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I often look for books by topic. For example, recently I wanted to find books about princesses reclaiming their throne, and I got recommended a few. I googled each title, read the summary, if I could find one, read the reviews on Amazon, even read the books' beginnings in Amazon's preview feature. And still, despite 4 1/2 stars, raving reader reviews, and a great beginning, many of the books were so annoyingly bad that I could barely keep reading them.

Many had characters that acted in stupid and irritating ways, protagonists were permanent saved by random good luck or deae ex machina, there were contradictions and holes in the plot, and so on. I never encounter any of these problems in the books I buy in book stores or from bestseller lists or from literary award lists, or at least not to such an extent, only when I buy books I get recommended on the internet.

So what can I do to separate the wheat from the chaff, if the books haven't been preselected for me by bookstore owners, award juries, or professional reviewers?

In the past two years I mostly read books recommended on the internet, and almost all of them were a huge disappointment.

closed as primarily opinion-based by muru, Chenmunka, Christophe Strobbe, Rand al'Thor, Fabjaja Nov 20 '18 at 12:23

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • I'm giving this the "publishing" tag as I couldn't find a tag that fits this question. – user5350 Nov 17 '18 at 23:44
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    I suspect that people have become very good at gaming the reviews on Amazon. Look at reviews on three or four sites before deciding which books to buy. – Peter Shor Nov 18 '18 at 3:02
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    Have you been trying recently published books, or older classics? If a book has withstood the test of time and is still recommended rather than passing into obscurity, that's probably a sign it's worth reading. – Rand al'Thor Nov 18 '18 at 5:47
  • @Randal'Thor I've been specifically looking for recent books. – user5350 Nov 18 '18 at 8:16
  • Tbh the poor qualities you described are pretty much exactly what I’d expect from books about princesses reclaiming thrones. Unless you are looking for actual historical examples that have been fictionalised you are likely to encounter a lot of material written and self-published by enthusiastic amateurs which is heavily derivative of ‘Disney-fied’ fairy/folk tales and of works by other enthusiastic, derivative amateurs. – Spagirl Nov 18 '18 at 10:54
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To be honest, if there isn't some sort of gatekeeper - bookstore owner, professional reviewer, etc., then the pool of books you're looking at is always going to contain books of more variable quality than those that have passed through some sort of gate.

One thing you can do is look for other types of hurdles that generally mean books on the other side are of higher overall quality, for instance, is it an older book that's still being published?, or is it translated from another language? In each case, the book's been popular enough to be published at least twice, and got through the "publishing" gate twice.

Speaking of which - "who published the book?" is often a good question to ask. Judging books by their covers gets a lot of flak (idiomatically, at least), but the cover tells you the author and the publisher, both of which are very useful tools. If it's an author you have already read and enjoyed, you're in good hands. If it's a publisher who is known for publishing high-quality books in the genre you're interested in reading, that's also a good sign.

Aside from sticking to publishers and authors you trust, you can also look up books your favorite authors are recommending. If there's a blurb on the back of the book by an author whose own work you like or who is generally well regarded, that's potentially a good sign.

With regard to reviewers, there are amateur reviewers out there as well as professional ones. I'm not talking about reviews on Amazon itself. I'm talking about blogs where someone reviews all their favorite fantasy or sci-fi or mystery or romance books. There are tons of them out there. Maybe look up some books you read recently and actually liked, and see who else out there in the world also liked those books. You may have just found a reviewer whose tastes match yours. That's an excellent resource to have.

Realistically the search will probably go the other way: from book to reviewer, rather than from reviewer to book. When you look up a book's reviews and you find a reviewer who gives a book you're thinking about buying a good review, maybe quickly check what other books that reviewer thought were good. If your most hated book of 2018 is on their "must read" list, maybe that reviewer's taste doesn't match yours and you should give this book a miss.

Admittedly, a lot of these recommendations work better if you're starting with a broader category, like "epic fantasy" or "police procedural" than something uber-specific like "books with specific plot elements x, y, and z" but you can still look up who the publisher is and whether the book has any independent reviews outside of sites specifically trying to sell you the book. You can still see if the people who wrote the blurbs on the dust jacket are people whose taste you trust. There are also a lot of online communities out there where "can you recommend a good book where [x] happens?" is a welcome question (just not Stack Exchange).

There's also just reading the book. Not all of it, obviously, but even if you're buying it online, you can often read an extract. This won't tell you if the protagonist does something really annoying on page 200, but it can tell you if you at least like the author's writing style.

Finally, you could actually go to a bookstore instead of getting books online. The problem you're running into is one that you've already solved, as you stated, "I never encounter any of these problems in the books I buy in book stores." In fact, there's another place you can go that's even better than a bookstore in my opinion - a library. If you're lucky enough to have a good library network wherever in the world you're located, then this is an excellent resource (often it's even an excellent resource of ebooks that you can download from home and which return themselves automatically so they won't accrue any fines). If you haven't paid for a book, it's a lot easier to just stop reading it when it annoys you, and then you won't have wasted your money or as much of your time. (and librarians are also excellent resources for book recommendations.)

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Surely the answer depends on why you read, and what you value in what you read. Maybe you should, after reading a book you enjoyed (or profited from, or whatever), try to read other books by the same author, instead of other books with similar plot elements. Or books by friends of that author, or books often compared to the one you enjoyed.

One recommendation you can generally trust is from a positive character in a book you enjoyed. If (say) you read and enjoyed a kids book by Edward Eager, and a character you admire mentions the "Bastable books", you could do worse than reading them. (If you are reading Shelley's Frankenstein you will find Milton, Plutarch and Goethe recommended this way, but you might not trust the recommender.)