How to Start a Virtual Book Recommendation Service

If you worked in a library or bookshop prior to the pandemic hitting, one of the things you might have done regularly was suggesting books to visitors who weren’t sure what to read next. Readers’ advisory is one of my favorite work activities at the library. When I was sent home for a few months as my system and city reckoned with next steps, I got heavily involved in the BookTok community on TikTok, suggesting read-alikes and other books based around themes or whatever was interesting to me at the time. As my follower count grew, so did the requests for individual recommendations. With a strict character limit in comments and a one-minute maximum length for videos, it was difficult—if not impossible—to provide the kind of detailed and meaningful recommendations I was used to and preferred in response to these requests. So I came up with a virtual book recommendation service.

Whether you’re a librarian looking for something to implement at your library or a book lover who always has friends asking what they should read next, I hope you find this guide helpful.

How I Got Started

Fortunately, I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. My library was already offering this to patrons well before the pandemic began and Book Riot had the TBR: Tailored Book Recommendations service. I considered whether the world really needed another virtual book recommendation service, and decided to go ahead with it. Folks were asking for my ideas on what to read next and that trust in me was worth something. With so much more free time on my hands and a hunger to immerse myself in book work as much as possible while away from my library branch, I could do it for free while still benefiting from the service myself, both in doing something that I genuinely enjoyed and by building my professional skill of recommending books. Plus, who knew how it might help boost my librarian cred in the future. My virtual book recommendation service wasn’t limited by what was in the catalog, like the one my library offered, too.

The first thing I did was set up a new email address. This made it easier to see new requests so I wasn’t sorting through the tenth promotional email from Michaels that week. It also meant I had a central place to respond from that would be unique and easy to recognize as coming from my service.

Next was the Google Form. I’d had a little experience with it in the past, but didn’t know the platform especially well, so I tinkered around with it until I was satisfied. I used other recommendation service forms to inform my own, including and excluding whatever was useful or not for my purposes and how I go about recommending books. I made an effort to keep the form short and be as clear as I could be. The latter ended up being more of a challenge than I anticipated, as I considered what jargon I was using without realizing it. I included things like a space for a Goodreads link, if the requester used the platform, so I could avoid recommending books they had already read or had on their to-be-read list.

It’s worth noting the form also begins with a description. In it, I talk about what the user can expect from the service and that I reserve the right to refuse a request for any reason. This was just a precaution and, so far, I haven’t had to refuse anyone. But I think it’s useful to have just in case. I also was sure to assure users I wouldn’t be hijacking their information—I would only use their email, for example, to respond to their request.

I set up the form to dump responses into a Google Sheet so I could track which had been finished. The Google Sheet included all the answers to the questions in a row following the requester’s name. New requests remained white, requests in progress were yellow, and completed requests marked red. I also kept a paper log of names that I checked off as requests were completed because it was oh-so-satisfying and further tracked responses by deleting form entries as I finished replies. 

The next step was to test it on some guinea pigs. Rather than releasing it to TikTok right away, I started with a limited audience who, perhaps more importantly, I could hunt down for feedback after completing their request. So I turned to Facebook and explained what was going on—that I was working on a virtual book recommendation service; that I needed some people to give it a whirl; that the greater variety of readers (and non-readers looking to become readers) I had, the better; that I wasn’t sure how long response time would take as that was part of the experiment; and that I hoped people would let me know what they thought of the service when it was delivered. The response nearly knocked me over. Sixteen or so people—some of whom I never would have guessed would have been interested—responded to the form and I got to work.

After I’d done the first round, which included different language in the email to thank participants for being my experimental group, I took some of what I learned and made adjustments to the form and my approach. Then, it was time to go big. I made a video for TikTok and shared it. Within a few days, I had dozens of requests.

How I Processed Requests

Everyone has a different strategy when it comes to recommending books and readers’ advisory. Some of us, myself included, even have different strategies depending on the request at hand. For most of the form requests, I kept Goodreads up in one tab and the email response up in another. Each recipient was promised a minimum of three books I thought they would like based on their response. I hunted through my Goodreads list for something that fit what the requester described, then put together a small writeup on each book (usually 3–5 sentences) that described what it was about. If the requester had particular desires, like a lack of profanity, I did my best to describe the book in those terms, too. Like any readers’ advisory interaction, there were sometimes challenges with requests that asked for books that “aren’t too scary.” Because qualities like these are so subjective, I tried to include a note that suggested how I felt about that quality in the book but that we might have different thresholds.

Once the descriptions were done, the titles were linked to the Bookshop page for that book through an affiliate link so they could buy books that were interesting to them while supporting indie bookstores. In some cases, I had to use other sources for books that weren’t listed on Bookshop. 

My emails also started off with a greeting that thanked the reader for using the service and a note that each title was linked to a place they could buy the book. Emails ended with more thanks and an invitation to provide feedback and submit more requests in the future.

As the number of requests went up, I tried to keep up with them and made a goal of not letting a request sit for more than two weeks. Depending on your goals with your virtual book recommendation service, you may or may not want to include an expected response time in your description. I generally advised people on TikTok how long I thought responses might take, but tried not to make promises. That said, if you’re doing this in the capacity of your job, it’s probably reasonable to give users a stated turnaround time.

Where to Go from Here

Once your service is up and running, you’ll want to do things like promote it and continuously evaluate it. If you’re setting this up on behalf of a library or bookshop, you probably already have promotion procedures in place, but if you need ideas on where to get started or are an individual acting solo, try sharing your form on social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Goodreads, TikTok, and Pinterest are all great places to start), in email blasts, or on location (bulletin boards, individual flyers by checkout, quarter sheets or bookmarks users can take). Remember it’s not enough to do these promotional activities once. It should be an ongoing process, for as long as the service is available. Even if, say, a given social media algorithm plays nice and gets you on the feeds for many folks, people forget things quickly. Continuously remind them of the service.

As for evaluation, it’s always useful to ask for feedback. You can do this both in your responses and you can create focus groups (teen advisory boards are great for this, libraries!) specifically to give you feedback on the service. Make sure you’re seriously considering each suggestion. Even if something is nonsensical on the surface, see if you can retool ideas to suit your environment and needs while still addressing the user concern.

Finally, if you’re a library or bookshop, it’s easy to roll in additional user services to a virtual book recommendation service. Readers may want more than just titles and descriptions and you have the power to deliver. Put together selections of books to be checked out or purchased by the requester in response to their form response. To sweeten the deal, consider adding something like a special sticker, bookmark, or other small gift. This helps to make the whole thing an experience, which can be a big push for repeat customers and word of mouth. Anyone who’s spent any amount of time on small business TikTok knows that packaging and little extras count for a lot because it makes receiving the requested item a whole experience. (Bookshops — perhaps for an extra $10, readers get their books in a nice canvas tote!)

Good Luck

I’ve loved watching other folks start their own virtual book recommendation service. Since I shared mine on TikTok, other users have created their own, book lovers and librarians alike. Amanda Hunt, a librarian in Texas, started her service and had an immediate and enthusiastic response from the readers in her care. Thirty books in one day is massively impressive and I’m so glad this idea could help readers find books just for them.

Whether you’re looking for a fun way to pass the time and finally respond to your aunt who knows you’re a big reader and just has to have the perfect book in mind for her or you’re what Leslie Knope calls a “punk-ass book jockey” in the big leagues, a virtual book recommendation service can be a fulfilling way to deepen your and others’ love of books. 

If you have questions on starting your own virtual book recommendation service, I welcome questions at @24hourlibrary on Twitter, TikTok, or Instagram or via email at twentyfourhourlibrary@gmail.com.

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