Recommended reading: personal book suggestions carry more weight, study shows

Amid a digital deluge of bestseller lists, influencers and algorithms, fiction readers are more likely to trust endorsements from people they know.

Woman drinks coffee in bookstore cafe. (Photo: Getty Images)

People tend to consider word-of-mouth book recommendations from friends, family or colleagues more trustworthy despite an abundance of reviews and suggestions online, according to a U of A researcher. (Photo: Getty Images)

Readers today have more information than ever to guide their book choices. The literary ecosystem produces a relentless stream of consumer reviews, influencer blogs and online recommendation sites in addition to conventional media commentary.

Standing strong in the digital deluge, however, the most trusted book recommendations, especially for fiction, are decidedly old school. According to a University of Alberta researcher, when a book endorsement comes from a friend, family member or colleague, it carries the power of persuasion.

When looking for your next novel, “don't forget to ask people you know or work with for recommendations,” says Danielle Fuller of the Department of English and Film Studies

“They still loom large in the lives of many readers, and in our research.”

One of Fuller’s areas of expertise is contemporary cultures of reading. With co-author DeNel Rehberg Sedo of Mount Saint Vincent University, her latest book — Reading Bestsellers: Recommendation Culture and the Multimodal Reader examines readers’ opinions about fiction and how they contribute to the creation of bestsellers.

“There are so many books published every year, and even those who read a lot have to find ways of navigating all those choices,” says Fuller. “People need to know they're investing their time in something that's likely to work out for them.”

A central thesis of Reading Bestsellers is that “no reader ever identifies bestsellers as their favourite type of book.” It’s only the publishing industry and media who need them, says Fuller.

“Readers are essential to creating bestsellers, but most can live without them,” she says, adding that some even spurn books tainted with mass appeal.

“They have many kinds of reading materials to satisfy their craving to learn about the world or be transported to an imagined, immersive environment.”

Investigating what influences readers

Fuller and Rehberg Sedo took a three-pronged approach to gathering their findings. They began with a questionnaire — circulated online just before the COVID pandemic — asking people about their favourite genres and how they choose books. It generated more than 3,000 responses from 56 countries.

The authors also interviewed three influencers working across social media platforms, specifically on BookTube, Bookstagram and BookTok, including the popular Canadian writer and filmmaker Ariel Bissett, who has more than 300,000 YouTube subscribers and who co-hosts a weekly podcast called Books Unbound.

In the third part of their study, the authors opened a private chat group on Instagram and recruited a diverse group of young adult readers aged 19 to 26 from around the world.

“We particularly encouraged readers who identified as Black, Indigenous or people of colour to take part in the study, because they are underrepresented in research about reading in English.”

Fuller and Rehberg Sedo discovered that contemporary readers of fiction are remarkably “multimodal,” reading not only across varying formats such as audio books, ebooks and traditionally bound books, but also across devices. Many readers also participate in online reading recommendation culture by creating reviews or sharing book recommendations. These dynamic readers are what Fuller and Rehberg Sedo call “multimodal readers.”

“You might be using a smartphone, a computer or an e-reader or all at the same time,” says Fuller. “A lot of people in our Gen Z group, for example, said they're always moving across formats, devices and platforms.”

With the rise of online recommendation culture, readers have a staggering number of resources to help make book selections, and in many cases use them, she says: “People want to know they’re investing their time in something that’s likely to work out for them.”

Bookstores remain popular

Despite a popular misconception that bookstores are disappearing in the age of Amazon, the in-store browse remains a popular way to find books, she says.

“Journalists are always perpetuating this idea of the decline of the bookstore, but the facts are somewhat different. It’s actually an era in which analog and digital forms coexist, and readers continue to discover and talk about books both on and offline.

“Before and during the pandemic, independent bookstores in Canada surged because they could respond to their local communities” and make in-person, curated recommendations.

Fuller’s advice for navigating today’s complex book culture might apply to consumers of any creative product: beware of the algorithm. Especially if you find yourself in a reading rut, perhaps the “you might like” suggestions on your favourite platforms are to blame.

“Algorithms have become a banal part of our everyday culture,” so that we hardly notice them, says Fuller. If you’re seeing the same kind of books over and over again and getting sick of it, maybe change your platform echo chamber.

Or look to the personal recommendation to shake things up, prompting you to read something that might not otherwise jump to mind. If you don’t have someone in your life to suggest books, says Fuller, look for an influencer championing your favourite genre.

“That can be a good way to cut through the overwhelming number of choices out there.”