• Books as Gifts vs. Bookstore Gift Cards

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in ABCs of Writing     Comments 21 comments

    I was on a bus back from Boston Monday — returning home after a weekend full of recording a new books podcast; more on that later! — and in front of me was a college-aged couple talking about shopping for gifts.

    “Like, don’t get me a video game,” the guy said. “Get me a gift card to my video game store. Unless I ask for a specific game, which I won’t.”

    His companion agreed, sharing an anecdote about how her dad tried to buy her some comic books and they were all wrong. She appreciated the thought, she said, but what her dad actually did was create unnecessary work for her.

    I get it. We know what we want better than anyone else ever could, and gift cards are a nod to that. They’re also much more convenient for the giver — too convenient, even — and super impersonal.

    Me being me I started thinking about gift cards in relation to books, and whether I love ’em or hate ’em, or if I somewhere-in-between ’em. 

    For my Christmas sibling swap last year, I drew the name of my sister’s boyfriend, and he drew mine. I asked for a gift card to my favorite neighborhood bookstore. I never got a list from him, but my sister gave me some ideas, and among those ideas were particular genres of books, including Vietnam War history and the work of a specific set of celebrity chefs. (This is neither here nor there, but I think the plural of chef should be chevs.)

    I had recently read Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir, in which she touts a Vietnam War journalist’s memoir called Dispatches. So I bought a copy for him, as well as a cookbook by one of his favorite chevs, Alton Brown.

    He got me the bookstore gift card.

    When he opened Dispatches, suddenly I felt weird and self-conscious for having gotten him a book rather than a card that allowed him to choose his own books.

    Then I felt ridiculous for thinking that. Isn’t it more thoughtful to choose a book for someone than to give him or her a thing that says, in essence, “Here, go do your own shopping and leave me out of it”?

    Then I tried to imagine how I’d feel if he had given me a specific book rather than the gift card. My response probably would’ve been, “Oh.”

    So then I felt like a pompous ass, like I was saying, internally at least, “I don’t trust you, lay person, to purchase for me a suitable book, but I, being in the industry, know exactly what book you should be reading.”

    This is a weird and overlong anecdote and I’m going to stop it now. I guess my point is, typically I prefer to choose my own books, and so a gift card is better for that purpose. But I miss the personal touch of being given a specific book that a specific person chose specifically because he or she thought it might please specifically me.

    For example, the time Justine bought me a signed copy of one of my favorite novels. I remember few gifts more fondly.

    I’m wondering how you feel about gift cards, specifically in relation to books.

    To make it simple: 

    Would you rather have someone give you a book, or a gift card to a bookstore?

    Would you rather give someone a book, or a gift card to a bookstore?

    Let us know below.


    WriteByNight co-founder David Duhr is copy editor and fiction editor at the Texas Observer and has written about books for the Dallas Morning News, the Iowa Review, Electric Literature, Publishing Perspectives, and others.
    WriteByNight is a writers’ service dedicated to helping you achieve your creative potential and literary goals. We work with writers of all experience levels working in all genres, nationwide and worldwide. If you have a writing project that you’d like help with or an idea to get off the ground, check out our coaching, editing, and publication services


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    Kimberly Glunz

    Like you, David, in concept I would prefer to receive a gift. In actuality, I wouuldn’t trust anybody I know to buy me a good book and, thus, would wish for a gift card. But I’m a conflicted old-fashioned gal who also, in theory, would rather have to run home and wait on a phone call. In reality, I bless God for my cell phone!


    Here’s my 2 cents:

    I think the givers intention has more to do with the answer to this question than anything.

    As trite as this sounds,I think it rings true here: We can’t control what others think of anything we do. We can only control what we think about what we do. Some of the best books I have received have been unexpected gifts from thoughtful family and friends. Of course, choosing a good read can be fun too!

    Barbara A Mealer

    Considering I read almost anything, just give me the book so I don’t have to travel 50 miles to use the gift card. I also love that they took the time to pick out a book they think I would enjoy. Anyone who knows me well, has a good idea of the types of books I won’t read, so I’m easy when it comes to reading material. A good sci-fi (the last JD Robb would work), a decent romance book, a thriller or mystery, a good historical romance, a fantasy, well you get the idea. As long as it is… Read more »

    Jerry Schwartz

    I vote for the gift card. Write a nice note to go with it. I doubt there are any people, even my wife, who would be able to choose a book for me. I would never (again) try to choose a book for her unless it were something of a gag gift. She worked in the court system, so I did have success with “The Case of the Piglet’s Paternity: Trials From the New Haven Colony, 1639-1663.” She knew the author, so that helped. She’s a big Stephen King fan, so she’d probable enjoy getting a signed copy of one… Read more »

    david lemke

    back when I was a kid my uncle Fred gave me Ray Bradbury’s “Martian Chronicles”. Best gift ever and opened up a whole new world for me. Sometime this can be the way to go. Other times a gift card for books works better. I have gotten books I will never read and others I’m putting off until somewhen.

    Elissa Malcohn

    Gift card. Between my presbyopia and my carpal tunnel syndrome (made worse by anti-cancer meds), I have switched almost exclusively from hardcopy to ebooks. Gift cards provide the flexibility for me to choose not only what to read, but how to read it. Your question’s timing is perfect because just hours ago I sent an eGift card to a prison librarian who runs a terrific reading program in California. Jameson Rohrer has been soliciting book donations on social media. You can get his contact info and see his request on his Twitter account @Librarytech87. He recently did a terrific interview… Read more »


    It depends on who’s giving the gift. Justine knows you better than anyone, and it was a book you already liked. I would love to have a signed copy of one of my favorites. A fine present! I suppose I’d take the gift card, which is three gifts in one. (I enjoy sifting through all the books on the shelves. I can’t go into those stores without finding one I love in every section.) The first gift is the thrill of the hunt, and the book is the second gift. The third gift is not having to fake loving a… Read more »


    A good friend lent me a really bad book. I tried but couldn’t finish it. She kept asking me how I liked it because she loves the series and all I could say was that I liked another book in the same genre better. She took it personally.

    If I was given a book as a gift, I would try to read it. They spent the money and thought of me. I do not feel obligated to keep reading if it’s crappy. It’s not their fault.


    Gift card, all the way. If I want a book as a gift I’ll ask for it. I don’t mind the impersonality. There are plenty of opportunities to give personal gifts!

    Charity Kountz

    I like to receive and give gift cards. Part of the fun for me of a book is the discovery and choosing of it. I think a gift card says, “Hey, I want you to get exactly what you want, on me.” If that makes you uncomfortable, a good.compromise might be to take a friend to a bookstore with you and maybe out to lunch or coffee and purchase the book of their choice. Our consumerist society has forgotten what it means to DO something nice for another person. The quality of time spent together making that memory is what… Read more »

    Kenneth Harris

    Gift card to bookstore by a mile. Let the recipient enjoy the heady sensation of cruising the highbrow section; contemplating some Dostoyevsky doorstop in hopes of being perceived as a man of culture and erudition before heading to checkout with P.G. Wodehouse anthology in hand. Later in the recliner, snifter of Yellow Tale in hand, he will think warmly of you as a man of vision and foresight.
    A “capital chap” as Plummy might say.

    Would love your thoughts, please comment.x