Tag Archives: laura-miller

The Personal Business of Recommending Books

For book recommendations, most of us rely on the suggestions of trusted friends and on word of mouth. This, at least, allows us to hold someone accountable for those inevitable poor recommendations. But what of ‘professional’ book recommenders (writers in publications, not algorithmic ‘recommenders’)?

Laura Miller–author of the book recommendation Slate column, –looks at what she calls the fine art of recommending books.

“You can’t recommend books to strangers without asking personal questions,” [editor of the Paris Review, Lorin Stein] told me. As he pointed out, what we want to read is often pegged to transitory moods. The same book may not thrill the same person at every point in his or her life. “I don’t think people read ‘for’ pleasure, exactly,” he went on. “Of course there is pleasure in reading. But mainly we do it out of need. Because we’re lonely, or confused, or need to laugh, or want some kind of protection or quiet — or disturbance, or truth, or whatever.” The recommender must take this into account.

Miller also looks at the book recommending processes of The Morning News‘ Biblioracle (John Warner) and “the doyen of all professional book recommenders”, Nancy Pearl.

Pearl suggests that there are four “doorways” that intrigue readers in the books they read: story, characters, setting and language. One or more of these doorways appeal to each type of reader and the task of the recommender is in matching the reader’s doorway preference with a book that delivers exactly that.

The Issues of the Self-Publishing Future

In 2009, 764,448 books were published outside of “traditional publishing and classification definitions”, according to Bowker. This plethora of self-published titles can be thought of as the ‘slush pile‘, says Laura Miller, and while this future offers authors better options than ever before, it’s the impact on readers themselves that we should be considering (e.g. overwhelming choice, increasingly large numbers of poorly written books, etc.).

In discussing her worries about the “post-publishing” future, Miller looks at how we may consume and deliver books, how the role of the ‘gatekeeper’ will evolve, and ponders the future of antisocial or introverted ‘geniuses’. I liked this on considering the opportunity cost of discovering works of art in the slush pile:

Everybody acknowledges that there have to be a few gems out in the slush pile — one manuscript in 10,000, say — buried under all the dreck. The problem lies in finding it. A diamond encased in a mountain of solid granite may be truly valuable, but at a certain point the cost of extracting it exceeds the value of the jewel. With slush, the cost is not only financial (many publishers can no longer afford to assign junior editors to read unsolicited manuscripts) but also — as is less often admitted — emotional and even moral. […]

I recently confided my worries on this account to former Salon editor Scott Rosenberg, but he was unperturbed. In the near future, he assured me, “‘publication’ will become meaningless.” […] Readers will be saved from wading through slush by amateur authorities — bloggers and other pundits specializing in particular subjects or genres — who will point their followers to the best books. “People will find new ways to decide which books merit their attention.”