Sometimes you find an author where you're willing to buy whatever they put out because they've won your trust, and you like their style of storytelling enough that there's really no decision to make. The tricky part is finding them in the first place.
Let's see if we can fix that. Here are some things you can try if you'd like to broaden your bookshelf and find some stories worth remembering.
1. Word of Mouth
We'll start easy. Your friends tend to share something in common with you, so they can be a great source of recommendations. Ask what they're reading and what they think about it. If your friends don't read much, you have a ready-made Christmas and Birthday list by giving them your favorites to help them along their way.
I have some gaming group friends I can rely on because we share a lot of tastes in our reading. The funny part is that in this gaming group, four are now published authors. I chalk that up to most of us having a love of reading to begin with. One friend has a library with well over 5000 books, and mine probably tops 2000.
Just last week a neighbor told me he was interested in finding something interesting to read. I dug through my shelves and pulled out David Brin's The Practice Effect which tickled his love of both fantasy and science fiction. It's an older book (1984), but now my friend has seen the result of an engineer writing a hard science fiction story with a heavy fantasy influence. I know my friend well enough that I could predict the result of loaning it to him.
There's no better way to get a survey of several authors than reading an anthology. Pick a theme, and you can probably find a related collection. I've been in anthologies tied to themes of liberty, steampunk, endings, military SF, a shared SF universe, fairy tales, folk stories, horror, and several others. With between eight and twenty (or more) authors in a collection, that's a lot of opportunity to find something you like. I've got a story in The Hundred Worlds from Cannon Publishing, and another story coming out in an upcoming Cannon Publishing mech collection. Both are a great choice if you like military science fiction, and they will each introduce you to some authors you've probably never read before.
Now, you might not like everything in any given collection. Odds are good that some of the stories won't grab you, and that's okay. You're hunting for treasure, and sometimes you have to search a bit to find the right X on the map.
You can even stack the odds in your favor by picking an anthology with an author you already know, then searching though the rest. Authors in a single collection sometimes have shared tastes, so you've got some pretty good odds going for you as you scan the virtual horizon in 6000-to-8000-word bursts rather than having to invest in an entire novel to see if you like an author.
3. Top Seller lists
I grabbed a screen shot from Amazon back in November. On one screen I saw The Hundred Worlds, a collection of Mormon Steampunk with one of my stories, and a book containing work by at least one other Hundred Worlds contributor (Jon Del Arroz), all on the same list. Top selling lists can steer you to what other people like, but you shouldn't limit yourself to this technique since you might miss out on some great but lesser-known stories and authors.
One challenge of the top seller lists is Amazon won't filter based on your tastes. Just in this screen shot the variety is pretty wide, and not all collections will match your taste. You'll still have to do your own research.
4. Conventions and book signings
A cool advantage of conventions and book signings is that you often have a chance to visit with the author and get a feel for their style and enthusiasm, and for the topics they like the best. For instance I like to write stories of ordinary people stepping up to do extraordinary things, and I like to talk to people about how that makes my books approachable.
People go to signings because there's something different about having a book signed by the author. Most of the time you can ask to have the inscription personalized or to just have it signed. it's not likely to increase the value of the book, but it's great for bragging rights. I had Brandon Sanderson sign "Way of Kings" for me a year and a half ago, and had Jim Butcher sign the anthology "The Monster Hunter Files" last year. See what I did there? That's an anthology with some known authors where I can search for new favorites.
Most authors are quite approachable at events, and if there's not a line waiting they can take time to chat. One warning: It's not cool to monopolize their time to tell them all about the book you want to write, itemizing your world's entire history one week at a time. Don't be that fan.
This year I will be at about a dozen events selling books. If you're in or near Utah, stop by FanX (spring or fall). If you're a writer, stop by the League of Utah Writers conferences, Fyrecon, or LTUE. If you're headed to any of the other big conventions like San Diego Comic-Con, Dragon Con (home of the Dragon Awards!), LibertyCon, or something similar, keep an eye out. You just might spot some Cannon Publishing authors, or some other potential favorites to rub elbows with.
John M. Olsen edits and writes speculative fiction across multiple genres, and loves stories about ordinary people stepping up to do extraordinary things. He hopes to entertain and inspire others with his award-winning stories as he passes his passion on to the next generation of avid readers.
As the President-Elect of the League of Utah Writers, he encourages others at every opportunity and hopes to see his local community produce many more great authors.
He loves to create and fix things, whether editing or writing novels or short stories or working in his secret lair equipped with dangerous power tools. In all cases, he applies engineering principles and processes to the task at hand, often in unpredictable ways. He usually prefers "Renaissance Man" to "Mad Scientist" as a goal and aesthetic.
He lives in Utah with his lovely wife and a variable number of mostly grown children and a constantly changing subset of extended family.
Check out his ramblings on his blog. Safety goggles are optional but recommended.