Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Lay RA: What, how, why

I'm an assistant book review editor at a magazine for librarians, and I've decided to teach myself readers' advisory (RA). I'm not a librarian, and I've never taken a library science class. For those of you who don't know what readers' advisory is (e.g., nearly everyone who isn't a librarian), learn along with me! Any librarian readers out there: any advice, wrist-slapping, or taunting is totally welcome.

What? RA isn't as complicated as it sounds. It's basically a codified way to talk about books. It's what a librarian turns to when a patron asks, "OMG! I loved Twilight/The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society/Outliers/[insert any book title here]! What should I read next?" An idea behind RA is that people don't love books for the plot. People don't love Twilight because there are vampires in it, and those readers won't necessarily like Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse books. I learned the basics of RA like this. Appeal is the bedrock of RA. There are seven elements of appeal: pacing, characterization, story line, language, setting, detail, and tone. More on all this later.

Why? Why, without the time or money to spend on the adequate training for an MLS, would I use my spare time to read a textbook on the simple concept of talking about books, made even more complicated and given a name most have never heard of? I want to be a book editor, and a big part of that job is pitching a book based on previous well-received titles. Readers advisory vocab may be a great way to codify and improve this process. Readers don't love books for the plots. Publishers need to focus more on appeal.

At a panel at BEA this year, the huge and important distinction between reviews and recommendations was emphasized. Readers' advisors aren't recommending a book they like; they're recommending a book you'll like--a much harder (and more useful) recommendation.

How? I first got interested in RA when Neal Wyatt, a rockstar librarian well known for her readers' advisory innovation, came to speak at my office. Then, I turned to Joyce Saricks's Readers' Advisory Service in the Public Library, a classic book on the subject, now in its third edition. There are tons of book lists, reviews, and columns and articles about RA in the magazine I work for, so that will remain a good source for my journey. I hope to translate all this for you...and, soon, we'll be able to talk about books!

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