Booksellers spend a lot of time honing our recommendations for customers, and we work to toe a graceful line between revealing enough of a wonderful book to hook a listener but not so much that we spoil a surprise or deprive readers of the joys of their own discovery. The unfolding of a story is a delicious treat, and its secrets should be held jealously by guardians.* There have been many times I’ve been grateful to begin a book without knowing anything about it. So how do we strike the right balance? And even when spoilers aren’t the issue, how do you craft a great book pitch? Here are the pointers I use for myself. I’d love to hear yours!Avoid vague praise. We’ve all done this before, recommended a book saying only, “It’s soooo good!” or “I loved it; I think you’ll love it, too.” On their own, adjectives, superlatives, and general opinions usually don’t get the job done. They are okay beginnings, but there’s nothing for a listener to grab on to. You need something concrete, an intriguing detail or plot point, to ignite a reader’s attention. For instance, all you need to say to kids to get them to grab the comics novel, Hilo, is: “It’s about this alien boy who crashes to earth wearing only a pair of silver underwear.” I usually add, “and a human boy and girl befriend him and take him to school to teach him how to be human, but then these giant robots from his home planet come to Earth to hunt him down,” but honestly, I don’t need to. The silver underwear does it all.
Codicil: You can use vague (or even wordless) praise sometimes. If I have been a solid book recommender for you in the past, I can likely press a book into your hands and say, “I don’t want to tell you anything about this because the way it unfolds is incredible if you go into it knowing absolutely nothing,” and you will consider taking a chance on that book. Or, if the book is in my top 10 of all time, and I share that information with a customer, it can be enough to interest them into giving it a try. That just happened the other day with Their Eyes Were Watching God. I even once sold a book when a customer saw me spy it on a shelf and hug it. People do respond to pure passion alone, but it has to be spontaneous and real. Which leads me to:
Be honest. Never hype a book beyond its capacity, or pretend you liked something you didn’t. This will backfire in a big way. Customers may not always share your feelings about a book, but they will appreciate that your enthusiasm is trustworthy, not feigned. Having open conversations about what you loved about a book that left someone else cold is great, because it provides information about what that reader values in a reading experience, and you’ll be able to hone your recommendations more accurately for that person in the future.
Focus on what’s unique about the book. If there’s a book that’s harder to handsell because its strength lies more in the writing or character development rather than the plot, focus on a standout aspect. “The author has so much compassion for his characters! He presents us with this curmudgeon that you can’t help falling in love with.”
Pick one detail to share. Sometimes, plotlines are so chock-full—or it’s been so long since we’ve read a book that the specifics are murky but we remember loving it—that it can be hard to come up with a one-line teaser. In this case, you might pick one thing to highlight. I loved M.T. Anderson’s younger middle grade Pals in Peril series. It’s been long enough that I couldn’t tell you diddly about the main mystery/adventure in The Clue of the Linoleum Lederhosen, but I can tell you that (1) it’s hilarious and (2) action-packed and that (3) there’s a professor in it who studies bats, and in order to understand their behavior better, he chooses to move around by echolocation, which basically means he closes his eyes and screams at the top of his lungs while wandering around trying to get places.
Secrets are good. It doesn’t matter what kind of book you’re holding, people are intrigued by secrets, so if your book has them, make mention of it (without giving them away). Adults seem to love mentions of dark family secrets, while kids gravitate toward mystery and friendship secrets. Codicil: I’m leery of telling a customer that a book has a major twist; it might intrigue in the moment, but then the reader spends the entire book reading toward the twist. I always instantly regret it if I let slip that a book has twists; it feels like I’m stealing something from the reader.
Share something about the experience of reading the book. “I opened this one intending to flip through a few pages, and I ended up devouring it in one sitting.” “This is like reading sunshine; it is a sparkling delight of a book.” (That last is for adults, not kids. Kids do not care about sparkling delights of books.) You need to follow up with those specific details that make a recommendation vivid, but people who come to a bookstore are looking for a reading experience. Sharing your own can be compelling. One of our booksellers loved and was freaked out by The Hazel Wood. She told a customer, “I was so scared reading this book that I hid under the covers with a flashlight reading it, and made my husband get out of bed with me to go to the bathroom.” I also loved the book, but didn’t find it as terrifying as she did, which made for a fun conversation about what we all find spooky. Customers love conversations with differing opinions, especially when they’ve read a book and can weigh in! Caveat: Having a different experience of a book is great; just don’t undercut your co-workers’ book recommendations by dismissing their experience! That’s the great thing about reading; all interpretations and experiences are valid.
The art of the reveal varies from book to book, from bookseller to bookseller. Basically, I just try to share what strikes me as exceptional about a book without weakening its storytelling fiber or diluting the power of discovery.
All of you ShelfTalker regulars are avid readers, so I’m preaching to the choir here. What are your tips for great recommendations? And if you have great one-line pitches to share, we’d all love to hear them (giving due credit when we share with customers)!
*Unlike the viewers of the 1980 premiere of The Empire Strikes Back at a cinema in Los Angeles, who came out of the theater shouting at the people in line for the second showing (among them, me), “Darth Vader is Luke’s father!”