Why Good Readers’ Advisory Matters

A teen boy came to the reference desk while I was working a couple of weeks ago. He asked me to tell him a good book to read. I knew nothing about the boy, other than he looked maybe 14 or 15.

My first step in answering his question was to ask him more questions: what was the last thing he read that he liked and what kind of books does he usually like? The first question stumped him, but the second question he answered with: I like scary stories and things that are kind of fantasy.

The first author that came to mind was Darren Shan. He writes scary books and they’ve got massive appeal to boys. I led my patron over to the shelf, and that’s when he said to me (before I handed him a Shan book) that the last book he started reading and liking before he had to return it was something to do with Demons. It hit me he was already talking about a Shan series, and I showed him the cover of the first book of the Demonata series — and that was the book he’d returned. He eagerly took it, as well as the next couple of books in the series, and he left the library happy.

It was dumb luck that I struck upon the exact book he’d been reading before, but that I was able to pull out from his description of favorite types of reads Darren Shan was a good hit wasn’t. I asked the teen the questions about what he likes, and from there, I narrowed down a list of potential good fits for his taste. This is called readers’ advisory.

The image above was shared by Molly Backes, and it came to her on a receipt after she purchased a copy of Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity from a bookstore. It’s kind of a neat idea, to suggest other books that the reader might be interested in based on what they’ve just purchased. However, what’s wrong with this image is this: those books have nothing to do with Verity, which is a book about friendship, spying and female piloting during World War II. Monument 14 is a dystopia set in the United States about 14 kids trapped in a big box store. Princesses of Iowa — Backes’s own book — is a contemporary story set in Iowa about a girl who is dealing with fitting back into her popular crowd of friends following a horrific decision of drinking and driving. Never Fall Down is a war book about a teen imprisoned in Cambodia. Second Chance Summer follows a family as they struggle with one member’s illness (there’s a romance here, too). Jersey Angel follows one girl’s sexual awakening on the Jersey Shore.

Not a single one of those books makes a good comparison to Wein’s title. Beyond the obvious fact none are historical, none of them are set in Europe, and none of them tackle friendship in any of the same ways Wein’s title does. None explore spying or piloting, either. The only thing these books have in common is that they were all released on May 8, 2012 (except Monument 14, which was released June 5). This list of “you may also like” is not readers’ advisory. In this capacity, the list is clearly in hopes of selling additional books. From a bookstore’s perspective, readers’ advisory is a great way to make sales — nothing wrong with that, since that’s the bookstore’s purpose — but in this instance, there is no actual readers’ advisory going on here. It’s simply a book list of titles that have nothing to do with one another except similar publication dates. And they all happen to be YA titles.

Readers’ advisory requires a certain skill set to perform well, though by no means is it something limited to librarians. The ways of performing readers’ advisory can be what sets librarians or others in the book industry apart from a friend offering book recommendations, though. It requires being able to ask someone about their reading preferences and being able to interpret their answers (or non-answers as often the case is) with sensitivity to their needs. In other words, what I like to read isn’t what matters; it’s what the person standing in front of me likes to read that matters. The questions I ask revolve around recent favorite reads, favorite genres, and my favorite — things they definitely do not enjoy reading. From there, I’m able to pull from my own knowledge of books or I’m able to do a search on the web or in one of the incredible databases that exist (see the end of this post).

More than that, though, it’s about not judging the readers’ tastes. If a reader comes and asks for read alikes to Wein’s title, I’m not going to tell them how much I didn’t care for Code Name Verity (true story) but instead, I’m going to ask what it was about the book they liked — the setting? The relationships? The spying or piloting? The pace of the book? That it’s not straight foward in narrative structure? From there, I’ll build a list of 4 or 5 possibilities and quickly talk about the qualities those books have and why they might fit the bill. I can gauge pretty well if I’m hitting the mark or not based on their responses and then either I’ll show them where the book is at on the shelf or I’ll try again with other options. Along with not offering judgment based on my feelings about a title, there’s a lot to be said about sensitivity toward the qualities that make a book work for a reader. Someone asking for books similar to Fifty Shades of Grey? Their needs are just as valid and worthy as someone looking for those similar to Wein’s title.

This may just be me, but one of the readers’ advisory questions I get that makes me cringe a little bit is being asked what some of my favorite books are. Knowing my tastes are wide AND specific (in that I’ll read anything that sounds good but I tend to love books that are dark) and knowing I have opinions about books, I tend to redirect those sorts of queries. I like to ask the reader to tell me what they’re looking for instead, and most of the time, they just need a little prodding on my part to get to the real question at hand (that they want a good mystery or something else that I don’t tend to read as widely). That doesn’t mean I keep my tastes out of the question completely — if I’m offering a list of suggested titles and a patron asks if I’ve read/what I’ve thought of them, and I can say something positive, I will. I don’t tend to offer negative opinions.

