As a book lover and blogger, I know I’m not alone with my towering to be read piles and book hauls and library trips and occassional advanced reading copies arriving at the door. Thinking along those lines, I couldn’t help but ask this week’s panelists the following question:
I am a mood reader for the most part, so it just depends on what I feel like reading at any given time. I usually know what the next three or four books are that I’ll read, although the reading order may change if I stumble upon something that says “read me now.” Wesley Chu’s new book Time Salvager falls in that category. After seeing the cover and reading the blurb, I moved that one to the top of my list! I also don’t generally request ARC’s (although I’m sorely tempted at times), so I don’t have that as a source of pressure. I usually just read books I’ve purchased.
I commonly read one fiction and one nonfiction books at the same time and the prioritizing isn’t the same. For nonfiction, it mostly depends whether I will shortly need the title for my current writing projects, since I alternate between fiction and nonfiction in my own practice as well. Before switching to indie publishing, I prioritized a lot of books on the topic on my To Be Read list. While I was working on titles about female characters in Science Fiction, I focused a lot on gender studies and Science Fiction books.
I sometimes have to prioritize fiction books for work too, like when I read Star Wars: A New Dawn by John Jackson Miller before writing a chapter about Star Wars Rebels. It is rarer than with nonfiction though, since my research writing mostly focuses on movies, TV shows and video games.
As for prioritizing fiction books, it simply depends on the mood. I read mostly Science Fiction and Fantasy but it doesn’t make the piles any smaller. I most often just sit in front of my shelves (my To Read Piles are in low shelves and I mostly read fiction in print). I look at the books until I feel drawn to one at that given moment. It can take a while, long enough for my cat to come cuddle in my lap while I wait for one book to call to me.
I’m very much a mood reader so which book I read next highly depends on what mood I’m in at that point, but I do try to read the books I’ve received for review first. Since people are actually waiting for my review, I want to give it to them as soon as I can. But like I said, it really depends on my mood. I can’t enjoy something I’m not in the mood for, which would push the rating down and I don’t want that.
Deciding what to read next is something we readers face constantly. Before I finish a book I almost always know what I’m going to read next. For me, the answer to the question “what’s next?” starts with deadlines. Deadline books always come first, so I read books to review and books from the library before anything else. That’s currently A Darkling Sea by James L. Cambias. This is a firm rule for me, except in very rare instances when I absolutely can’t wait to read something, usually a new book by a favorite author. But then, I usually gulp those books down and still meet deadlines.
After that I turn to the TBR pile. I have a small book case for these, as opposed to the whole rest of the house which is also full of books I want to read or reread. So a book has already made a cut just to get on those three shelves, which hold about 40 books; science fiction, fantasy and mystery. Those books are there because I’m eager to read them. They can be new books, such as Linesman by S.K. Dunstall, which I plan to start tomorrow, old books I never got to such as An April Shroud by Reginald Hill (a mystery novel), or a book in a series that I’ve fallen a little – or a lot – behind on, of which there are many.
Like everyone, I have favorite authors, and when a new book by one of them is published, I’ll often drop everything else and read it. That list includes James S.A. Corey (even if I’m behind in the Expanse series), John Scalzi (I’m waiting impatiently for my copy of The End of Everything), Marie Brennan (I loved The Voyage of the Basilisk and I hope the next one isn’t too far off), Kate Elliot (I’m a book behind on her series too), Sharon Lee and Steve Miller (my reading of the Liaden Universe books is so disorganized I can’t even figure out which I’ll read next, so when I’m in the mood I just grab one at random) and others.
Then there are favorite authors from the past. Depending on my mood, I may also decide to reread a classic, as I did recently with Poul Anderson’s Trader To The Stars. Other favorites in this group include Hal Clement, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Clifford D. Simak, Harry Harrison, Larry Niven, Anne McCaffrey and many others.
I read a lot of book reviews and see a lot of discussion on blogs and websites of books old and new, and there are books that seemingly spring from nowhere, and are suddenly on everyone’s lips, books which sound so irresistible I have to get my hands on the book and read it right now. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel was one of those, I got a copy from the library and devoured it. I really enjoyed it a lot.
