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Thursday, 6 October 2011

Reading Guides - extra value for your readers, and how to write one

I am nearing the end of proof-reading my new novel, The Gilded Lily, and have decided to make a Reading Guide for it. When I brought out The Lady's Slipper, St Martin's Press asked me to put one together and I really enjoyed it. I thought of it as a bit like the extras on DVD's - the "Making Of" or "Behind the Scenes" that seems to so often accompany a film.

It gave me a chance to tell the reader what inspired the book and to give some historical background that would help with their understanding. St Martin's Press suggested a really good format, so I thought I'd share it with you. If you are about to self-publish your book, why not add a Reading Guide, an added extra for your readers which will illuminate, educate and entertain.

Here are some suggestions for content:

The story behind the story.
What inspired you to write that particular book, and how does it relate to your career/hobbies/skills? This is a story, so take as much care as with your book itself to make it a good story. Perhaps there was an interesting incident whilst you were writing it, or a sudden realisation that made writing the book essential.

The historical or technical background to your book
A chance to help the reader understand the context of your book, when and where it was set. I remember reading Geraldine Brooks's reading guide in Year of Wonders in which she described how living in a small village made her understand the tensions of the closed-off village of Eyam during the plague. I used mine to explain about the tensions of the English Civil War, particularly for US readers who only know about the US Civil War and little about the English Civil War.

A Meet the Author profile
Just what it says, a little bit about yourself, especially anything that relates to your writing. You can say where you live or were brought up, something of your non-writing life too will give the impression of a well-rounded person. A good way is to ask someone else to interview you, the answers will sound more natural and less like you are selling yourself.

Fun Facts
Even in a novel there may be interesting facts to highlight for the reader. For The Lady's Slipper I could have chosen fun facts about shoes, or about Restoration fashion, or even "Gruesome Facts" about the Civil War, but chose instead to appeal to gardeners and flower lovers by giving them snippets about orchids. Here are my examples:

  • The lady’s slipper orchid is also known as American Valerian, Nerve Root, Camel’s Foot, Steeple Cap, Noah’s Ark, Two Lips, and Whippoorwill’s Shoe.
  • One of the most famous, endangered wildflowers in the United States is the pink lady’s slipper,Cypripedium acaule. But it is officially endangered in only two states: Illinois and Tennessee. Georgia lists it as “unusual.” New York lists it as “exploitably vulnerable.” But in the other twelve states it is not listed at all! Even wild flowers like this one can be quite common in many places. The Endangered Species Act required that each state create its own list of plants (and animals) that need protection within its (state) borders. These lists are updated regularly. You can find out which plants are endangered in your state by visiting
  • One of the earliest books about North American plants is from Jacques Philippe Cornut’s Canadensium Plantarum. Published in France in 1635, it features an illustration of a yellow lady slipper. Cornut himself never visited America, though he received imported New World seeds and plants for his botanical garden in Paris. See illustration below.
And yes, a picture is a good idea. Even a black and white picture adds a little bit extra. It could be a photo of you, or something else relating to your book.

Related Reading
This could include books that have directly influenced your own book, or ones on a related theme or from a similar period. It is nice to explain why you chose them or how the writer influenced you. See my reading guide for examples. I really loved this part and found it hard to choose only ten books. But I decided I wanted to pique the readers' interest, not drown them!

Discussion questions
Make sure these are a mixture of general and easy, such as "discuss the Character of X. What does he contribute to the novel?" and harder and more exacting, such as "In what way does the language of the novel reflect X's obsession with food?" That way, your questions will suit a wider range of people and groups. Don't be afraid to highlight your major themes through questions. Sometimes readers read the Reading Guide first, so it can help to point readers to your major concerns, whether your book is deep literary fiction or light entertainment.
If you feel your book has no deep themes in itself, make your questions more about the characters, or ask them to compare the characters' lives with their own.

Your next book
Don't forget to mention your next book somewhere. I nearly did!

Hope you enjoy writing yours as much as I did mine. If you are a writer with another example, please add a link to it in the comments below. Thanks!
You can look at my whole Reading Guide here


  1. Great article! I'm putting the last touches on a novel about the American frontier in the early 19th century, and a reading guide has always been something I've thought about to go with the book. There are so many interesting historical facts and stories that just can't go in the novel. Thanks for the ideas about how to put a guide together.

    One question, though: Was the reading guide part of the book, or was it available only online?

    Greta Marlow

  2. Hi Augustina, when you've done yours you could link to it here!
    Mine was printed in the back of the US version of my book and also available online to read or as a PDF. The UK version of my book had no Reading Guide so I link to this one on my website, or point Reading Groups to it.

    It was a pleasure to write it, hence the idea of writing one for my next book. All the best with yours, sounds like an interesting period!

  3. Thank you for sharing your ideas! I've never even thought about presenting a reading guide before, but I will from now on :-))

  4. Hi Farida, Thanks for stopping by. We are also discussing reading guides here

    Please come and join the discussion and tell us what you would like to see in a guide.

  5. Really helpful, gives me good ideas for my own books.

  6. Deborah, Came across your great article about Reading Guides. Didn't appreciate that they are written by the author themselves so provided useful insight.

    I am a UK based information professional/librarian and I am in the early stages of planning a Reading Group conference in which it would be great to feature the experiences of how reading groups are beneficial for authors.

    See my blog post at:

    I'd be interested to know if you might feasibly be interested in participating in an event about reading groups.



  7. Hi Linda, thanks for stopping by. And Hello Edwina, I went to your website and I'd love to be involved in your project. It sounds great.
    You can contact me direct at

  8. What a great post - you make it sound positively fun to write the reading guide! I love the orchids aspect too.

  9. Thanks Wendy. Nice to have your feedback.