Letting a profile questionnaire decide what she should be reading next turned out to be surprisingly successful for Jane Bradley
‘Do you prefer ... sunshine or snow? Pubbing or clubbing? Pessimism or optimism? Black coffee or herbal tea? Home comforts or exotic travel? Classical music or rock music?’
An eclectic bunch of questions, but my answers could reveal the solution to that constant literary headache: what to read next.
Of course, there’s always reviews site Good Reads, or that bit at the bottom of the Amazon website where you’re told that other people who enjoy the novels of Douglas Kennedy also bought an audio book of Charlie and Lola and a packet of paperclips - but that’s not always too helpful.
To mark Book Week Scotland, the Scottish Book Trust has created a ‘Book Generator’ to solve the problem of choosing a new book.
The generator takes recommendations made by Scottish book sellers and assigns them characteristics. The user is then asked between eight and ten questions until the generator has honed in on a perfect contemporary, classic and Quick Read book recommendation: and bingo - a perfect match is made.
Finding new reading material is harder than it might first seem. The publishing world is a tricky one.
The books which are marketed well are not necessarily the ones which might be most interesting to you as an individual - they are the ones that will sell well; will attract attention and make bestseller lists. The quality of the work is not always the key. A well-known name can be.
Whether or not a manuscript is taken on is on the whim of initially an agent - then a publisher, who negotiates a deal.
It is simple: the books with high profile publishers get a decent marketing campaign, meaning they appear in “must-read” lists in magazines and pop up on book selling websites as notable new releases. While those books are often undeniably the good ones - a reputable agent or publisher is not going to take on a dud - many other good ones slip through the net and end up being self published; or printed through a publisher which does not have the financial fire power to launch a good novel firmly into the public consciousness.
Indeed, to prove how hard it is for new authors to break into the business, an aspiring writer and door to door salesman called Chuck Ross typed up 21 pages of award-winning novel Steps by American-Polish author Jerzy Kosinski and sent it to agents and publishers. All of them rejected it, including the publisher who had published it in the first place.
This happened in 1975 - and it is only more difficult now as publishers battle between traditional print and digital books.
Finding out about new books which do not have a hefty marketing departmnent behind them can be tricky, meaning it is easy to miss out on a gem.
Enter the Book Generator. Based on the fact that I like sunshine, pubs, optimists and black coffee - as well as chess over draughts, skiing rather than snowboarding and autumn over spring among other things - the answer is simple, the Book Generator says: I should snap up graphic novel Paper Girls by American writer Brian K. Vaughan and illustrator Cliff Chiang.
Gulp. I’ve never been a fan of comics. Or sci-fi. Or any kind of genre fiction not firmly based in the real world.
But, I reason, perhaps the book generator knows me better than I know myself. Intrigued, I download the comic book on to my Kindle.
Set in 1988, the story follows a group of pre-teen newspaper delivery girls who meet...aliens. It has been critically acclaimed. I’m sure it’s great. But after ten minutes, I knew it wasn’t for me. I wonder whether I should have answered some of the questions another way. Do I really like milkshakes better than smoothies? Monkeys better than elephants? Probably not. They’re not - unlike the chess-draughts question - issues I give much time to considering, And it was almost certainly that milkshake question that did it, I decide, my love for the classic drink of the retro idea of the American diner - Paper Girls is set in small town Ohio - pushing me towards Vaughan’s book.
I’m sorry, Calum Bannerman, bookseller at The Mainstreet Trading Company in St Boswells who recommended this read, but I just can’t do it. It’s not me.
Thankfully, the system generates three potential books for the reader based on the answers to their questions - from a pool of 200 works linked to the generator.
The second one, the “short read”, is actually a short story I had already read, by male chick lit author Mike Gayle. Although not useful as a new read, the generator was spot on on this occasion. I loved it. Like Gayle’s novels, the story was lighthearted and fun, perfect Kindle-on-a-train fodder.
The third, Buddha Da by Glaswegian author Anne Donovan, was recommended by Chris McCosh at Atkinson-Pryce Books in Biggar. I like the fact these books have all been personally recommended. I wonder if Chris, too, prefers coffee over herbal tea and is partial to a game of chess? While Buddha Da did well at its time of publication, that was in 2003, so the chance of me happening across it on my Kindle recommendations, or a friend chatting about it, are slim.
Although I have to admit I wasn’t familiar with it before, Buddha Da was shortlisted for the 2003 Orange Prize and the 2003 Whitbread Book Award for a first novel. Impressive stuff. I flick it open.
It is written in Scots. This would usually put me off. I’m a speed reader, always have been. My eyes skim quickly over the words, hopefully taking in as many as possible. Scots prevents me from doing that. I have to read the words out loud - or at least in full in my head.
But it looks good. The story is intriguing and, although the language will prevent me from dashing through it in a couple of hours, that is perhaps no bad thing.
It seems as though the generator has done its job. It has found me a book which I would otherwise not have come across.
And once that’s finished, I might do it again.
Why not give it a try?
The Book Generator will run beyond the end of Book Week Scotland, which finishes tomorrow.