Do you remember a book you really disliked? Hated, even? 

I read Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native in high school, and years later, I still remember the impression it made on me, namely that it was horrifically boring, with too many descriptions of the heath. The idyllic English countryside, with its strong sense of place, never became a common setting for future pleasure reading. I can’t say for sure if I have Hardy to blame, but he certainly didn’t help. 

Like me, most readers can comfortably rattle off books they disliked, just as easily as they can name ones they loved. And we do tend to ask readers about what they like first. We regularly ask readers to tell us more about the last book they could not put down or to provide a list of their all-time favorites. We might focus on what aspects of a story — or story elements — really resonate, or what types of stories they truly enjoy. Most of the time this can be a winning strategy: Readers know what they like, even if they might use slightly different language than RA experts to express their preferences.  

However, what we should do just as much is ask about the books that simply failed to connect: What books did you truly despise? What books did you give up on? Are there any genres you can’t stand? Answers to these questions can guide conversations toward what aspects of a story might repel a reader, instead of drawing them in. 

You can even use dislikes as a starting point. This strategy can work especially well for reluctant readers, who might appreciate having a co-conspirator to dish on a title neither enjoyed. Focusing on negative emotions might seem counterintuitive, but it can be helpful to establish common ground: everyone has a book they love to hate. It’s important to assume that if there is a perfect book out there for everyone, there are bound to be some less-than-perfect books out there, too.  

These days, I despise novels set during World War II, no matter how character-driven. I don’t understand why the period is still so alluring for authors (and the Pulitzer Prize Board, to boot).  

Luckily, if you too feel that WWII has been done already, you can use NoveList to explicitly exclude the time period from your search results. We’ve added the many time periods we use to describe books to our help page, which should help you craft the perfect search. Feel free to slap a NOT SW "Second World War era (1939-1945)" field code search onto whatever you’re looking for in NoveList, and you’re set. Just like that — no more WWII books! 

We’ve also made it easy to select a time period from the left-hand Refine Results menu after executing a search. If you find your search results contain one too many titles from a time period that doesn’t appeal, click the Time Period limiter to view your options, and click More to expand your selection to even more available time periods. 

While I’m drawn to the compelling writing style and character-driven storyline of Stephen King’s It, the creepy and menacing tone, clowns, and violence all make this title a no-go for me. If I’m experiencing a bit of decision fatigue when I’m looking for my next read, my own personal list of appeals and “anti-appeals” can help me navigate to the more promising candidate.  

Here are a few search strategies for avoiding stuff in books that you and your readers just don’t like. Add these to your current search string in NoveList, and see all of the books you wouldn’t like anyway disappear from your results: 

  • When chivalry and castles are too retrograde: NOT SW Medieval period (476-1492) 
  • When the period dialogue from Masterpiece Theater gets you down: Honestly, just stick to searches with SW 20th Century OR SW 21st Century 
  • When you just don’t want a slow-paced book: NOT PC Relaxed pace 
  • When you never want to meet another Pennywise again: NOT (DE "Horror" AND DE "Clowns") 
  • When you would prefer your books to be Gentle Reads, free of violence, sex, or harsh language: GN Gentle Reads 
  • When you are open to books that possibly include violence, sex, or harsh language: NOT GN Gentle Reads 
  • When chariots are indicative of a much larger problem: NOT (SW Bronze and Iron Ages (3500-27 BCE) OR SW Ancient Egypt (3100 BCE-640 CE) OR SW Ancient Greece (800 BCE-640 CE)) 

As both a reader and librarian, I know it’s incredibly helpful to focus on what resonates with readers when you do Readers Advisory. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to find a great recommendation for a reader when you’ve not taken the time to understand what they like. That said, if you’re working with a reader like me, it can be dangerous to ignore the very real anti-appeals and turn-offs that might sink an otherwise solid recommendation.

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Want to learn more about how NoveList Plus can help you help your readers find the right reads (and avoid the wrong ones)?

Sam Stover is a Product Manager at NoveList. He is currently reading The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin.