No, you can’t give your mother “The Kite Runner” again.
Nothing makes us realize how little we know our friends and relatives like standing in front of the New Fiction table at Barnes & Noble. The spirit is willing, but the selection is vast.
What publishers call “discoverability” is the great challenge of bookselling: How to help readers find books they’ll enjoy in a marketplace that pumps out a bewildering 300,000 new titles a year.
Indie bookstores have long tried to compete on the quality of their hand-selling, matching your particular interests with just the right book. Meanwhile, Amazon’s supercomputers run through complex algorithms to let you know that “customers who bought this item also bought. . . .” (Amazon CEO Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
But now comes something a little different: a penguin inspired by a turkey.
This week, the New York publisher Penguin Random House unveiled the Penguin Hotline for anyone trying to find the perfect books for the folks on their gift list.
First step: Fill out a short form online:
• Age of the person you’re shopping for?
• In general, do you know what this person likes to read? Any favorite books, writers or magazines?
• Any other good clues? Hobbies, interests, favorite radio, TV, or other passions?
That’s it. Within a day or two, a well-read member of the Penguin staff will e-mail you a few personalized book recommendations, along with directions to a bookstore near you.
The new program is the brainchild of Penguin President Madeline McIntosh, who was weary of “holiday ads that are just shelves full of books with holiday doodads attached to them that people pay no attention to.”
She remembered the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line. For more than three decades, the meat company has been answering calls — and lately tweets and e-mails — from amateur cooks who need advice about their turkeys. Why not bring that same kind of service to book selection questions? (This Franzen novel seems undercooked in the middle — is it safe to keep reading?)
Wondering whether there’d be any interest in such a program for books, McIntosh sent an e-mail around the Penguin offices. Three hundred volunteers raised their hands. “People in marketing, editorial, sales — it’s all hands on deck,” she says. Each day, the online requests will be divvied up to eager recommenders who will do their best to find the perfect titles.
And just as you don’t have to buy a Butterball turkey to call the Butterball Talk-Line, you don’t have to be in the market for a Penguin book to use this new service. The Penguin Hotline promises to be “publisher-agnostic.”
“We know a lot about Penguin books,” McIntosh acknowledges, “but we’ll also recommend books from others publisher, too, if that’s the right match for the consumer’s request.” She and her staff have been collecting year-end recommendations from publishers, newspapers and bookstores across the country.
Butterball usually handles about 12,000 calls on Thanksgiving alone. McIntosh is starting off with more modest goals. “Even if there aren’t hordes coming to our door, it’s good to put out there that Penguin is full of book lovers.”
Just remember: Store leftover books on a separate shelf within two hours after reading.