Every reader knows you have to be in the right mood for a book. If I’ve just read several SF-F books I’ll want to read a mystery. If I’ve been reading a lot of novels I may want to jump to a collection or anthology of short stories, as I did recently when after an especially dark noir mystery I went to Old Venus edited by Martin and Dozois.
Last of all, there’s the lure of the shelves. I have a lot of books here, and sometimes one of them just calls out to me. Know what? It’s all good.
I may run a review blog but that does not mean I receive lots of review copies of books. In fact, this year I have reviewed exactly two books I have received a free copy of. A third one, a Nalo Hopkinson collection, is due some time in August. This mainly because I don’t actively try to get review copies and because I use NetGalley only once in a while (many of those books are not available to me to begin with since I’m not located in the UK or US). It is quite hard on my wallet but it should give quite a lot of freedom to pick and choose what I want to read next. Or so you’d think.
In practice it is a bit more complicated than that, mostly because of a number of choices I made for my blog and other reviewing activities. I spend most of my time reviewing for my own blog but I also have committed to writing one review a month for the Dutch language book site Hebban. I strive for efficiency here and usually do an English and Dutch version of a book in one go. I don’t translate them, they are written for a different audience after all, but it is a lot faster to do a Dutch review from an English outline, or the other way around, than to start from scratch. My editor on Hebban lives some 200 miles north of here so I doubt she’ll show up on my doorstep and take my head if I miss a deadline but I do try and deliver at the agreed time. We have just agreed on a review of Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife in July.
For the blog I have made a few choices too. The first one is that I try for a minimum of one review a week. The next is that I want the front page of my blog (on which the last ten articles show) to be diverse. By that I mean a mixture of genres, of older and new works, of book written men and women, and increasingly, I try to mix in books from non-English language places as well but I’m not doing very well on that front. Another rule I try to stick to is not have the same author show up twice on the front page. That means I can’t go binge reading and reread the entire Wheel of Time or indulge in a stack of New Wave science fiction novels. Not if I want to have anything to review anyway.
So basically what I do is look at what is on the to read stack, at the last ten books I’ve reviewed on Random Comments, at what Hebban needs in the near future, and when the next review of a book I’ve accepted an ARC of is due. Once I have done that, the factor time needs to be considered. Some weeks I have more reading time than others. I can’t manage an 800 pages monster every week. Some weeks I can barely manage a novella. As a reviewer it is always a good thing to have a few of those lying around for really busy weeks. After all of that is settled, the question of whether or not I actually want to read that particular title comes into play.
Unsurprisingly, this process doesn’t always result in a clear candidate so sometimes, in sheer desperation, I ask my girlfriend what I should read next. Her answer is always the same: Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. Recently she has added Something More Than Night by Ian Tregillis to her answer. In fact, she has gone so far as to put that book on my physical to read stack. I have yet to cave under the pressure.
Sometimes, once or twice a year, I just throw whatever I happen to be reading in a corner and pick up a book I am particularly excited about. I anticipate the next time this will happen will be the day my copy of Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson comes in. Which should be any day now. So in short, there is a system of sorts, but much like system I use to shelf my books, it only makes sense to me.
I don’t just have a TBR pile. I have multiple bookcases full of TBR books. And books arriving almost daily. So, it is impossible to keep up, and I do have to prioritize. My first priority goes to the books from authors that I know and love. I’ve usually been looking forward to those for a while. Next, if the synopsis is something new and fresh and sounds like something exciting – something that I’d enjoy – I’ll probably push it to the head of the stacks. I’ll also pick up ones that have great marketing buzz or promo packages. When the publishing company obviously has great faith in the book, it doesn’t always mean I’ll like it, but I’ll be more apt to pick it up. I also listen to other reviewers’ and friends’ recommendations. If they are raving about it and it sounds like something I’d enjoy (science fiction, mystery, thriller, steapunk, etc.), then I’ll more than likely fit it into my queue.