So why a whole post about readers’ advisory? Because I think it’s a topic that’s important and I think that librarians, bloggers, and anyone who reads widely has a stake in it. They’re interested not only in terms of being a good readers’ advisor themselves, but they’re interested in being recipients of good readers’ advisory. They want to know how to figure out whether the next book they pick up is going to compare to something else and they want to know how to best ask someone how to find a good next read. I think there are a lot of people — professionals and non-professionals — who believe reading culture is a dying thing and it’s not worth investing time or effort into. That people aren’t interested in being hand-sold a book.

I can’t think of anything further from the truth. Not only do I get a host of readers’ advisory questions at the reference desk, I think bloggers themselves provide readers’ advisory services when they write a book review and make comparisons among books. They do it when they put together book lists or talk about the trends emerging in YA books or in genre fiction. I think a lot of people believe reading culture isn’t important because getting a handle on it is tough. It requires work and critical thinking and association. It’s not something you can learn sitting in a classroom or sitting through a workshop. It’s not a one-off task. It requires constant work and constant learning, and maybe most importantly: it requires reading. A lot of reading.

It’s half science and half art. 

Readers’ advisory requires thinking about the elements that make up a story. This includes genre/subgenre, the writing style, the character and the character’s arc, the plot generally and the plot specifically, pacing of a story, format (is it a traditional narrative? Epistolary? Vignettes? A novel in verse?), time period, and so forth. These things aren’t mutually exclusive, either. There are also the non-objective elements of a book that one thinks about when considering it that also are valid aspects of reader’s advisory — is a tear-jerker? Is it steamy? Does it leave you feeling confused? Contented? Are there plot points that stick out in the story as things that might interest readers? I like to note those — so things like road trips, setting (especially if it’s different — a foreign city or a beach or a small Midwest town), non-traditional family structures — tend to be things I hold on to mentally because they can be great go-tos for recommendations and comparisons. Often pulling out these aspects as I’m reading will tell me what books I’ve read before share similar qualities.

I don’t read everything, though, so of course, there are genres and topics in readers’ advisory for which I am at a loss personally. But that’s why librarians and other professional readers have developed tools to make this easier. I love to read through book lists and I love looking them with the hopes of remembering an author or a title that’s similar to something I’ve put many holds on or something I’ve heard of in my own reading. In other words: reader’s advisors don’t read everything. They don’t have to. They just need to read and they need to be comfortable and confident enough to navigate the tools available for them. One of those tools? Other people.

Early on in August, Liz Burns, Sophie Brookover, and myself started thinking about how we could put our interest and passion for readers’ advisory out there for those who themselves are interested in this skill set or who want to become more familiar with it. We thought hosting a weekly chat via Twitter would be worth trying out, and we were blown away with the positive reception in our first three beta chats (which happened during the Olympics, even!). We’re going to bring it back again starting Thursday, September 6, starting at 8 pm Eastern time. The hash tag is #readadv, and we hope you join us. Each week centers around a different theme, though we always have time for more general talk. It’s open to anyone who wants to chat books, recommending books, and strengthening reader’s advisory skills.

I think readers’ advisory is something most readers have an interest in — even if they don’t call it that properly — I thought it’d be worthwhile to share some of the great resources that exist that almost everyone has some access to. This isn’t comprehensive, so if you know of other great readers’ advisory resources, feel free to drop a line in the comments:

  • Novelist: If you work in a library or you are a library patron, I bet you have access to NoveList in some capacity. For non-librarians, look under the electronic resources or databases on your library’s website. When you log into the database, you can search through titles (and read alikes to those titles), you can search by genres, and you can peruse different topical lists. I use NoveList extensively when I don’t know how to approach a genre or author read alike.
  • Books & Authors: Like NoveList, this is a subscription database you might have access to through your library. Same basic idea: you can learn read alikes, find book lists, discover new authors similar to perennial favorites, and so forth. 
  • Readers’ advisory guides (available through ALA): These come in a number of different genres (and formats — there’s an entire guide for graphic novels) and they’re likely available at the public library for those who don’t want to buy them. But they’re set up so you can browse by different categories within genres and find comparative titles. These guides pull out those qualities within a book that stand out.
  • RA for All blog: This is my favorite readers’ advisory blog because not only does Becky talk up many genres with which I’m unfamiliar, but she links to so many other great resources. If you don’t keep this one on hand, you should. 
  • Good Googling: When all else fails — and admittedly, sometimes my first stop — is to hop on Google and look for book lists developed by other librarians. Want a book like Sara Gruen’s Like Water for Elephants? Try the search string “Like Water for Elephants Read Alikes.” Then look through the lists on library websites. Easy but effective.

