How to Buy Books for Others

This is an essay by Chris Ciolli.

What we like to read is a very personal matter. Most of us have our preferences, and those preferences are likely to change over time. What we do for work, our hobbies, our personal life, all these things affect what we enjoy reading. That’s why buying books for others can be a complicated endeavor. Because chances are, we haven’t read everything out there, and too often, we don’t know what our friends and family are reading right now, if anything. So what to do? To successfully buy books for others, we need to think about two things before we start a search at Amazon, our local independent bookstore or wherever (I like yard sales and vintage book shops): knowing your books, and knowing your reader.

Know your Books

Having a good general knowledge of current and classic books will greatly help you in your book-gifting endeavor. Being able to distinguish between the main genres of fiction and nonfiction will also help. Do you know the difference between a Regency romance from a sci-fi thriller or personal memoirs from a DIY book? If you find that you’re only familiar with the books and genres you read, you may need to do some research. That’s okay–research is fun for readers like us, right? There’s lots of good information about new releases and classics in user reviews at Goodreads and Amazon and a great list of A-Z general information about book genres at The Guardian.

Being able to recall information about genres and books, and their designated audiences will help you match them to your readers.

Know your Reader

Ever bought a book for someone you didn’t know very well? If you actually care about the person in question enjoying the book it’s trickier than it sounds. Yes, you can buy them a wildly successful bestseller or something by a Pulitzer Prize or Noble Prize winner, but even if a book’s popular that’s no guarantee that the individual receiving the gift will actually read it. Having some general information about the person you’re buying a book for will really improve your chances of he or she eventually processing the words on page.

  • Hobbies and interests can provide important clues. Are you shopping for a DIY-er ? How-to, recipe books and non-fiction are probably ideal. Television habits can also provide clues. Is she addicted to True Blood or Game of Thrones? Is he always online playing World of Warcraft? Sci-fi, fantasy, supernatural fiction and epic historical novels are likely to go over well. Know a travel-junkie? Travel guides, ethnic cookbooks, novels about far away places are all good choices for these folks.
  • Age and current life situation can also be a determining factor. Young adult fiction is popular among adults of all ages, but absolutely ideal for that teenager you want to encourage to read. Personal memoirs are most popular among a more mature public, but if you know someone that’s a big fan of the author, that might not be the case. I’m sure if Justin Bieber penned a tell-all tale of his teenage escapades, my 13-year-old niece would be anxious to read them, even though memoirs aren’t really her speed under normal circumstances. Push friends with kids to read by buying them a picture book to read with little ones. Buy something cool and quirky like Thomas’ Snowsuit or Where the Wild Things Are so that they’ll see, in case they didn’t know already that kid’s books can be a lot of fun. If they have older kids, why not buy them two copies of a fun middle grade or young adult book to read together, like Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief, or introduce them to a classic with J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.
  • Personality is also key. Your little brother, addicted to excitement, is more likely to finish a John Grisham or Michael Crichton thriller than one of Nicolas Spark’s plodding and tragic romances. Friends and family with short attention spans that tend to read in short bursts, (online, newspapers, and magazine pieces), may enjoy big books of essays, facts, or jokes or photo books with limited text, heavy on the photos. One of my favorites for non-reader friends with a quirky sense of humor and a short attention span is anything by Dave Sedaris, although I will admit that my favorite by far is Me Talk Pretty Someday closely followed by When You Are Engulfed in Flames.
  • Personal ideology and political ideas also factor pretty importantly in what people enjoy reading. Your feminist political activist best friend is going to despise a passive romance heroine being saved by a brawny, arrogant prince or pirate. A conservative stay-at home mom may be seriously offended by Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch just as your progressive liberal roommate is probably opposed to reading anything at all by Ayn Rand, but especially The Fountainhead.

Finding the books

Finding books for friends is like combining beloved acquaintances at a dinner party. It requires some forethought and meditation to decide who will get along or mesh well. Sometimes you will fail.

Some books are so amazing, so life-changing for us on a personal level that we feel like everyone should like them. Don’t fall into this trap. While I absolutely love Norah Labiner’s Our Sometime Sister, and Anne Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband, after repeated attempts to share them with a wide variety of readers, I realize they’re not for everyone just because I found them enthralling. Of course I had to talk pretty forcefully with my subconscious to keep it from becoming too irate, as treasured books are like loved ones –you feel the need to defend and protect. How could anyone not adore those amazing words on the page, etc?

For example, Anne Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband is ideal for friends that tend to avoid poetry with the argument of it not having a plot line, because unlike much modern poetry, it tells a story, doesn’t just express a feeling, a sensation or an experience. And Labiner’s use of language in Our Sometime Sister might convince a poetry fanatic to give novels another go. Why does this matter? Because if you want to expose a loved one to something outside their norm, sometimes a cross-genre title or a novel that mixes elements of multiple genres is a painless way to transition would-be readers into something new and different.

Then there are those loved ones that don’t mind a little conflict, or people challenging their ideas—these people are fun to shop for. These are the Republicans that smirk when they unwrap Obama’s biography, and the atheists that roll their eyes and grin when they pull Billy Graham’s latest book out of a gift bag. Just remember, you’re likely to hear them railing about it for a few months or more during and after they finish reading. You’ve given them fodder for the fire, so be ready to debate, or at least smile and nod convincingly.

Buying books for others is far from an exact science. But if you put some thought and research into what and who you’re buying for, books are an amazing gift. I’m a true believer that there are books out there for everyone, you just have to find them. Even non-readers can be sucked in by the right story. So give it your best shot, you may end up with a new reading buddy.


Chris Ciolli: A writer and translator by trade, Chris Ciolli spends her spare minutes reading, traveling and playing with art supplies. Okay, so sometimes she sleeps, eats and slurps coffee, too. Learn more about her at, read about her travels at, or follow her on twitter @ChrisCiolli.

Photo: Some rights reserved by jimmiehomeschoolmom.


  1. Francine Garson @francinegarson

    Great post, Chris! I love to buy books for friends and think very carefully before choosing. There’s a fine line between a tried-and-true selection and picking something that will nudge (but not too forcefully) the recipient in a new direction. I’ve bought and recommended “Turn of Mind” by Alice LaPlante to a number of people this year. It’s so much fun to share an experience, a world…

    Also, it’s a great way to keep our remaining bookstores alive!

  2. Jessica McCann (@JMcCannWriter)

    What a helpful post. I’ll be sharing this with friends. I recently read a great line in The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley. “There is no one so grateful as the man to whom you have given just the book his soul needed and he never knew it.” I thought of it after reading this post.

    Buying (and receiving) books as gifts is one of my favorite things. It is important to me that the receiver will read and enjoy the book, and maybe even be inspired to share it or another book with someone else. Another great way to help make sure you are buying the right book for the right person is to do a little research of them online. Have they posted reviews on Amazon, Goodreads or other sites that sell or champion books? What about comments about books or authors on their Facebook page or other social media? These things can give you clues about what someone enjoys reading or might be open to reading even if it’s outside of his or her reading comfort zone.

  3. Amarie Fox

    Sadly, I don’t have any readers in my immediate family. However, I have a few friends and they are big readers, like I am, so usually throughout the year they drop hints about what sort of books they’d like to read, but haven’t got around to buying. I think you really just need to pay attention, honestly, in order to give the right book – so you’re right on with this post, Chris.

    As always, great post.

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