On Book Recommendations

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Today I’m talking about book recommendations. As a moderator and long time member of the r/fantasy community on reddit, this is something that comes up often on there and I’ve seen it spill over into other book discussion areas like ‘book’ twitter.

Why are book recommendations such a hot button topic? Well, over on r/fantasy especially (but I’ve seen book list recommendations elsewhere) there’s a tendency for people to recommend the same few authors over and over and over again. And honestly, in a field as broad as SFF with so many wonderful authors both in the history of the genre and producing fantastic new works today (I really feel as if we’re living in a golden age of SFF with all the great content coming out every year) it’s a bit shocking that the same authors get mentioned time and time again. Or is it? Let’s examine.

Why Recommendations Are Important

First I think we need to mention why book recommendations are so important in the book community. How do readers find books?

  • Browsing bookshelves in book stores — these are usually stocked with the most popular and best selling titles/authors (I’ve seen Tolkien  and Song of Ice and Fire take up entire book cases with various editions and multiple copies) or new releases only.
  • Recommendation lists on websites / forums — popular authors will, inevitably, get recommended more, or sometimes just authors that are popular in a specific community (there’s sometimes a bit of an echo chamber effect).
  • People talking about books on social media
  • Book club selections
  • ‘Also read’ recommendations from websites you purchase books at and places like Goodreads as well as general searching on these sites (whether by filtering by category, genre, or some other general search)
  • Directly asking for recommendations
  • There’s probably something I left out, let’s just pretend I said it here. 😉

I’m not going to go into minute details here because there are far smarter people than I  that have talked about this at length–I’ve linked some of their discussions at the end of this post. But, in short, recommendations are important because they’re a part of book advertising. Books rarely get tv spots. Some books might have enough of a marketing budget to send their authors on book tours. Some might have enough to do blog tours only or send ARCs out to reviewers, both professional and non-paid. Ultimately, word of mouth remains a huge part of what sells books. I’ve had friends that have written reviews for books that directly resulted in a sales bump for an author–maybe small but noticeable!

The thing is, it’s been shown that the publishing game is not a fair field of play. Some authors get left behind because publishing companies think ‘this isn’t want the market wants’ so despite buying the book and publishing it, it’s not given a fair shot right out of the gate. I’m happy to say I’ve seen some of this changing in recent years! But you can see why word of mouth is so important for some books, especially those with smaller (or maybe none with some self-published authors) marketing budgets. Authors today are expected to do their own self-promo, but a lot of people don’t trust self promo whereas community recommendations can be more trusted.

Changing the Game

While it might be frustrating to those of us readers that might have a read a much wider selection of genre books to see these same names and book titles come up on lists  over and over and over again, we can kind of see why it happens and there’s nothing inherently wrong with popular books remaining popular. However, this inevitbly means that there are a whole lot of books that are amazing and aren’t getting mentioned as much. So, what can we do to change this? Well, there’s a popular saying ‘be the change you want to see’.

  • Make your own lists. On r/fantasy we’ve had members run several ‘big lists’ created over the years to veer away from ‘the most popular of all time’ or ‘top favorites’ titles (these usually doesn’t see too much change from year to year). Some of these lists have been ‘Hopeful and Uplifting Novels’, ‘Top Female Authored Books/Series’, ‘Top Self-Published’, ‘Top LGBTQA+ Books’, etc. Or you could just make your own favorites list and fill it with your own personal favorites! Whether you run a blog or just like to talk about your favorites over twitter or some other social media, there’s room for your voice in the conversation about books. (And don’t tell me that twitter doesn’t sell books because I can’t tell you how many books I’ve bought because people were talking about them on twitter (probably somewhere between 50 and 100 if I’m guessing).
  • Read more widely and diversely. Now, I do consider the irony of this since I read MOSTLY speculative fiction, however, even within speculative fiction there is a HUGE range of books from stories that are literary, historical, mystery, romance, etc. There’s series and there’s standalone novels and all different lengths of fiction. Besides the length and sub-genre, there are a ton of books written by diverse authors and I’m so excited that fantasy has seemed to finally broken away from the standard faux European medieval setting (in some respects, at least). I’m not advocating to read things that you don’t like, but what I’m saying is to once in a while challenge yourself and think about the books you’re picking to read and why you’re picking them. Maybe try something outside your comfort zone just to see if you like it–who knows this could be a new favorite! If you read more widely  and more diversely then you’ll be able to have more types of books to recommend to others instead of just what’s popular.
  • Recommend books that actually fit what a person is asking for. Oftentimes on r/fantasy we joke around that Malazan gets recommended for anything anytime someone is asking for a recommendation. This isn’t true even thought it feels like it sometimes–I’ve definitely seen it recommended for things it shouldn’t be recced for, like someone looking for a romance, heh. But if someone is looking for recommendations for something specific, try to tamp down your immediate gut instinct to recommend whatever your favorite book/series is and ask yourself, does this actually fit what this person is looking for?

