I've been doing some freelance work for a certain Michigan-based publishing company. Basically, they have a database that suggests read-alikes and are branching out from fiction to also include non-fiction. I spend my free time browsing library collections, social reading/book web sites, and online book reviews to create a list of interesting books with five read-alikes for each. The reason I'm blogging about this little project is because it's been really educational, and as it turns out, has improved my day job skills too!
First of all, the company lets me choose what non-fiction subject I want to focus on. I'm currently working on a list of 100 history titles. I don't have a background in history, but I am interested in the subject. I'm not tied to any particular time or event in history - just good books about something historical. I've come across some really interesting books that I probably wouldn't have known about otherwise.
Second, it's easy enough to list 100 books about history, but to also suggest five read-alikes for each is not always so easy. Subjects like the Crimean War, or exploration of the Northwest Passage, don't always have five related books that I necessarily want to recommend. Add to that the rule that each book I list should be within 3-5 years old and I've got a challenge. How many books about the Crimean War were published in the last five years? How many of those are worth recommending? How many of those are of interest to lay people and not just history scholars? Luckily, the subject of history allows me to slide on that 3-5 year rule a little more than more time-sensitive subjects would. I still try to keep within 7-10 years, though.
Third, I have learned a bit about cataloging and subject headings through this work. When I get stuck looking for read-alikes, I go into the WorldCat database and look up the main title I chose. Then I look at the descriptors listed in its record. Sometimes they are surprising and give me search terms I hadn't thought of. Then I have a new angle to look under for more books. I haven't read the vast majority of the books I'm recommending, so I don't always know what the tone of the writing is like or the secondary themes and subjects. I like to put my hands on the physical books where possible to look at them a little closer, but with 100 titles and 5 read-alikes for each, that just isn't possible.
I've also become better at seeing how books are related. Sometimes I suggest a read-alike that is not on the exact subject of the main title, but which is written in the same style. I can see talking to real patrons about how they might enjoy one book because it has similar characters, evokes similar emotions, or happened in the same time span as another book. Events on different continents during the same point in history make for interesting companion reads. If you can make any connection at all, they are that much more interesting!
All this translates to reader advisory for fiction, too. I'm learning to talk about books in different ways and make them sound enticing to would-be readers.