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What Makes a Good Book? Here’s How Appeal Factors Result in Great Book Recommendations.

Posted on June 29, 2022 at 6:00 am

By Dana Mannino

At least once a week, I have a variation on the following conversation.

Library customer: Can you suggest a good book?

Librarian: Sure! What do you like to read?

Library customer: Anything, as long as it’s well written.

We all want a good book. It’s universal. But often we don’t know how to describe what it is that makes the books we like to read “good.”

Librarians call the elements of a good book “appeal factors.”

You might not notice appeal factors when you are reading. They are like ambient music in a restaurant. They create an experience without calling attention to themselves. But without knowing it, we do refer to appeal factors when we talk about books.

Librarians are trained to listen for those references. Here’s an example from a conversation I had recently:

Library customer: My book club just read A Gentleman in Moscow.

Me: Oh, I liked that one a lot!

Customer: Really? I couldn’t get into it. It took forever to get going!

Me: Ah! I see what you mean. I was in a different reading mood. I needed a book that felt like a warm blanket.

When the library customer shared that the book took forever to get going, she was talking about the book’s pace and storyline—two very important appeal factors.

A Gentleman in Moscow unfolds at a leisurely pace and has what we call a character-driven storyline. Readers who enjoy Gentleman are more interested in who the protagonist becomes than in what happens to him, and they don’t mind if it takes a while.

For this customer, a good book needs to be fast paced, with a plot-driven storyline. Maybe next month, her book club can read Victoria Gosling’s Before the Ruins. It’s complex enough to generate a good discussion, and the intensifying pace and high-stakes storyline might be the appeal factors that the customer enjoys.

Appeal Factors

Tone

When I said that A Gentleman in Moscow felt like a warm blanket, I was referring to the book’s tone. Some books are like visiting with a friend on the front porch. Nothing is happening, but you don’t really want to go anywhere. It’s nice on the porch. Front porch books have a reflective, gentle tone. Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book is another example.

Tone really goes to the heart of describing your reading mood. You might not know if you want a storyline that is character driven or plot driven, but you usually know if you want to spend time with a book that is gritty, like Citizen Vince, or nostalgic, like Last Bus to Wisdom.

Are you looking for a book that is heart-wrenching and haunting? Try Mark Soulak’s Brewster.

Are you in the mood for something offbeat and irreverent? You might like a Jenny Lawson memoir.

Storyline & Pace

We already talked about plot driven vs. character driven storylines, but there are many more variations.

Would you like to read an intricate plot with gasp-worthy twists? Try The Night Olivia Fell or The Burning Girls.

Do you like ambiguous endings? Try The Turn of the Key.

Can you handle a non-linear timeline and narration from multiple perspectives? Check out Apples Never Fall.

These more complicated storyline devices can also be what librarians call “limiters” or things that people don’t like in a book. Knowing your limiters is just as important as understanding your appeal factors.

Writing Style

When I read, I like to learn about new worlds, and I’ll often stop to savor a sentence. So, I enjoy the richly detailed writing style of authors like George Eliot.

Other folks want a book to get to the point quickly. They will want something spare or compelling, like Jessica Strawser’s A Million Reasons Why.

If you’re in the mood for witty banter, you can try the historical mystery romance The Girl Who Knew Too Much.

Does an unreliable narrator add to the fun? Try Kill the Next One.

Characters

Characters and how they are written varies from book to book, genre to genre. Some folks want to read about strong, stoic, honorable characters. They’ll enjoy local author S. M. Hulse’s Black River.

Others may prefer to read about psychologically twisted individuals like the protagonists written by Gillian Flynn.

If I’m reading a book set in a difficult situation, I need at least one wise mentor character, otherwise I get too stressed out. This explains why the TV series Foyle’s War was my pandemic comfort binge. In less stressful times, I relish a snarky narrator, like the droid in All Systems Red.

When we read, the book characters start to feel like old friends. It’s not surprising we gravitate towards certain personalities.

Themes

I used to dismiss themes as irrelevant. They didn’t seem to describe my reading moods. I’ve never thought, “Today I really want to read a coming-of-age story.”

But then I helped a customer who described her teenage daughter’s reading preferences as “girl overcomes difficult situation.” I thought, “Egads! A theme! It must be a real appeal factor!”

So, I went back to my own reading log for more data. It turns out I could sum up an entire year of my reading with the phrase “child heals from traumatic events” (The Book Thief, Walk Two Moons, & Mockingbird). Sometimes we need to tell ourselves the same story over and over, and that’s okay.

Themes are also very helpful in hunting down good books within a genre. Lots of people like fantasy, but some folks want a story about standing up to corrupt power (such as in the Red Queen series) and some folks want a quest to slay a mythical monster (like in Beasts of Prey).

When you think about your own favorite books, what themes can you spot? What themes annoy you (what are your limiters)? I find that my eyes start to roll whenever I run across the inn-keeper-plays-amateur-detective trope (I’m looking at you, Moonflower Murders), so that’s one I avoid.

Book Recommendations & NoveList Plus

Those are some appeal factors librarians listen for. So, how do librarians turn an appeal factor into a book recommendation?

Many of our book recommendations come from years of reading with these appeal factors in mind. Appeal factors are also tucked into the blurbs on the back of books. Sometimes a librarian can find you a good book by judging its cover (gasp!). And yes, there is a fair bit of searching involved.

Librarians also have a secret weapon: NoveList Plus.

It can be your secret weapon too!

NoveList Plus is an online resource that compiles the appeal factors for books. It is also a collection of reviews and recommendations for books, written by librarians. With your library card, you can even access a secret PDF that lists and defines all the appeal factors and terms that NoveList Plus uses. If you’d like to level up your book hunting prowess, you can look up the appeal factors of the books you like and give NoveList Plus a try to find other books with those same appeal factors.

Book Butler

Or you can get help finding great books by filling out our online Book Butler form. With Book Butler, you can request books based on your reading tastes, and a librarian will handpick some titles for you to check out. Knowing the appeal factors that you enjoy reading and mentioning them in your Book Butler request will help the librarian pick books that could turn into great reads for you.

With this knowledge about appeal factors in books, I hope you will be enjoying a really good book in no time. Happy reading!

Librarian Dana Mannino

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