Monday, December 7, 2009

Gateway Books: Your First One's Free

With Christmas coming, I think about giving books as gifts to my friends and family. I want to support the art form that is so important to me, and I always have secret hopes of getting the world more excited about reading again. But, as I've mentioned before, a lot of my friends don't read that much. Sometimes, giving them a book is equivalent to giving them a brick.

I've gotten better at the whole process though. When I first started doing it, my approach was wrong. If I loved a book, I'd buy multiple copies of it and give it to my friends. As a result, a lot of people got Anna Karenina--and I lot of people got bored by Anna Karenina.

I realized that if I wanted people to read, I had to give them what they wanted in a book. I had to be in tune with their needs.

One of the ways of doing this is to rely on what I call "gateway" books. Like a gateway drug, (and a gateway drug dealer) I try to use books I already know people like to get them hooked on new things. Like Twilight? Try Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson. Like Joy Luck Club? Try Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, or Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. In this way, I try to let people know that there are other books out there besides the three that they see in the center of every display window.

I also look at their lives. My brother isn't a big reader. He brags about how he got through high school without actually finishing a single novel. In my mind, it was a waste to buy him a book. But, when he had his son, I decided to buy him a copy of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, since it describes a journey of father and son..and it's short. Not only did he finish it, but he read most of it with his son in his arms and wrote me to tell me how moved he was when he finished.

So here are some of my tips when I buy someone a book:

1. Find out about their usual reading habits. Do they read at all? If so, what?

2a. If they don't read at all, find out what types of movies they like. If they do read, find out what they read.

3. Ask them WHY they like the stories they like. Is it the romance of Twilight or the humor? Do they like only vampire stories, or any type of fantasy? A few of my friends mentioned loving the movie No Country For Old Men...up until the end. That's important to know because the end basically establishes that the story is a literary work, rather than an action adventure.

4. Research. If we want to be able to recommend books, it means we have to be familiar with a broad range of them ourselves. I can't spend my life reading Tolstoy--I have to know what else is out there. I have to make my way through books I wouldn't normally read to understand what about them is so engaging.

5. Give them the book and tell them why you think they'll like it. If there are weak parts to the book, maybe tell them about it before hand so that they don't give up too early. Basically, give them a little bit of instruction. But, only a little!

6. Find out how you did. Did they like the book or hate it? If they liked it, tell them about other books they might like. Try your best to broaden their horizons. If they hated it, find out why they hated it. Recommend a different type of book that might fit their personalities better.

For me, the ultimate goal is to get people to be more open-minded about what's out there. With the current model of marketing, many books get so little coverage that they don't reach their appropriate audience. I think if we help them out, it will eventually help give us more chances to publish what we want to write.

So, tell me about your success stories! Have you recommended books to people that they loved? Do you go out of your way to get more people to read?


  1. I use to want to force people to read, hoping that they would become avid readers. I've since learned that you can't force people to do anything. Not a good thing.

    Christopher reads well despite his dyslexia. But he doesn't like to read, because it takes so long. He will read my books though. And yours, because you tried to help him.

    So I buy books for the readers on my list. If fishing is their thing, I might buy a book on fishing, especially if they don't usually read. I hope this will make reading a habit for them. So I want to share my love of reading. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. :)

  2. I tend to not buy books for people unless they specifically ask for them (or, in the case of my wife, have a series they like to read already).

    This comes from junior high/high school/college where I was forced to read boring novels that had all the fun sucked out of them. Nearly stopped being a reader because of those books.

    Now I prefer to wait for openings and suggest things to people that way. It's a stealthier way to get people to read.

  3. Davin, I think you're doing a good thing and should keep doing it, especially when you cater the reads to the specific people in the way you've described.

    What do you mean here: "A few of my friends mentioned loving the movie No Country For Old Men...up until the end. That's important to know because the end basically establishes that the story is a literary work, rather than an action adventure."

    Do you mean that the end of the book is a negative one? I've never seen the movie or read the book. I'm just wondering how the end of anything could establish the whole story's genre, assuming you mean that at all. Though I do think endings can change the perception of the events that came before, a la Taxi Driver.

    But if an ending seems literary and the rest does not, if expectations of one genre are set up but the ending delivers another genre, that usually means something's wrong with the ending; it's been tacked on. I think I discussed this here once before, only I have no idea now where those posts are....

  4. I once recommended one of my favorite books to a friend. 'She'll love this,' I thought. 'The books all about a girl just like her.'

