On Friday, November 25, the night after Thanksgiving, Josh Cook, a bookseller and the marketing director for Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Massachusetts, sent out a simple tweet over the store’s Twitter account: “You there! Yes, you. You need a book. Tell us a little about yourself & we’ll find the right book.”
Cook, who told Bookselling This Week that he is always looking for ways to talk about books on Twitter, explained, “When the floor quieted down that night it seemed like a good opportunity to spend some time on social media. And, as a bookseller, my favorite thing to do is recommend books.”
A flood of requests ensued following a retweet from author Alexander Chee (The Queen of the Night, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; Edinburgh, Picador USA). Subsequent retweets by Merriam-Webster and by Wil Wheaton (who famously played Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Gordie Lachance in Stand by Me) spurred on more requests. The responses were collected by Porter Square Books staffer Sarah Rettger on Storify.
Porter Square plays a 20 questions-style game over Twitter on occasion, letting followers guess what book they’re thinking of, and Cook said he was expecting a response similar to that — perhaps a handful or a couple dozen inquiries.
The retweet from Chee, followed by those of Merriam-Webster and Wheaton, demolished those expectations. “When I saw the retweets, I was hit by a deep sense of panic, because I know how quickly you can lose control of your own creation on the Internet and when our mentions started piling up both times, I had no idea how we’d be able to keep up,” said Cook.
“But a mountain always looks tallest from the base and you have to make good on a promise. We told people we’d recommend them a book and we did,” he added.
By the end of the weekend, six or seven staffers had spent time tweeting recommendations, and more were consulted for ideas during the process. “I think that’s what makes the social media presence of group entities like stores, and especially independent bookstores, so interesting. Our store voice and the types of books we champion on social media changes depending on who happens to be at the helm, which helps us speak to a range of different readers and champion all types of different books,” said Cook.
“When you talk to ‘Porter Square Books,’ you’re talking to a group of people with different tastes in reading, different worldviews, different lives, or even different styles of tweeting (the astute follower can pretty much always tell when it’s not me), but all of them share the same goal of matching readers with books.”
Some titles were suggested more than once, especially science fiction and fantasy genres, perhaps due to Wheaton’s fan base. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. (Bantam Spectra) and The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (Harper Voyager) were recommended, as was Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl (Penguin Books), Crafty Bastards: Beer in New England From the Mayflower to Modern Day by Lauren Clark (Union Park Press), and The Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Krilanovich (Two Dollar Radio).
A common desire among those seeking recommendations was relief from feelings of distress, and requests for books to aid in that arena were difficult to field. “Those particular tweets put in front of us both the importance of what booksellers do and also the near impossibility of it,” said Cook. “I don’t know for sure if we helped anyone with our recommendations, but I do know that it means something when so many people still turn to books for the guidance and inspiration they need to get through challenging times in their lives.”
In terms of sales resulting from the tweet, the store did receive a few online orders and at least one person came in with their phone and asked for books Porter Square had recommended. “One of the challenges with any marketing and publicity effort, even those that are fun in their own right, is collecting the data. There can be a big gap between getting a reader’s attention and making a sale,” said Cook. However, the store grew its total number of Twitter followers, and people have continued to engage with the store, both in offering thanks and asking for additional recommendations.
Too many options can make it difficult, if not impossible, for readers to find the right book, noted Cook, and the lack of coverage of books in the media adds to the problem; at the same time, people are looking for tools to help them find books.
“We already know that readers want book recommendations,” said Cook. “If this teaches us anything new, it might be that many (if not most) readers still prefer to get their recommendations from a human brain. Every one of the people who tweeted to us could have easily gone on Amazon or Goodreads and seen what that algorithm churned out for them, but whether it’s out of a ‘let’s see what they can do’ curiosity or an earnest need for a book, they chose to ask us. There are lots of different ways to discover books, but I think it’d be hard to argue that there is a better way than talking to a bookseller.
“It’s tough to know what the long-term impact of something like this is, but, ultimately, it was a challenging and fun way for us to talk about books with a whole bunch of people and that is always worth the effort.”