by Jeffe Kennedy
As part of the writing and reading community, we all end up recommending books. Sometimes we stumble upon a request and can’t resist replying. Other times, we get tagged in a request—someone will tweet “I love @jeffekennedy’s books, but I’ve read them all. What else can I read like those?” Sometimes the request is more direct than that, like when my readers ask me what they should read while they wait for me to write the next book. The subject might come up in an interview or discussion.
The request for book recommendations is nearly inevitable in most author public events, no matter the medium.
Recently on a virtual panel discussion on my particular subgenre, someone asked: “If I’m going to read one book to test out this (sub)genre, which one book should I try?” There had been a lot of discussion about the subgenre, and a lot of books and authors discussed, but then someone asked for one book representative of the subgenre that they could get to test the waters. Unfortunately, many of the ensuing recommendations, while for wonderful books, were not on target. I see this a lot, where the books that people recommend come nowhere close to satisfying what the asker is looking for.
A great, on-target recommendation can be life-changing. We all know that word of mouth—personal recommendations—is still the number one way books get sold. For up-and-coming authors, a single, well-placed recommendation can ignite their career. And the people who do give good book recommendations? These people are pure gold because they serve both authors and readers. They are the best kind of curators, tending a garden of many blooms—and they know exactly which blossoms will suit the visitors to their garden of reading. It’s absolutely an acquired skill.
Since authors are so often asked to provide recommendations, it behooves us all to acquire that skill. Here are some simple guidelines for cultivating our own gardens of book recommendations.
Create a List
This is the garden you draw from, and it’s so helpful to have a list on hand because it saves you from having to make recommendations off the top of your head—which leads to popping off the Big Names. Organize your list by genre, subgenre, and type of author (see #2). Start by going through your keeper shelves and add all the books and authors you love. Don’t worry about how long it is—we’ll refine it later. For this first step, throw everything you like on this list. Like any garden, this list will require ongoing care and maintenance. It should be a living document, so you’ll be adding new and exciting species, refining, and increasing variety.
Diversify Your List
Think of this as enriching the soil of your garden. This takes conscious effort because we all tend to gravitate to certain types of authors. Go through your list and pay attention to how the authors on your list represent ethnicity, race, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, and other areas of identity. Authors will often note their identities in their website and/or social media bios (this is also a great exercise to observe how often people whose identities fall into what’s considered the default—heterosexual, cis, white, able-bodied, Christian, men, American—don’t note those aspects of their identities). Add copyright dates for each work (we’ll get to that in #3). Then run the numbers.
- Is the male/female balance roughly 50/50?
- Are there authors who identify as nonbinary?
- Are there authors of color?
- Are there LGBTQ+ authors on your list?
- Do any of the authors identify as disabled?
- Are there authors of religions or philosophies that are not your own?
- Are there equivalent numbers of self- and traditionally published works?
Please note that I’m not asking you to ever share this list publicly, nor to recommend authors by stating these criteria. This is your own garden blueprint, a study guide for checking your own biases. And this is your opportunity to diversify your reading. Any good gardener loves to visit other gardens for ideas! Check out hashtags like #ownvoices and #weneeddiversebooks for lists of authors to add to your reading. This is something we should all be doing anyway, both as authors studying our craft and to provide good book recommendations.
Put Current Works on Your List
It’s always fun to add new plants to the garden, but it does require some trips to the nursery. Look at those copyright dates. How many books were published more than two years ago? Five years? Ten? Twenty-five, fifty or more? For reference, if you’re always recommending Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, that was first published in 1954 and 1955. At the time of this writing, that makes The Fellowship of the Ring over sixty-six years old. No, you don’t have to take it off your recommendation list, but ask yourself honestly if it’s the type of book being asked for—and create a spread in your list as follows:
- Create time divisions. Totally up to you how you stratify the books, but I suggest something like this:
- Books published in the last two years (20%)
- Books published two to five years ago (30%)
- Books published five to ten years ago (30%)
- Books published ten to twenty-five years ago (10%)
- Books published more than twenty-five years ago (10%)
- Examine the gaps. You might see there are big holes in your timeline of books, and that’s where you’ll have to put in the work. Many of our favorite books are from the first twenty or so years of our lives. You can keep those, but pick and choose carefully.
- Start reading newer stuff. We get busy, and it’s hard to keep up with all the new stuff. But if we’re going to stay relevant—as writers, as recommenders, and as human beings in a dynamic culture—we have to read the newer works. You don’t have to read all of every book. Look at the process as refilling the well. Even if you don’t like some of what you taste, at least you’re getting familiar with the array of flavors out there.
But how do you find those books?
- Use the demographic gaps as a starting place; look for the hashtags and lists mentioned in #2.
- Ask for recommendations yourself! (And while you’re at it, pay attention to the recs that fail to meet your parameters and learn from them.)
- Look at award finalists and nominees in your genres. I’ll add the caveat here that you shouldn’t look only at these because awards can be incestuous, with the same names recurring regularly.
- Pick books at random! Grab books from the library or sample them on your eReader. Look for sales and book giveaways. Try stuff just because.
Revisit Your List Regularly, Prune, and Fertilize
When you discover a new book or author you love, add them to the list. You’ll find some stuff drops off as you add newer works. That’s normal. Plants age and stop producing the same blooms. They can be rotated out. Keep a master list, and then refine by subgroups so you’re ready to consult those lists when the questions come up. You’ll have a ready and relevant set of recommendations to offer.
Consider Your Motivations
When you ready those book recommendations, make sure you’re really answering the question. Did the visitor to your garden ask for a rose or a handful of berries? This is an opportunity to hand someone a gift that might be life-changing, so consider your intentions in giving it to them.
Be Honest and Authentic
This should go without saying, but don’t recommend a book you haven’t read, at least in part. This is your garden, a reflection of you. The authenticity of our book recommendations is something of value to ourselves and our readers. Remember, this is about improving your own recommendations. No one is keeping score. We’re just all trying to do better.
Jeffe Kennedy is an award-winning author whose works include non-fiction, poetry, short fiction, and novels. Her most recent works include the traditionally published fantasy series The Twelve Kingdoms, The Forgotten Empires, and The Uncharted Realms, and her self-published fantasy series Sorcerous Moons. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico with two Maine coon cats, numerous free-range lizards, and a very handsome Doctor of Oriental Medicine. Jeffe can be found online at her website: JeffeKennedy.com, every Sunday at the SFF Seven blog, on Facebook, on Goodreads, and on Twitter @jeffekennedy. She is represented by Sarah Younger of Nancy Yost Literary Agency.