    I saw her later, she slammed the book down and demanded, "How could you give this to me?"

    "You don't like?" I was stunned.

    "Of course I don't like," she cried. "I die in the middle."

    "Oh, right, that." I totally forgot that the character just like her does die midway through the book.
    On the other hand, she loves the book now. So, I'll chalk that up to a success.

  5. Robyn, You're right, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. It's hard to get people into the habit of reading, but I content myself with the idea that I've at least gotten some people to check out books they otherwise wouldn't have heard of.

    And, it would be so cool if Christopher would read my work when it's published. I would be honored!

    Matthew, I think I wait for openings too, but maybe I probe a little more than you do. I ask a lot of questions when I find out that someone likes particular types of books or movies. Then, I try to match them up with their interests. I agree that forcing someone to read often just backfires. But, with good choices on our end, it may get more people hooked. :)

    F.P., I'll try my best to discuss this without ruining too much of the story. Well, actually, upon thinking about it, I realize that is impossible, so SPOILER ALERT. Basically, the majority of the movie tells the story of a man being chased by another very ruthless man. So, it feels very much like an action movie. But, at the end, you don't get the expected action movie outcome. In other words, there is no final showdown between bad guy and good guy. Instead, it ends on a more philosophical note. For me, going into the movie with familiarity to McCarthy's work, I knew to view the entire movie as more of an artwork, more literary--if a movie can be called literary. But, other people could have gone in not expecting that, and I think they were disappointed.

    Dominique, LOL, that definitely counts as a success! That's a fantastic story!

  6. I come from a family of readers, so it's pretty easy to find books for my parents and siblings. Even my brother who slacked his way through high school reads now--he's the one who loaned me books by Michael Chabon and Gabriel Garcia Marquez! For friends? That's a lot more work. Your advice here could be helpful in that regard (though again, most of my friends are readers too... should I get out more?).

  7. Ack! But I have different standards for books and movies! I, too, was very frustrated by the ending of No Country For Old Men (actually more so by the lack of a scene in the hotel room than by the actual final scenes), but if I'd been READING instead of WATCHING, I likely would have had a greater tolerance for those moments...

    Although perhaps you only go to a person's opinion of movies (#3) if you've given up on them having opinions on books (#2a). In which case, this is a moot concern. Never mind!

    P.S. It's my birthday today! You are cordially invited to attend by blog poetry party.

  8. Simon you lucky Scott you. I really wish I had more readers around here. I do know a few, though, and the nice thing is that they recommend books to me just as often as I recommend books to them. How do you like Gabriel Garcia Marquez? He's one of my favorites.

  9. Carrie, Happy Birthday! I just dropped off a present on your blog. "Wild Geese" by Mary Oliver. A beautiful poem.

    I also judge books and movies differently, but if I know someone who never reads, then I try to do what I can to figure what types of stories or genres they like. Sometimes movies are the only alternative.

  10. Recently when I posted about re-reading Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, I got a comment from an old friend. She told me I had turned her on to that book years ago, impacted her greatly at the time and she had later given it to her own daughter to read. I count that as a success.

  11. That's a huge success, Tricia! That must have felt great. One of the biggest compliments I got was when I gave the Lovely Bones to a woman who had just had a baby the month before. She called me and said, "This book is so good I keep forgetting that I need to take care of my kid."

  12. I'm a reading tart. If I love the characters and the plot, I'll read any genre.

    My challenge is to find books for my fifteen year old son. Is there a more challenging market?

  13. Fia, sorry I can't be much help for 15 yr old boy recommendations. My nephew is only six, and I don't know what to do for him either. I've turned to writing him a story myself. Maybe you could do that?

  14. Oh. this is excellent!

    I love reading and I think people who don't like to read is due to the fact they haven't found the genre/writers that work for their style.

    Maybe books will be the gifts this year! =D

  15. I would totally accept a copy of Anna Karenina, Davin.

    Whenever I try to get my sister to read, the book has to have animals in it. She's sixteen, but she's still gotta have her puppies.

  16. *puffs out chest with pride*

    Some of my friends got back into reading because they read my first book and loved it a lot. Don't ask me why. It was way too long and not that well written, but the plot was a page-turner so that works I suppose.

    I also got my friend back into reading by recommending Twilight to her. She loved it so much she's willing to read more things now.

    My friend Natalie is getting me into YA literature right now. I've read several I have really liked. Who knew.

    Great, great post, Davin!

