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?