edgar Allan Poe described a type of story, called a Tale of Ratiocination, where the reader is given all of the clues they need to solve the mystery or the situation that the protagonists find themselves in, so that they can try to discover the solution before the characters and the narrative reveal it to them. Most people would take that description and apply it to the mystery genre, where it fits plenty of them, but there are a lot of stories outside the mystery genre that are absolutely Tales of Ratiocination, and a person who likes that particular style will probably enjoy books that follow that same style, regardless of what their genre trappings or outward elements are. Style and narrative structure is often a way of figuring out the request of "Well, I've read out your [Z] section and most of your Interlibrary Loan capacity, too, so what else have you got?" Talking about the things that work across the genres can be the way that someone picks up a new book or author, or even genre, to continue their reading journey with.

Trope Knowledge

And speaking of things that are cross-genre, a working knowledge of trope language is a big help when it comes to figuring out what someone might like, within genres and across them. Trope language allows you to compress what would otherwise be a big explanation of something into a few words. I tend to use the trope language of TVTropes, a pop-culture wiki dedicated to listing and explaining the tropes in play in various works, in all the permutations that those tropes might appear, including their inversion, subversion, or tangential shifts away from.

On-Material Marketing

Most of the materials you will come across have marketing blurbs and other things to help you convince a reader/listener/viewer decide to read/listen/watch them. After all, they're not just here to be borrowed from a library, they're there to be sold in stores!

Author Plugs and CIP Data

Most materials have a pull quote (or three) on them that's praising the material in some way. What those blurbs are is often useless, because many of those blurbs have been hacked apart quite a bit and shortened to make them fit the copy on the book or disc cover. Who is giving those blurbs, however, is important, because it often gives clues about where in genre space you should be situating this unknown work.

The Library of Congress often published some data in a book (not so much for non-books, unfortunately) that will have its subject headings and some other cataloging data in the actual thing itself, so that an enterprising cataloger who wants to add the book to their collection will at least have a little bit of data to populate their records with, in addition to the author and title and the like. Sometimes it's a long shot, but the Cataloging-in-Publication data might be helpful to see if there's something that you can key into about the book that's not explained elsewhere.

Content Notes and Marketing Copy

It's not a widespread practice in the publishing world, but it is becoming more and more likely for a work to include a page, either at the front or the end, that contains content notes (sometimes called "trigger warnings") about what the book itself has inside, so that people who are especially sensitive to such issues, either due to past or ongoing traumas or phobias,, will know what to expect in the book, even if it isn't spelled out completely on the content note page. Content notes, if present, are really useful tools for checking to see if something that otherwise would be really appealing or interesting to a person requesting a recommendation turns into an anti-recommendation, based on their sensitivities to the issue.

In addition to the author blurbs on the cover, most media pieces have several paragraphs of material designed to tryand entice you into buying the book (or checking it out) on them. Paperback books and most media ptoperties have on their back and hardcover books have it on one of their inside jacket columns. It's material that's been specifically workshopped and refined by a marketing department to be as yummy and attractive as it can be to a potential buyer. I've often found it helpful in picking out keywords and tropes that I can then communicate to the person looking for a recommendation. Sometimes it'll be really helpful, and sometimes, not so much.

When All Else Fails…

Sometimes, you'll get through all of theese possible tools, and some of your other tools, and you still will have someone who isn't sure, or isn't sold, or otherwise just hasn't yet come to a conclusion about whether they want it or not. In that case, if they're not really sure, the best thing to do is open to a random page and start reading. If there's enough in the actual prose to get someone to want to keep going, then that's a success. If not, maybe the book is still good, but that spot isn't particularly good. Either way, because people have such different tastes in their books, even within the same genre, remember that we're still talking about one of approximately 200,000 or more books available to try. There's something out there for this person to have as their next book, even if this one turns out not to be the perfect book for them.

Practice Time!

One possible practice point: Overdrive Roulette

An immdediate way of putting this knowledge to work and to give you practice about booktalking books that appear at random is, if your library system has Overdrive, like mine does, navigate to your Overdrive page, and at the bottom of the main page, there should be a link to check out what's being checked out right now. The dashboard page for my organization has a scroll of what's just been checked out, along with statistics pages for the year, month, day, and all time. That scroll of "just checked out" is the thing that we want to use - pick something on the scroll, read its Overdrive page (or the page of its associated book, or other such metadata as you like), and see if you can't construct a booktalk to convince another person they want to read it. Practice it on your colleagues if you feel nervous about it.

Your turn!

The most difficult part of doing things like this is getting practice, so we suggest doing it as often as you can, whether using the Overdrive Roulette or by walking to your stacks and selecting something at random to try and figure out what your pitch for this book would be to someone based solely on what it is you observe and can use with your tools.

Further Resources

There are luminaries a-plenty who have suggestions and methods to improving your Reader Advisory technique, and they each highlight different things that might be good to put in front of someone to get them to go with your recommendations. Nancy Pearl, the action-figure librarian, has as method involving four possible doorways for a reader to get into a book, based either on the story, the characters, the setting, or the language in the book. Nancy also has quite a bit of spontaneous reader advisory on video, so you can study up and see how she might do it.

Podcasts and websites like Book Riot, Social Justice Books, American Indians in Children’s Literature, Edith Campbell’s Cotton Quilts, Zetta Elliott, Reading While White, DeColores: The Raza Experience in Books for Children, Latinxs in KidLit, Disability in KidLit, Africa Access, Rethinking Schools, Booktoss, CCBC, and Teaching for Change will also give you specific insights and reviews from people looking at books with specific lenses and experiences. It's okay to use their work to influence whether you want to recommend a book for someone, or whether it's something that you might have to put on your list of things to remember not to recommend, because those perspectives will help develop your own ability to see if someone's using their tropes to try and be hurtful, or that might be unintenionally hurtful in their tropes all the same.

[Memo from Alex's Future Self: There's also courses and guided instruction like RA For All and other such consultancies that can help you level up your game and provide you with different frameworks to go at books and fgind something useful with them without having had to read all of them all at once, including some of those grounding tropes and ideas that are core to various genres and literary styles.]

As library workers, you've probably got tools like these already available, or you can access them through coursework, professional development, or even conference attendance. Practice is still one of the best things that go with this, so keep in practice, even if you're just trying to figure out how you'd sell a book to someone else, especially if it's in a genre you don't read much or uses a lot of tropes that you don't actually like (but doesn't use them in ways that are harmful to the readers.) You've got this, go forth and recommend some works you haven't read!