  17. And I would take Anna Kerenina from you. I only have Brothers of Karamazov. I need Anna. Of course, I'd probably steal your whole book collection if I had the chance. ;)

  18. Sara, I agree. I think there are books out there for everyone if they can find them. Our job is to facilitate that encounter. We're like matchmakers!

    Mariah, great news. Anna Karenina has animals in it! Part of the story is told from the point of view of a dog. :) It's win win!

    Michelle, That's awesome! I'm not surprised that your stories can inspire people to read. I think if we write on subject matter that we care about deeply, we will be able to get other people interested in it too.

    And, remind me not to leave you unattended by my bookshelf. :P

  19. And if your intended receiver wants to ease into Tolstoy, you could get her *waving* The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories, newly translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

    Six year old boys may enjoy the Alvin Ho books, or Tony Abbott's Secret of Droon series, or Eye Witness books, with their big pictures and detailed descriptions.

  20. Great idea and I love the term "gateway book", lol. I'm famous for giving books as gifts too. I mean, I can cover Christmas for the whole family in one trip to Borders, what's not to love about that? But, I agree, it is important to match the book to the person.

    What's funny is that no one ever gives me books for Christmas. I think they worry they'll buy something I already have.

  21. Yat-Yee, i read Death of I last year. It's not my favorite Tolstoy work, but I do admire much of it. And, you're right, it is a good gateway into Tolstoy because it's so short and focused. Thanks for the other recommendations too! I know at the moment that my nephew likes Captain Underpants.

    Roni, I hadn't thought of it before, but I don't get many books as gifts either. I think maybe it's because my friends know I have strong opinions and a narrow range of books I like. I'm probably scaring them.

    Michelle, I'd be too busy eating your cashews to steal your books if you left me unattended, :P

  22. Davin, maybe we should just eat cashews and sushi and read out loud. No stealing necessary. :)

  23. I always fail when giving books to people. I have never gotten it right, no matter who it is or how old they are. I have managed to point a couple of people at new authors they've ended up liking, which is something at least.

  24. I already have a copy of Anna Karenina in my Read Me! pile. I bought it several months ago after my sister said she hated it. She told me why she hated it, and her description intruiged me enough to make me want to read it myself. So there's a success story from my sister. Sort of.

    Most of my immediate family are voracious readers. (Three cheers for Mom for teaching all five of us kids to read before Kindergarten!) I have little trouble finding books for any of them. Every now and then I take a stab at giving books to friends, but it's mostly books I love and want them to love too. Maybe next time I should try your approach of giving them books more up their own alleys. =)

    And I would totally invite myself to a Cashew Sushi Reading Party with you and Michelle.

  25. So, we're having like an annual cashew and sushi reading party?

    We have to come up with a cool name for it, like "Su-shew Read-through"

  26. I think we should hold it in Australia at Becca's house. Do they have sushi there, Becca?

  27. Scott, yes, that's something at least. I'm surprised your book picks haven't worked out. That's obviously a problem with your friends, not you.

    Becca, that's a hilarious story. I think that's why I became a scientist--because my brother hated science. Wow, what does that say about me???

  28. Davin: There are two problems with the way I give books. First, I tend to give away books I love that I *want* others to love. That rarely works out, as you mention in the post. Secondly, most of the people to whom I give books are already well read and I figure that their taste is better than mine, so I end up trying to give them books they'd never pick out for themselves, some weird non-fiction things that even I haven't read but catch my eye at the shop. So really, it's destined to be a disaster. I'm an idiot sometimes.

    AnnReSuShew, surely.

  29. Scott, what the hell are you thinking? (Does "what the hell?" work in that context, or have I overstepped my boundaries?

    Okay, so I guess we're having our Australian AnnReSuShew. Becca, how many people can you accommodate? We're making you do this because you haven't quite worked hard enough for us yet. And, we expect Lamingtons for dessert.

  30. Davin: "What the hell" works perfectly in that context!

  31. I usually don't buy someone a book unless while reading it I think that a certain person might like it so it get it for them. It usually works. I rarely just buy a book for the heck of it to give to someone as a gift. But I do encourage giving books as a gift when I know the person enjoys reading.
    Once I gave a friend (who doesn't read that much) a subscription to National Geographic and he said he loved it-- read every copy from cover to cover.

  32. Our place is small. We can maybe accomodate one more person. Two if someone doesn't mind sleeping in the bathtub. And we'll probably have to drive an hour or two for sushi. Lamingtons aren't a problem, at least. =)


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