PRH Book Recommendation Hotline Builds Personal Connection with Readers
While many publishers are striving to solve the book discovery problem through semantic recommendation algorithms and expansive book metadata, for the past two years Penguin Random House has employed a decidedly old school approach during the critical holiday bookselling season. Instead of generating automated book suggestions based on clicks, PRH staff manually creates completely personalized recommendations during its annual Penguin Hotline initiative.
From November 16 to December 21, 2015, PRH received thousands of email requests directed to the Penguin Hotline from consumers in search of the right book for their loved ones. The program, which just completed its second year of holiday book recommendations, was inspired by the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line and was conceived to aid anyone interested in giving a book for the holiday season, says Claire McGinnis, senior publicity manager at PRH. “People work at Penguin because of a passionate love of books, and we are thrilled to channel that passion into helping others give a book to someone they love during the holiday season.”
The Hotline, now offline until the 2016 holiday season, works like this: consumers visit the dedicated Penguin Hotline site, fill out a form that describes their loved ones’ interests, and then a PRH employee will reply with a detailed, personalized recommendation for that individual. The recommendations are publisher agnostic, adds McGinnis, meaning books from all publishing houses are included.
Through the course of the 2015 program, PRH employees made several thousand book recommendations. In the following interview, McGinnis explains how the Penguin Hotline came to be and why PRH views these manual book recommendations as an important vehicle for connecting directly with consumers.
What inspired PRH to launch the Penguin Hotline?
Penguin Publishing Group’s Madeline McIntosh came up with the idea for the Hotline while brainstorming concepts for a group holiday ad that would uniquely promote all of Penguin’s imprints together. Her inspiration was the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line -- but we replaced the turkeys with books, the roasting experts with Penguin employees, and the telephones with emails.
How many people have emailed the hotline this year?
Both this year and last, we received several thousand requests from consumers and staffed about 400 volunteer employees from across Penguin Random House to write personalized responses. We ended up receiving almost more requests than we can keep up with, so we won’t be measuring success in terms of quantity of requests, but instead by the quality of the interaction. We could have chosen to scale the program through automation, but the reason people love it is because of the personal attention we put into each recommendation -- so our plan is to stay focused on making enough time to make the recommendations meaningful instead of striving for a particular number of exchanges.
Why is it important for PRH to connect with readers like this?
Although there’s no one perfect way to help readers discover books -- and keeping in mind our booksellers and librarians do this every day -- the Hotline is a tool that allows us to go to readers directly and try to do just that. We want readers to know that we care just as much about finding their next great reads as they do, regardless of who publishes them.
Another wonderful part of the Hotline for us is that it brings Penguins together as they trade stories and recommendations. Since one person can’t be equally expert in all categories, it fosters a lot of good spirit and community collaboration.
How do you see this program developing in the future?
We’re envisioning the Hotline as a holiday-only service, at least for now. The personalized nature of the service means that a significant amount of thought, effort, and time goes into each response a volunteer writes, and it’s difficult to sustain that approach on a year-round basis.
Ellen Harvey is a freelance writer and editor who covers the latest technologies and strategies reshaping the publishing landscape. She previously served as the Senior Editor at Publishing Executive and Book Business.