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Holiday shopping with a little help from Canada Reads

The other night, I decided to get in a little Christmas shopping and headed to my local Chapters. The store was packed with a line-up that snaked around the corner, which, as a shopper, frustrated me. But, as a writer, thrilled me. You will never hear me complain about a crowded bookstore. Ever.


As I wandered through the store, shopping list in hand, I started second-guessing myself as to which books would appeal to the people on my list. Should I go with historical fiction for this person? Biography for that person? Stick with popular romance or move towards mystery? Was this book too literary? Too dark? Too light? And did I really trust those blurbs with their enthusiastic exclamation points on the back covers?

In short, I didn't want to take any chances.

I manoeuvred my way through the crowds, grabbing a couple of titles from each section as I passed. History. Self-help. Health. Cookbooks. I stopped. Set one book down. Replaced it with another. Set that book down. Picked up something else. I went back to the sections I'd already been through. I doubted myself at every turn. I wanted to find the "right" book for everyone on my list. The perfect book. Something that would reflect my thoughtful considerations. But the books in my arms kept piling up, teetering towards a collapse.

I started to feel like I always do when shopping for books.

Completely and utterly overwhelmed.

While that can be a good thing (the diversity of books never ceases to amaze me: the subjects, the covers, the authors), that sense of overwhelming surrender is mostly a negative one. I didn't know where to start. I didn't have a frame of reference. The bottom line? There are just so many books.

I roamed helplessly through the shelves, wondering how other people coped. Unless someone specifically knew what to look for, or asked a staff member for advice, or had an abundance of time to kill in an overcrowded bookstore, where could anyone begin? How would any of these books find their way into a pair of hands?

Ultimately, what most readers need (myself included) is help. Something that puts a book into context. It could be the author's previous works. Or a friend's recommendation. Maybe a positive review or a mention in a blog.

Or, perhaps, inclusion in a nation-wide radio program like Canada Reads.

I remember the pre-Canada Reads years for me. I'd go into the bookstore and occasionally, there would be a lone copy of my book, alongside Jonathan Franzen and Jonathan Safran Foer. (Talk about some serious competition.) And I'd wonder, "How is anyone ever going to find me? What will make my book stand out from the thousands of other titles to choose from?"

(Full confession time: I used to turn my book cover out on the shelf. I'd also search for my book on the in-store computers and then leave my book onscreen. Authors have no shame.)

During Canada Reads, of course, everything changed. I went from single copies to multiple copies. I was plucked out from my Franzen and Foer neighbourhood and given prime placement alongside the other Canada Reads titles for that year.

The Canada Reads logo on my book's cover was the stamp of approval I needed to get noticed. It didn't mean that people would necessarily buy the book or want to read it, but it did give me an edge. My book became one worth considering.

There are some books on this years Canada Reads list that have already enjoyed incredible success. Ami McKay's The Birth House was a national bestseller. Carol Shields' Unless won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. Terry Fallis's The Best Laid Plans won the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour. And yet, I suspect many readers who wouldn't normally pick a graphic novel will fall in love with Essex County. Or discover their inner Olympic athlete in Angie Abdou's The Bone Cage.

The fact of the matter is that platforms like Canada Reads can help navigate a reader through that overwhelming where-the-heck-do-I-start conundrum of the book selection process. These platforms provide reason, context and direction for people who need a little guidance.

Just don't rely on those platforms for all your book-buying decisions. One of the joys of book shopping is a sense of discovery. That night at Chapters, I played it safe with a couple of award-winning fiction titles. But I also took a risk on a couple of unknowns. I'm always up for an adventure. Hopefully, the people on my list are up for one, as well.

Happy shopping.

Image by Ian Muttoo. Licensed via Creative Commons.

Brian Francis

Brian Francis is Canada Reads' resident blogger. His debut novel, Fruit, was the runner-up in the Canada Reads 2009 debates. His second novel, The Natural Order, will be published next year.

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