A friend or acquaintance starts to tell you about a book – a wonderful book that you absolutely must read. They describe how this book changed their world, how they can’t recommend it enough. You see the sparkle in their eye as they reflect on the memory of reading it. So surely, you think, you really must go out and read this book?
Well, if you’re like me, that all depends.
Because I’ve been in this situation, and I’ve gone and read the book and… in short, sometimes I’ve been disappointed. I’ve had plenty of recommendations for books that I absolutely loved and ran out recommending to anyone who would listen. But I’ve also had the opposite.
By the same token, I’ve been on the other side of this game. I’ve recommended books to people only to find they were less than enthused by them, or even downright hated them. It’s not a good feeling.
This poses the greatest problem when it comes to gift giving. At a time of year when a lot of people are buying books for other people, thousands of Christmas shoppers are recommending books by way of giving them.
Now, I’m not an expert on gifting books. However, through my various experiences of being given disappointing books, and giving disappointing books, I’ve developed a few principles that I work by to try and avoid that happening. Perhaps I put too much thought into this kind of thing… but who knows, maybe someone will find them useful for their own book giving adventures:
1. Be Careful With Non-Fiction
Non-fiction books are often a popular choice for gift giving. You have no idea what to get someone, but you know they like cars, or history, or exotic fish, so you go and buy a book about those things. This is a wonderful idea… as long as the person you’re giving it to likes non-fiction.
If you buy me a non-fiction book? I probably won’t read it. Or I’ll read it, slowly and grudgingly. It’s just not my thing. Buy my partner a non-fiction book? You’re set. That’s almost all he reads. So as convenient as non fiction can be, now I always make sure the person actually reads that kind of thing before I buy it for them. Otherwise it’ll just collect dust in their house somewhere.
2. For Fiction: Know the Genre Preference
If your friend is a voracious reader who reads any and all kinds of fiction, then you can probably get them any good book. However, some people will have a preference for certain genres.
As I’ve probably established by now, I’m a lover of fantasy fiction. I also appreciate a really good science fiction novel or young adult novel. If you buy within those genres, you are far more likely to get me something I’ll like. By the same token, I know certain friends of mine that I wouldn’t buy fantasy novels for.
How do you find out a friend’s preference? Well, if you don’t know and don’t want to raise suspicion by asking, I find a simple glance at their book shelf, or their liked books on Facebook, or their Goodreads shelves, can point you in the right direction. Or you can ask their partner or another family member.
3. The Finer Details of Taste
Okay, so you know Mary Sue likes fantasy novels. Great. You could just buy her the latest one you read and really enjoyed. Problem solved.
In many cases this will work… but if you really want to get them a book they’ll love, I’ve found it can be problematic. The fantasy genre, for example, is very broad, and I have several friends who are pretty fussy about what they like within it. This is not simply a question of sub genre (i.e. if they have a preference for epic fantasy or paranormal romance), but of the very style and pace and focus of the book. And this is the hardest thing to pick. I have a friend, for example, for whom I would only buy fantasy novels with a really unique, original feel to them that have extensive worldbuilding and deep magical concepts. I have another friend I’d only buy fantasies with a fast pace, a romance, and maybe a YA feel.
How do you judge this kind of thing if you don’t know your friend’s tastes very well? Well, it’s hard, but finding out what their favourite books are is usually a good place to start (a top 10 list is usually pretty revealing), or checking their book shelves, or what they’ve liked on their various social media sites. If your friend is on Goodreads, it’s very easy of course:
4. Goodreads – Taste Comparisons and Lists of Books
Goodreads takes a lot of guesswork out of buying books for other people. If your friend has a Goodreads account, not only can you see what they’ve already read, but you can see what they thought of the books they have read, and what they want to read. Their ‘to read’ list seems like a good place to start with regards to gifts, and it is… though knowing whether the person already owns the book can be the hurdle there.
(NB: if you’re really worried you’ll get them something they already have, you could try getting a newly released book. Chances are they won’t have discovered it and bought it yet)
Also, if you have a Goodreads account, you can use the comparison tool (in my opinion, one of the niftiest things on there) to figure out how their taste compares to yours. On your friend’s profile, if you’re logged in, you simply click “compare books” and the system will show you which books you have both read (or want to read) and what you both rated them.
It will even give you a compatibility percentage – the degree to which you share a taste in books.
That overlap of the two circles there? That’s where I’m looking when I buy books for other people. I’m trying to see the books we’ve both read and how their ratings compare to mine. I’m using all that to figure out which favourite books of mine they haven’t read, but are likely to also enjoy.
5. Find Out if the Book is Likely to be Good
I usually get books for people that I’ve already read because I know if they were good, well-written and engaging, and can more easily figure out if they are something a particular friend or relative would like. If you’ve already read the book, and loved it, that’s generally a good sign.
However, if you haven’t read the book, it might be an idea to check out its online ratings and reviews, or ask a book store clerk what they would recommend, just to get some sort of opinion. Or, failing that, at least read the back cover blurb and maybe the first page or so to get a feel for it.
6. Don’t Be Snobbish
In all this talk of tastes and preferences, someone might think “well, Mary Sue loves crime novels and romances, but she really must start broadening her horizons, and I think she should read this fascinating memoir by a man who lived in a cave in the remote jungles of Africa for 10 years”. That’s all well and good, and maybe Mary Sue would benefit from said memoir… but ultimately, who are you buying this gift for? Mary Sue, or yourself?
Just because you like and value something, doesn’t mean someone else does. If I was being snobbish about it I could just give everyone my favourite fantasy novels, and if they didn’t like them, I could tell them they were missing the point and were too narrow-minded to understand the genius of these books. I don’t. Not only because I think that completely misses the point of gift giving and the shared enjoyment of books, but also because those books are more than likely going to sit on their shelves, unloved and unread, collecting dust.
7. And if They Don’t Read Books?
Don’t buy them a book. There are many people I just don’t buy books for because I know they won’t read them.
But if you can’t help yourself, and you think you could find them a book they like, then try and think about something that would suit their tastes. Try and pick something that is engaging, and something that is not epically long and daunting. If I were trying to introduce someone to fantasy and sci-fi, for example, I would not give them Dune or Lord of the Rings. Much as I like these books, they are not easy to read, they are old and verbose, and they move slowly.
I often wonder how many people have been turned off reading because they were told by the people around them that only one type of book was worth reading, or because their first introduction was to verbose and difficult ‘classics’ that didn’t inspire them.
Of course, even when you try to think of all of the above, you can still miss the mark. I always feel a tad nervous when giving or recommending a book to someone, wondering if for some reason it won’t spark the same joy in them as it did for me. That’s always going to be a risk. However, I think the risk is worth it, because if you strike it lucky and give or recommend a book that your friend ends up loving – a book they rave about and recommend to all their friends and buy the sequel to – it feels like you’ve shared a really special gift.
I still remember receiving the first Harry Potter book. I was 13 years old and it was a present from my godfather, back when the series hadn’t yet hit crazy-level fame. I didn’t even know what it was and had never heard of it (in fact, I thought the cover looked rather boring – it was the 1998 edition), but he mentioned it was something that was “getting popular in Europe” and that his kids had liked it. I sat down to read it and became instantly enthralled… and I’m still grateful to him for gifting it to me!