Behind The Scenes: Little Red Wagon

Happy end of July, folks. Congratulations go to Amy and Joan, our respective monthly Novel and Epic mailbag winners! And without further ado, here’s a look at the development of a new product courtesy of Rebecca.

I’m writing to y’all today from a lake house in the middle of Virginia, where my husband, my parents, and my sister and her family are celebrating my parents’ recent retirement. I’m working half-days, checking email and setting up sales in the Book Riot Store and taking conference calls in between rounds of floating in the lake and tubing with my nephew. (If you’ve never had the pleasure of accompanying a six-year-old on his first tubing excursion, I can’t recommend it enough. Very high on the delight factor.) It’s the kind of integration of work and “real life” that a job like this affords, and it’s one of the benefits I think people have in mind when they tell me they envy my job. I can’t complain; it is pretty great.

But the gig isn’t all fancy working vacations and glamour (LOL forever at the idea of that). In fact — as with many jobs, I’m sure — a lot of what goes on behind the scenes to make the site and all the things you think of as Book Riot involve a jillion moving parts and sometimes-annoying tasks, and doing it from home adds a whole ‘nother layer of adventure. The Pigeon pilot we’re running right now is a perfect example.

Like many Book Riot projects, this one was born on a phone call. “This might be Bad Idea Committee,” I said to Jeff, “but I’ve been having shower thoughts about a personalized book rec service, and I kiiiiiiinda think we should try it out this summer.” We kicked it around a bit and decided it wasn’t obviously Bad Idea Committee, so we made a few lists and picked out some dates, and a pilot program was born. We can get book pricing and shipping info and packaging costs pretty easily, so the big question we’re trying to answer with the test is: how much time does it take to generate the recommendations for Pigeon participants? And if we developed it into a formal program, could we charge enough for the service to justify the expense without making it too pricy? Basically, there’s a sweet spot somewhere, and we’re trying to figure out if we can build a house there.

As we say around the Riot office, this pilot is my little red wagon to pull, so I knew that volunteering to run it myself meant that I’d be turning my house into a temporary book warehouse and shipping center. After all, how much space could a hundred books and some boxes possibly take up? So we put out the call for willing Insiders, randomly selected the participants, sent out the surveys, and then divvied up the responses. Jenn and I set to work reading participants’ forms, picking out books, and writing notes to accompany them, all the while noting our every move with time tracking software.

On the fly, we decided how many times we were allowed to recommend the same title (three, based on the Get Booked rule), what to do with requests for YA (limit to one book in order to keep the value proposition of the box high), and what date to set as a cutoff for new titles to be included. We worked through the frustration of reallllllly wanting to recommend a certain book for a participant, but the book was in hardcover and they ordered paperbacks (or vice-versa), double-checked our lists, and called it done. So off I went to order three books each for 34 people. I knew on some level that a hundred-ish books is a lot of books, but I looked around the stacks in my office and shrugged it off.

And then my mailman delivered the first round.

a tower of boxes piled on Rebecca's front step

I printed out the master list of books and got to sorting, matching each person’s books into a pile labeled with their names on the floor of my office. Spoiler: thirty small stacks of books take up…a lot of space. And speaking of glamour, I share my office with my husband’s closet system. (The chair is from IKEA, I know you’re wondering.)

small stacks of books all over Rebecca's hardwood floor

When I got totally surrounded by stacks of books, my canine assistant — Millie, the 11-year-old basset hound — came to visit, sniffed a couple piles, then plopped down for a nap right between me and the door. Regular quality assurance checks are critical to success.

With the books in my office, it was time to get the boxes set up. The simple brown boxes I ordered came flat, so first I had to assemble them, and then find somewhere to put them. Enter the dining room table. I printed out the book rec letters, hand wrote note cards and address labels, and established my shipping center. And yes, I can tell you exactly how long it takes me to assemble, pack, label, and note-card the average box.

a large dining room table covered in cardboard boxes, mailing lablels, and bubble wrap

First round complete (I decided to do these in three rounds in order to give myself an opportunity to refine the process), I recruited my husband to help me load the boxes into my SUV, folded up the portable hand truck I’ve been holding onto from a previous job, and headed to the post office, where I prayed to every deity I could think of that I wouldn’t ruin someone’s day and/or get laughed out of line. And then I sent the first group (flock? colony?) of Pigeons out into the world!

Back in the office, the basset hound trampled a few of the recommendation letters for the second round, necessitating a reprint. One book showed up damaged. Two more showed up in paperback when I was expecting hardcover. And my internet went out for the entire last day before this vacation! Like the mythical work-life balance or the idea of actually relaxing on a family vacation, no new project is ever perfect, or perfectly what you expect it to be. This time around, there are questions and answers and new questions with no answers yet, and for me, there’s so much fun in the process. For you, well, there might be a few stray dog hairs in with your next delivery of reading material.