Back to the subject of this post, though: why does good readers’ advisory matter? Because getting a list of random books that you might like based on arbitrary qualities like publication date stinks. Because there are millions of books out there, and each one has a reader. Each reader has something they want from a book. Because reading matters, and being able to connecting the reader to his/her book and that book to his/her reader only furthers that. Because there is nothing better than seeing a 14-year-old boy walking out of a library with exactly the kind of book he wants to read because you took the time to listen to what he likes and offer him something that makes him excited about reading.

And the truth is? It’s not hard. It requires being aware of what’s out there, staying invested and engaged in your reading life, and understanding that books — and people — aren’t just widgets.

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  1. says

    I wish I could participate in your chat tomorrow but alas, I have book club. This post is so relevant, though. I am always fascinated by how many people find our posts in the "If You Like This, You Might Like That" (*cough* Like the one you did for us! *cough*) by searching for "Books like…" on google or "If I liked X, what should I read next?" Even just putting content like that up on blogs is important for readers looking on the net. Great post, Kelly.

    • says

      Bingo. I think a lot of times readers are reluctant or don't know they can ask librarians or book sellers or teachers, etc, for what to read next or what books would be similar to something they've read and enjoyed for any number of reasons. I know when we started this blog, one of the things we cited as important was making those connections between books when we wrote reviews because that often helps readers know whether or not something might be for them.

      I love your "If You Like This" feature. That kind of stuff exposes people to new books to try that they may not have otherwise and relies upon experts — readers! — to do the comparisons.

  2. says

    This is such a great post, Kelly. It's so amazing to remember the lengths that I had to go through as a kid to try and find books that were "like" other books I'd loved (I was always too shy to ask a librarian) pre-internet. Like you I find that moment where I'm able to recommend a book to someone that they really love *so* satisfying. Can't wait to check in on your twitter chat!

    • says

      I never knew as I kid I COULD ask the librarian, and now, like you, whenever I can connect that kid with the book they're going to love, the satisfaction is immense. Getting the kid to walk out with a few of those Darren Shan books and then sending him home with a list of the rest of the books in the series? Highlight of my day.

  3. says

    I really wish I had more chances to do RA for what I enjoy reading (and not, you know, health sciences). I just love trying to match people up with books, though. My family probably gets a bit sick of it :)

  4. says

    I love everything about this post. I use NoveList and Google extensively – Google so I can see what other libraries have put out there. I rely on my own expertise but there's no need to reinvent the wheel when I need a quick answer.

    One resource that I LOVED at my old job – as a librarian but even more as a reader – is Fiction Connection (and its companion, Nonfiction Connection) by Bowker. It doesn't give you handy lists like NoveList does, but it's more of a discovery tool, and it uses word clouds, so you can refine your results more so than in NoveList, with more specific terms.

    • says

      If I remember correctly, you showed off the Fiction Connection in one of our classes at UT (maybe in Winget's class?). I remember it being really neat, with a lot of visual elements to discovering titles.

      And I don't think there is ANY shame in using Google. It's about finding the right key words and verifying your sources for the best read alikes. Goodreads read alike lists? Horrible. Goodreads recommendations based on books you liked? Horrible. But a good Google search for read alikes taking you to a library resources? Almost always good matches to be found.

  5. says

    Great post! I love RA and it's a fairly large part of my job. I always try to improve my skills and include what I think are readalikes even in my Goodreads reviews.

    I'd love to participate in the chat…but it's at 5:00 my time and tweeting and driving isn't safe. At least that's what they tell me. :/

    • says

      I'm the same way! I try to always nail a read alike or at least some sort of quality descriptions meant for readers' advisory with a review because I think it helps situate a book/reader relationship and it does help improve your skills, even if it's mostly for yourself.

      We've been archiving the chats for people who can't make them, and we're hoping soon to figure out how to best share those archives. When we figure it out, I'll definitely share the links!

  6. says

    Bookmarking this! I do keep a list of "Ami's favorites", but I don't link to it on our web site, as I do with other lists, for the reasons you mentioned. When I have a young girl who has read everything by Ann Rinaldi and everything by Madeleine L'Engle, and who wants to 'discover' a new author, I will quietly print that list out and hand it to her. They love feeling (often accurately) that they and I are kindred spirits in some way. If I gave it to everyone who asked what I liked, though, many would go away feeling I didn't know what I was talking about, and never ask me for RA again.

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