Wednesday, December 10, 2014

How Penguin Saved Christmas

When it comes to books, I am a walking personification of the Amazon recommendation tool. Besides being passionately obsessed with books to a certifiable degree, I spent over five years working in the book trenches as the manager of a Borders. I know books. My greatest joy is someone asking me on Twitter what book to read and hearing back in a few weeks that they loved my suggestion. Books are my thing.

But even people who are personifications of the Amazon recommendation tool get stuck sometimes. That's where Penguin comes in. Penguin Random House is one of the big publishers in the US and they have a large social media presence. Inspired by the Butterball turkey helpline that assets people cooking turkeys at Thanksgiving, they launched the Penguin Hotline this winter to help people find the perfect book to give for the holidays. The Penguin Hotline is the brainchild of Penguin President, Madeline McIntosh, who has been so good this year I'm pretty sure Santa is going to bring her a Ferrari. 

I won't mince words here. The Penguin Hotline is fucking GENIUS.

Staffed by over 300 passionate Penguin employees from all corners of the company, the program is "publisher-agnostic" and recommends books from every publisher under the sun. Just answer a few quick questions at the Penguin Hotline website (age of the reader, books they like, other media stuff they enjoy) and in a few days you'll receive a group of exceptional suggestions. This idea is so amazing I am shocked a publisher hasn't come up with it before. It's on par with Macy's sending people to Gimbel's in Miracle on 34th St. It's genius, both in marketing and customer goodwill.

I decided to give it a try using the most difficult book person I know: my father. Everyone in my family is a voracious reader but everyone is very precise about the genres they read. My mother likes western romance novels, for example. Not regency, not modern day, they HAVE to be westerns. My father is even worse. My father only likes epic historical fiction like Pillars of the Earth or incredibly hard to find historical murder mysteries. Those mysteries can't take place after World War One. He prefers them to have medieval English monks and Roman centurions solving crimes. YEAH, you try finding books like THAT every Christmas.

A few days after I sent my request to the Penguin Hotline, I received a very nice email from Jess in the Editorial department. Jess is currently my hero. The email contained a book suggestion so perfect I nearly wept. It was David McCuullough's The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge. My father, born and bred in New York City, will be HEAD OVER HEELS for this book. It's just like Pillars of the Earth, except it's about a bridge and not a cathedral. I took my unrestrained glee to Twitter and thanked Penguin profusely for offering this amazing service.

That same day I put in a Hotline request to see if they knew anything good for my picky younger sister, who thought Gone Girl was the best book she's ever read. Chris from the Marketing department came through with the suggestion of Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson. Two sentences into reading the book's description, I knew my sister would absolutely love it! Both books have already been bought and are going to go under the tree this year, to my immense relief. I didn't know either of them existed and yet they are both PERFECT.

Definitely curious now, I decided to really test them and put in a Hotline request pretending to be someone buying ME a book. Claire from Editorial complimented my good taste in Neil Gaiman and suggested books even I hadn't heard of yet; Helene Wrecker's The Golem and the Jinni and Lauren Owen's The Quick. Looks like I may be gifting myself some books this holiday season too!

The people at Penguin are complete and utter miracle workers. They found two awesome, perfect books for two very difficult people to shop for. Christmas is saved! Many thanks to Jess, Chris and Claire, who have given Santa's own elves a run for their money. Book people are the most awesome people in the world.

I definitely suggest you visit the Penguin Hotline to get some stellar recommendations for all the people on your list. I hope Penguin has a lot of success with this program because it's such an awesome idea and they are executing the absolute hell out of it.

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good book!
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