Booking it

I just opened an e-mail from a university press — a nicely designed, eye catching e-mail — glanced at it, and then deleted it. As I did, it occurred to me that I get those sorts of e-mail all the time, and I almost never buy a book based on them. At least, I can’t recall a time I have. How do I decide what books to buy?

As a legal academic, I buy quite a few books. I haven’t counted, but I’m pretty sure it’s between 50 and 75 books in a year, maybe a few more. I buy books for myself personally; I buy books for my office; I send suggestions to the library (and school norms being what they are, a library suggestion is the functional equivalent of ordering a book and putting it on my office shelf, except that it has a call number on the spine).

I get my information about books from a number of sources. I hear about books from friends. I read book reviews in a number of places: The New York Times regularly; the Washington Post and New Republic with some frequency; and sometimes the Wall Street Journal, The Nation, the Weekly Standard or National Review. I read book reviews in law journals — I skim the reviews in the Co-Op participating journals, for instance, and I’ll look at others as well. I read a number of law blogs — Co-Op of course, and also sites like Prawfs, Volokh, Leiter, and the Glom; I also subscribe to e-mail listservs like AALS-Min. I visit the booths and pick up the order forms from the major publishers at AALS. And of course I’m inundated with ads from all directions — lots of direct mail and e-mail. In all of these aspects, I believe that I’m pretty normal for a legal academic.

In thinking about my book buying patterns, a few basic ideas come out.

I buy new books (up to 2-3 years old) based on reviews. This isn’t always the reason, but it easily accounts for over half of my new book buying. The reviews that I rely on come from a number of sources. Law review book reviews are surprisingly underrepresented. I’m not sure if this is because of the time delay in law review publishing, or the quirks of my own reading and habits. But for my own purchases, sources like the New York Times or New Republic or law blogs, tend to be much more of a driver. These tell me what is coming out right now, and provide short commentary. I can’t count how many books I’ve bought through these channels.

Other new book purchases are based on eclectic factors. I’ll buy some books because they’re written by friends or colleagues (e.g., I don’t write in privacy law, but I bought both of Dan’s books). I buy based on word of mouth — some friends are very good at recommending books. I buy some books just because I’m on Amazon or at B&N and they catch my eye. That’s not a large number, but I’ve definitely bought a few off of Amazon’s “recommended” list (i.e. “you’re purchasing Solove right now; wouldn’t you like Zittrain too?”). I’ve bought books because I needed airplane reading, though that has dropped precipitously now that I have a Kindle. I also always hit the book booths at AALS and pick up the order sheets, and look them over on the airplane back. So I don’t usually buy at the booths, but the booths still result in several book orders each year. I get stacks of direct mail, and those usually don’t move me; occasionally I’ll order based on someone’s postcard, usually a quirky book that wasn’t on my radar screen before.

I buy older books (older than 2-3 years old) when I see them cited in a law article; or less frequently, when I see them cited in a news article. I don’t generally see reviews of these, but I do look down at a footnote and think, hmm, I don’t have that book and I ought to get it. This tends to drive my purchases of older books. One interesting wrinkle is that law journal book reviews probably drive me to buy more older books than new. I tend to notice the new books based on NYT. But I’ll be researching in Westlaw for some topic and hit a ten-year-old book review, and think, hmm, that book sounds interesting.

That’s how I buy books. How do you buy books? What sources do you go to (or not go to)?

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3 Responses

  1. Peter McCormick says:

    Although I am almost embarrassed to admit it, I buy some of my books because Amazon tells me to. I have purchased enough of my discipline-related books through Amazon that their algorithms have me figured pretty well, and they have drawn my attention to a number of books, some of which I can’t imagine coming across in any other way. (They also recommend a bunch of books that I find totally irrelevant, so it isn’t THAT good an algorithm, but I do find their “your recommendations” lists, and their occasional email out, surprisingly useful.)

    And the bookrooms at the major conferences; I always leave extra room in the suitcase.

  2. A.J. Sutter says:

    Law practice: mainly ads from publishers like BNA, PLI, Aspen, etc. Social science, including legal theory/history: (1) cites in articles or other books, (2) browsing new releases in a bookstore (though the options for this in Tokyo are growing more limited), (3) Amazon recommendations, often with some due diligence afterward, (4) reviews or especially author interviews in overseas periodicals (esp. Nouvel Observateur, Le Monde Diplomatique), and, less than in the past, reviews in TNR. Science & technology: ads, and secondarily reviews, in professional journals (reviews often lag a couple of years after a book’s release).

    And for all categories of books: TLS (which seems to be AOL-ing its original name, The Times Literary Supplement). This is a delight to read anyway. Reviews are shorter and much less self-indulgent than in NYRB, the range of subjects far vaster, the style both more scholarly and, at times, snarkier, and it comes weekly. These days most fiction and history I buy is because of TLS reviews. In recent years they’ve also been reviewing law books like Zittrain, Dan Solove and others. I do love the university press ads in NYRB, though. NYT: fuhgeddaboudit.

  3. Civ Pro King says: