Just finished reading Don Winslow’s new crime thriller, City on Fire, which I loved. Five stars. But as I wrote up my Amazon review (as we should all do 🙂 ), I found myself wondering how I’d come to pick Winslow’s book in the first place.  I’d never read any of his other books. Although he’s well-known, I hadn’t heard of him. I mapped out seven steps on my book-picking journey (steps that might be of interest to all authors who are trying to lure readers to their books.)

How to pick a book. Source: cottonbro

1. Book-picking and the title

Although I had never heard of this particular book, there are a lot of City on Fire titles in my consciousness. An earlier novel, with the same name, was published in 2015 and earned its debut author a $2 million dollar advance. (I can’t remember my name half the time, but details like that stick in my head.) There have also been movies with that title, and also a scent. So the idea of a novel titled City on Fire was frothing around in my mind, and it made it easier for me to remember.

2. The bookstore

I happened to be at a party at The Mysterious Bookshop (celebrating the publication of an anthology in which I had a story, Crime Hits Home.) There was a pile of Winslow’s books on one of the tables, and I began to drift toward thinking, oh. There’s that book by the guy who had the $2 million advance and some random person came up to me and said, “It’s not that guy. It’s someone else, and it’s really good.” So that joined the froth in my mind.

3. The epigraph

Then I opened the book and saw the epigraph, which is a quote from The Iliad. Take your meal now, we prepare for combat. I have mixed feelings about epigraphs. Sometimes they’re the best-written part of the book, which is worrisome. Other times they’re pretentious. I felt like Winslow’s quote added some gravitas to a crime story set in Providence, and so that drew me in.

4. Book-picking and the Cover

I liked it. There was something stark about it that made me think the author didn’t need to do anything fancy to draw me into the book. It had authority. Also, his name is so big on the cover that I figured I should know who he was.

City on Fire

5. Word of Mouth

I was chatting with someone knowledgeable and we were talking about good books we’d read and he mentioned this one and said it was great. It had already been in my mind, so I was more receptive.

6. Setting

The book is set in Providence, Rhode Island and starts out at on the beach and that was good enough for me.

7. Readiness

It happened that I had just finished listening to a book on Audible. (Tana French, The Searcher.) I had that panicky feeling I get when I finish up a good book and I’m not sure what my next good book’s going to be.  Then, hey presto, City on Fire pops up as a recommendation from Audible. And I had a credit!

Fellow readers and writers, that’s a lot of work that Don Winslow had to go through to get me to pick his book, but I’m so glad he did. Now I’ve preordered the sequel. 🙂 Do you have any book-picking observations of your own? Join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

Susan Breen is the author of the Maggie Dove mystery series. Her stories have been published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. The MWA anthology, Crime Hits Home, in which she has a story, just won an Anthony Award. She teaches novel-writing at Gotham Writers and is on the staff of the New York Write to Pitch Conference.


  1. Don Winslow is on my TBR pile, which is one step short of being read, one step ahead of being on my TBR list. How I decide to buy a book I know I won’t read for a while is a similar process. Susan, you’ve persuaded me to advance it to my lap.
    I’d also add that Don Winslow is a generous activist whom I admire even without reading his books.

  2. Well, I read the “other” one and I have thoughts on it… Don Winslow has been coming up in my feeds a lot lately, not least because he championed my new favorite author, Adrian McKinty. I will be checking him out now!

  3. If I’m in a bookstore and it’s an author I’m not familiar with, the title and cover grab my attention first. Then I flip to the back cover. If I’m still interested, I’ll read the inside jacket. Then I’ll decide.

    If it’s online and it’s an author I’m not familiar with, again title and cover pull in my attention. Then it depends on the blurbs (who blurbed them), number of reviews, whether the newspaper reviews read like the publicist wrote them or the reviewer actually read the book, past books. I’m less likely to buy a book when the professional reviews all read the same. It seems like product placing instead of an honest review.

  4. Susan, I’ve never read Don Winslow either but now I’ll check him out. And unlike your careful process, this, recommendations by people I know, is exactly how I find many of the books I read.

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