Nothing is more difficult than trying to find a perfect book for a patron who reads a genre that you do not. Fortunately, there are several tools that one can turn to to find answers (hopefully) to those questions. But, before you turn to the catalog and hope for divine intervention, stop. Listen. Think.
Most patrons describe books they love with what librarians would call appeal terms: sweet romance, great characters, twisty plot, sweeping story (saga), etc. If librarians slow down and listen to the patron in front of them, they will come up with something helpful. If the terms patrons use to describe what they seek are not helpful, ask them what book they last read and liked. Would they like more like that or are they in the mood for something different? If different, how different?
Then, and only then, turn to the catalog or NoveList if your library subscribes, and enter some of those appeal terms, author names, or book titles. In addition to library based subscription services and catalogs, there is much to be found online by Googling “read-alikes for [insert author or book title here].” Many, many public libraries have put their read-alike lists online and they are easily found in this manner.
Other things to think about when finding a good book for a patron: how comfortable are they with gritty writing? Think Dirty Love by Andre Dubus III or NYPD Red by James Patterson. Some patrons are alright with gore and violence, some are not. It is important to ask.
The best way to learn about finding books for patrons is by doing. Nothing else is going to come close. Readers’ Advisory is a people skill. Build a repore with your patrons and it will become easier over time to anticipate what they like. Using lists, bookmarks, databases, and facility with your own catalog will help you tremendously as well. Run circulation reports and see which books are the highest on the list – choose the top 25 or 50 and concentrate on finding read-alikes for those.
One last note, do not wait for patrons to come to you. Passive readers’ advisory also works well. Displays, face-outs in the stacks, and a Staff Picks section can be big draws. Movie tie-ins, NY Times lists and NPR are also great choices for finding out what patrons want and finding a way to give it to them. Have fun with it. Think about how you would recommend a book to a friend and start talking to patrons in the same manner.