I also like to switch up subgenres as I read. If I just finished a hard scifi novel, I may pick up a YA fantasy next. I’ll never run out of books or variety. Keeping it fresh is great. If I pick up a sequel and have no idea what happened in the book I read just last year – I may not bother.
I am a massive mood reader, so most of the time it purely depends on what I feel like reading. I go through phases of reading nothing but epic fantasy series, then a load of sci-fi, then some historical fiction… This is often affected by what I’ve been watching or playing at the same time – for example, after playing Dragon Age, I wanted to read nothing but fantasy books for a month!
I’m also often influenced by the cover – yes, I definitely judge a book by its cover. With so much choice, sometimes I find this one of the easiest ways to choose something. Since I’ve been blogging, I’ve also found that I’m influenced by the choices of others. If lots of my blogger friends are reading a book, and I own it, that might sway me towards reading it sooner rather than later so I can join in the conversation.
I’m not sure if I should divulge the secrets as to how I select a book for review. The last thing I need is to be inundated with books to review. But since you asked so nicely here you go. It’s a two stage process, where the first stage is concerned with allowing the request for review to migrate from my inbox into the actual review pile. This is a simple but multi-layered process, one that has lots of hurdles for the request.
Firstly, if the request is accompanied by an email that is multi-coloured, or full of non standard submission fonts, then it doesn’t even get read. I don’t care who the writer is, even if it was a long lost manuscript from Bram Stoker and I had exclusive rights to the review it would be binned. Emails such as these just smack of unprofessionalism, which always leads me to think that your book will be equally unprofessional and annoying.
Secondly, I look for phrases that make my blood run cold you all know the sort “the next big thing”, “a writer the like off which you have never read before”. Trust me, us reviewers don’t fall for this sort of hyperbole. We look past the advertising and look at the product.
I then make sure the author isn’t on the banned list, all reviewers have a list of writers they won’t review.
Finally I make sure it is actually a book that fits in with the remit of the site. There is no point in Ginger Nuts of Horror reviewing a fluffy romantic novel, the audience isn’t there.
If a book passes all of these criteria to make it onto my actual review pile then things get more mysterious. This is where my rather odd mental quirks come into play. The biggest one is based on the book I had previously read. I don’t like to read similar books one after the other, so a series of books could take forever to read no matter how good the books are.
Typeface also plays a role in the book selection, most of my reading is done on the way to and from work, and if I am particularly tired and the typeface is too small the book will be put back in the pile for later.
Finally and this is an odd one but the cover and the paper used in making the book is a big factor. I like book covers that have a soft feel, and I like nice thick standard paper for books. So American publishers, the paper you use in your mass market editions is terrible, I hate it.
The book has passed all of these tests and is finally in my hand, and the only thing stopping it from getting reviewed is the one bus journey test. I give every book a fair chance to grip me and that means one journey to or from work, if it fails to engage me after this time then I will put the book away and never open it again. So, all you writers out there make sure your first sixty pages are killer.
Because I manage an SFF review blog, my goals for reading are different from most people’s. I almost always put the needs of the blog first, which means reading and reviewing something that hasn’t yet been covered on our site, and that nobody else is planning to review. I only read what my fellow FanLit bloggers read if it’s something that everyone loved, or if it was written by one of my must-read authors. I tend to skip all those review copies the publicists send me unless the book really appeals to me and it’s not being reviewed by someone else at our site.
For 10 months now, I have been finishing or catching up on all the series I’ve started over the years because I wanted to make sure we had all those books reviewed for the site before I started anything new and got bogged down in a bunch of new series. In fact, I promised myself I wouldn’t pick up anything new until I finished this project.
This was fun at first, and I’ve stuck to the plan pretty well, but there are 250 books left and I’m starting to feel deprived. Especially when the entire SFF community is buzzing about a few books I’ve missed out on recently. I’m particularly thinking about Uprooted by Naomi Novik, The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins, and Joe Abercrombie’s new series. People just won’t shut up about these books, and I can feel them slowly creeping up my TBR pile. I’m afraid that pretty soon they’re going to erupt out of the top of the pile and land in my lap, destroying all this willpower that I’ve been exercising for so long.
