Can book groups find useful material on the websites of publishers and booksellers? It’s the essential modern dilemma: There’s good information to be mined, but to get it, you must run the gauntlet of sales come-ons, pop-up ads, and praise that borders on pandering. Is it worth the effort? The answer is yes, but focus on finding starting points for conversation: good questions, not necessarily good answers.
If the publisher’s website isn’t listed in the book’s front or back matter, a quick web search will provide the link. Publishers are acutely aware of the boost that book groups give sales, and in recent years have cultivated this market, adding author information, discussion questions, and other goodies to their web sites. If they don’t have materials for a title that your group wants to read, by all means ask. Your timely query might goad them into posting more information or even putting you in touch with the author.
Just remember that publishers and booksellers are trying to sell the book. Materials they post can make every work sound like high art. Even better-than-average books can pale in comparison to the extravagant praise showered on them. This doesn’t mean you can’t use the material, just take it with a grain of salt.
The same is true of the consumer reviews posted on bookseller sites like Amazon. They’re full of interesting arguments, clever insights, and intriguing questions. They’re also bulging with bluster, riddled with misreadings, booby-trapped with misquoted content, and sometimes just plain illiterate.
Use extreme points of view to get your group a little riled up. Pick publicity material or a review that’s extreme in its praise and read it aloud. Follow that immediately with a review that’s harshly negative. It’s a great way to start conversation, and may have the added benefit of getting some of your more extreme members to moderate or at least fine tune their own critique.
Another interesting way to use consumer reviews is to ask what kind of reader would post a particular review. This is a good way to get your group to consider how readers are variously effected, taking different messages and ideas from the same work. It encourages empathy and self-evaluation, qualities that will improve the discourse of your group.
I’ll finish this series on researching books next week, with a look at associated content that can enhance discussion.