This blog post first appeared at Amazing Stories Amazing Stories Magazine

One of the joys of reading magazines, as opposed to books, is the thrill of discovery. It’s almost the same with anthologies, though I find that for anthologies, my evaluation process runs:

1. Do I recognize the authors?,
2. If so, are these new stories or stories I’m likely to get some other way?,
3. Do I know the editor or publisher?, and
4. Is it good value for money? (lots of stories, cheap).

So, with an anthology, I’m mostly buying new stories from tested authors, which limits the scope for exploration. With magazines, you’re almost guaranteed a brand new story, and there’s a good chance it’s by someone you’ve never heard of. In both cases, hitting the jackpot means finding a great new author to track down and read voraciously.

You could get that, to some extent, in bookstores – back when bookstores were physical places, like WaldenBooks and B. Dalton. My girlfriend always knew that going to one of these was going to be a long experience, as I combed their shelves (meager or bursting) for new finds. And going to a place like Powell’s, in Portland? I’d be there for hours, checking every single book, looking at covers, reading blurbs, opening at random pages (knowing that authors worked hard on the first few, but did it hold up?). It got trickier as my collection grew, and I have re-bought books a couple of times. But my method worked pretty well, and most of the stuff I bought was very good. Every now and then, a real stinker would slip in. I had so much faith in my book picking skills that even as a teenager, I would occasionally re-read one of the bad ones, thinking there must be in it somewhere. Sometimes there was, but usually not. I recall reading one slim volume by an acclaimed author several times, before deciding it really was just a bad book.

There aren’t as many physical bookstores these days, but I still go to discount warehouses, and to Powell’s. Airport bookstores still don’t have much SFF, but I still try, and I still find it difficult to leave without checking whatever SFF shelves they have. I’m a fan of progress, and I think ebooks (despite their weaknesses) are a great thing. But despite their best efforts, online bookstores haven’t solved the browsing problem. I very rarely discover exciting new e-books, and you can’t check random pages anymore, let alone sit and read for a while before deciding to buy.

Online stores have compensated, of course. You can download entire books for free or for cheap. You don’t technically own them, of course, and some of them are in proprietary formats. The free classics are often poor quality. Storing and reading them on the device you choose can be a hassle. But it’s discovery that has really suffered. I don’t spend hours at Amazon, flipping through new titles. I go, I download, I leave.

Goodreads, LibraryThing, and others have tried to fill this gap, and I have picked up some good things that way, including, for example, Romanian works that I might not have found otherwise. But it’s a process that needs work. Some months back, I started hearing about a self-published SF phenomenon. I read reviews, got intrigued, found a free copy, and set in. It was good, but not great, and I started to wonder whether lemmingism had set in.

When a work has few reviews, and they’re all good, I usually suspect that all the author’s friends have given their five stars. When there are lots of reviews, and they’re all good, I suspect a blind mass of faddists. That, ironically, leaves books with mixed reviews as the most reliable. I start with the bad ones, and if they’re not all about poor punctuation and grammar, I go up from there.

Review sites try to take the guesswork out of it for you, but are they likely to help you find those quirky but good books you might have found in a bookstore? I’m not sure.

How do you find new authors?