So, I guess the short answer to your question is: I read books we need reviewed for our blog, but certain books that keep getting high praise from reviewers I trust will get pushed to the top. (And when I say it like that, I don’t feel so guilty for breaking my promise.)
There’s nothing quite like the double-edged sword of the TBR pile – whether it be for Reading or Reviewing. It’s nice to know that you need never worry about running out of books to read, but it can also be overwhelming to know that you’ll most certainly run out of time to read them all. For me, the ‘read’ pile is a veritable mountain at over 1100 books, while the ‘review’ pile is an aggressively cultivated foothill at 25.
How do I manage it? Well, my pseudo-scientific formula for prioritizing those reads is as follows:
- Physical review copies come first. While there’s definitely a sense of obligation tied to the arrival of a tangible book, it’s more that my wife ‘encourages’ me to reduce the clutter. One or two piles on the stairs are fine, but three gets me the evil eye.
- Pre-publication ARCs (digital or physical) come next. Again, there’s some sense of obligation attached to release dates, but it’s also about wanting to enjoy the read with no expectations, before the hype machine gets into high gear.
- For the rest of the review pile, it’s a first-in/first-out kind of approach. I’m always honest about my backlog, so authors know there’s a wait, but I still try to take care of them in a reasonably speedy fashion.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and sometimes I just feel compelled turn my back on that foothill and chip away at the mountain. It could be that somebody mentioned a book I remember wanting to read; it could be that an author is in the news; or it could just be a whim. Those whims are the hardest, because they usually come from a desire to alleviate review burnout by reading something different – in which case I sit on the floor, stare at the shelves, and try to figure out what’s next.
Choosing the “right” books for the reading list is an incredibly hard thing to do. And that’s mostly because in addition to all the books that come out in any given month, there are an equal number of older books that I want to read. So which should make the cut. How do I choose between a new novel by an author I am really excited to read and an old novel by an (old) author that I love, and have enjoyed before? It really isn’t easy on any level to make that call. But the call has to be made, and what I try for is a balance between the two.
In general, whenever I make my monthly reading lists, these are my aims for what I want to read:
- read at least two books from old and popular series such as the Riftwar Saga by Raymond E. Feist or the Eternal Sky series by Elizabeth Bear.
- read at least two tie-in novels, such as from the worlds of Star Trek, Star Wars, WarCraft, Halo, Mass Effect, EVE Online, Warhammer or something else.
- read at least four recent releases from within the past year. This used to be more like absolutely recent releases from within the past couple months or something, but of late I’ve been having trouble keeping up with all the books that are getting put out and so I generally miss a lot of things.
- rest can be whatever catches my eye.
The thing here is that there can also be some overlap between the categories above. And that’s generally fine too. At the start of each year for the past three years I make a list of 25 series I want to read that particular year, and I try and include all sorts of different things on it. These lists are a mix of absolutely everything, covering space opera to epic fantasy, video game tie-ins to urban fantasy. This way I get to also try out a whole bunch of different styles and novels, and also “keep up” with what other people have read. The lists started out as a way to touch base with the popular authors and series in the reading world, and have evolved into something more for me. The experiment has worked really well for me, and this is one reading challenge that I definitely aim to complete by the end of the respective year. 25 series a year translates to two books a month for me, and that’s because the aim is to read at least the first novels from these sagas.
Sometimes I read more, such as wrapping up Kate Elliott’s excellent Spiritwalker trilogy back in 2013 within like 4 months, which was a big feat for me since those books aren’t exactly short reads, and are also so exhaustive. But then, that’s the fun.
And just generally, I maintain a list of authors and series that I want to try out, and whenever I make my monthly reading list, I take a look at that file and pick something out to round out the selection of 10 books for the month. It is a system that has worked well for me so far, and I don’t see myself changing it any time soon. Though I must say that there was this one time back in 2013 when I did a reading poll on my blog which was rather popular, and I asked my blog readers to vote for the books they wanted me to read. I think I put up a selection of some 20 or so books with the intention of picking out the top 10. That’s something I’ve wanted to try again ever since, and that’s something else that I might put into effect soon, either for this year, or for the next.