First, look at the cover. It might look like a child’s rendition, but this doesn’t mean the content is bad. I’ve seen some pretty bad writing under that pretty wrapper. What the cover ought to tell you is a little about what to expect. Not a faithful rendition of a scene, more a feeling for the tale you are about to immerse yourself in. This doesn’t always happen, and it’s something that can be forgiven, like a chocolate bar in a plain brown wrapper.
Next, check out the blurb, reviews, and other details. Are there typos in the blurb? Oh, so not good. Head on to the next option on the shelf/alsobot/list of titles below. Has the book won an award? Then it depends, was it an award given by fans who enjoy good stories? Then feel free to go on to the next step. Was it an award like the Hugo or Nebula, given out for writing approved message fiction? Step away from the book, and maybe do a little squirt of hand sanitizer, just to be sure.
The book has made it past the first steps of scrutiny, now it’s time for the next step. Look at the publisher? Why would you care who published it? Do you read publishers, or authors? No, wait, there is one exception. A certain flaming rocket logo is a good thing to scan for if you’re perusing a bookstore shelf. Online, the Baen cover art is generally a dead giveaway, being reminiscent of a certain scientist’s shirt.
If you’re shopping online, this is the fun part. Scroll down and look at the reviews. Ideally, you’ll see a mix of good and bad, tilted more to the good side. A book with only 5 star reviews should raise an eyebrow. No readers will all love the same book, and the old saying that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure is based in reality, after all. On the other hand, cogently written and on-point negative reviews should raise the other eyebrow, and have you clicking away from this title. Now me, I’m contrary. I have bought books based on negative reviews. Strawman reviews, attacking the author’s politics or perceived ideology are cues that whatever lies between the covers, it’s most likely not dull.