So, I guess what I’m saying is that I feel like it’s important to think about what books we’re recommending and why and sometimes what books we’re reading and why. We all love reading books and I want there to be more of the type of books that I love reading so I buy those books and when I love them I champion them on my online spaces. And as a member of this community I feel like that’s the least I can do. Do you feel like book recommendations are important? Do you ever reflect on the recommendations you’re putting out there? Leave a note in the comments, I’d love to chat!

Resources / Further Reading

Here’s a list of resources or articles related to the topic of book recommendations or other things discussed above.

Recommendation Lists:

On Recommendations:

Other Topics Related to Recommendations (Why they Matter):

17 thoughts on “On Book Recommendations

  1. Tammy says:

    I think I’m in the minority, but i haven’t read a lot of the “popular” SFF books that people always recommend. I also notice that even within specific publishers, like Tor for example, some books are marketed way more heavily than others. Some of the really good ones just get left in the dust. But i love all these links, I’ll definitely check them out!

    • waytoofantasy says:

      I didn’t read a ton of ‘popular’ SFF books until I joined reddit and picked up a lot of the big names but even so I still haven’t read *much* of those authors or some not at all still haha.
      That’s true about the publishers. One of the reasons I love tor.com publishing so much is because they take more chances I think? Or not even chances but they are definitely aiming for a segment of the market and it seems to be working out well for them.

  2. thebrowneyedbookworm says:

    I find most of my books either from recommendations, or because I research the heck out of a genre. I agree that the most popular books out of any genres are usually being recommended the most, maybe because they speak to a bigger crowd.
    I also agree with reading more diversely, and that means for me, that I’m picking up new authors but also genres I rarely read, which I’ve been doing this year, and I found some amazing books and authors that way that I could recommend any day.
    I usually recommend books that I feel I can stand 100% behind them. Like you said, a recommendation is like championing for a book. It has to be great or I won’t put my name behind such a recommendation.

    ~ Corina | The Brown Eyed Bookworm

    • waytoofantasy says:

      I find most of my books from recommendations as well. I kind of miss browsing the book stores but also I have already heard of most of the books there because I’m just so enmeshed in the book world online haha. 🙂
      Oh yeah, gotta stand behind those recommendations! I will, once in a while, recommend a book that didn’t work for me but might for what someone is looking for, especially if I know they’re tastes well enough haha. 🙂

  3. maddalena@spaceandsorcery says:

    Since I started blogging – and even a little before, when I regularly read one or two book bloggers writing about my favorite genres – my list of “wanted” books has expanded because I believe that the book blogging community offers a much wider selection of titles if compared with… “institutional” recommendation sites. Where these last tend indeed to promote books according to the so-called marked law, book blogs reflect the tastes of the the individual bloggers, and therefore offer that diversity that might be absent in those traditional venues.
    And now let’s explore those intriguing links you shared… 🙂

    • waytoofantasy says:

      Oh yes, I’ve found so many more books since joining the book blogging community. Even r/fantasy can be kind of insular in recommendations if you hang around there long enough. Hope you find the links interesting! 🙂

  4. Zezee says:

    I like to give and receive book recommendations sometimes, but recommending books can be intimidating. At least for me, it’s sometimes hard to make the list because I don’t want to just list the book but also give some details about why the person read it; remembering those details, though, can sometimes be a chore. But I think it’s good it mix it up sometimes, the authors and books mentioned.

  5. @lynnsbooks says:

    I find the blogging community my best resource in terms of choosing books. I have a few people that I really trust for certain specifics so I might know one site really loves UF and has similar taste to me or someone else might like horror or mystery. It works for me and my motto is ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.
    Lynn 😀

    • waytoofantasy says:

      Yeah, I do find the blogging community to be great for recs overall. I have found so many wonderful reads from bloggers! I also have a few people I can totally trust with recs–it’s always good to have some people who have similar tastes as book buddies. 😀

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