Remember books? Handily box-shaped for easy gift-wrapping, they were ideally suited to seasonal or special-occasion gifting, especially for people too cheap or too intellectual to give jewels. You were always intellectual, right? Right?
Long ago, actual physical books instead of iTunes gift cards made up a significant part of the seasonal gift trade, and one self-reliant outfit in the frozen wastelands of Canuckistan is trying to revive this felicitous tradition using the very seasonal conceit of the Advent calendar.
As their 'about' page says, "It’s like one of those Advent calendars that you can buy at the drug store—the ones with the chocolate inside them. Only instead of one piece of low-grade chocolate per day we provide you with several excellent reading choices from book lovers like yourself."
“Mostly it's about gift-giving and supporting the publishing industry, and about subverting the obvious channels,” Cranbury said. Those channels include top lists from the Globe and Mail and The New York Times.
ABB accomplishes its mission by extending its digital tentacles throughout multiple social media platforms, soliciting book recommendations from contacts in the publishing world—whether writers, publishers, editors, critics, or the general public, via their blog, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and, for the suits, even LinkedIn.
The recommendations themselves are mini-reviews, from people who are by definition passionate advocates for the book, who want to encourage others to buy it. The so-called elves (ABB’s term for users) call the process the “Digital Handsell.” It’s basically the online equivalent of the kindly neighborhood bookseller selecting something special for his best customers.
ABB “is the voice of the reader, not the voice of some faceless editorial board with obligations to their advertisers,” Cranbury said in an online chat.
He added that he watches for potential conflicts of interest, especially from writers who try to recommend their own books. It “happens more than I would like,” he said. When they do that, “they get a short response from me."
“The calendar, he said,“is open to anyone. We invite people who read the site to participate but I do send out invites to specific people because I like to encourage a community sensibility. Great books recommended by great people is one of our taglines. And we know it sells books because our readers tell us they've bought them.”
The sense of community goes a long way to ensuring that the quality of recommendations is high; people's reputations are on the line among their peers, in writing, in public, Cranbury said.
Cranbury and Wilson, working about ten volunteer hours a week each, don't hold to the typical advent calendar's stingy one-treat-a-day rule. In its first year the blog recommended 106 books over the 25 days. Last year it recommmended 126, and this year it's on track to do 120—including self-published, out-of-print, or digital-only forms.
“We'd allow anything with an ISBN [International Standard Book Number] and probably things without ISBNs if the person recommending does a convincing enough job,” Cranbury said. “It's all about the enthusiasm.”
Sometimes, the nature of the online beast being what it is, a significant power shift can be observed among the site demographics. “Kelowna and Fredericton knocked New York City out of the top 10 cities today,” says Cranbury.
So what type of book succeeds on all levels for the Advent Book Blog?
“The dream recommendation is the truly great independently-published book—the work of a talented writer, editor, designer and dedicated marketing/production team,” he said. That kind of book “is created because it has to exist.”
As an example, he pointed to this year's pick: Monoceros, by Suzette Myers. “This is a perfect example: small press, Giller Prize short-listed, about a teen suicide set in Calgary. This will be the big winner this year in terms of universal love.”
From the sounds of things, Myers has already gotten her present early. Now the elves can turn their attentions to making the rest of the season merry for independent booksellers, writers, and publishers.