The BookBuffet Story

by Paula Shackleton, BookBuffet Founder and President


How BookBuffet Came About

I have been in a book group for most of my adult life, the better part of twenty years. Where ever I lived or moved I either joined an existing group or started a new one. Over time I think I have discerned what makes a book group successful and where the pitfalls lie. Of the latter the main indictments seem to be not completing the book; not preparing conversation points or quotes; flip reactions rather than at least a half-hearted analysis; discussion dominated by the few; less than worthy book titles; and lack of background research. Anyone who has been in a book group for a period of time will attest to this. I determined to build a website that would meet these challenges head-on, with technology and creativity and blind enthusiasm for what lay ahead. This is the modest story of how BookBuffet, the "One Stop Online Resource for Book Groups" came about.

In the Beginning

It was October 2001 and my turn to host book group. I had presented four books for selection at the previous meeting and Wayne Johnson's Colony of Unrequited Dreams had been selected. With the aforementioned book group doldrums in mind, I endeavored to put my birthday gift—a Macintosh G4 laptop—through its paces and use as many of the new features to make a kick-ass presentation for the group. Maybe they'd be impressed, and maybe we'd see a return to the glory days of challenging book selections, engaging and informative discussions, and a sense of value for our efforts at the end of an evening.

The Old Ways

What happened when I began my task simply astounded me. To fully understand the impact of the Internet on research for book groups, one needs to step back and compare the early days when a requisite trip down to the main library was required. For me those days meant getting a babysitter and trekking downtown, usually in a torrent of Vancouver rain. I would climb to the third floor where the research librarians kept yellowed newspaper clippings of authors in archaic files behind the counter, and you were subjected to cursory screening test before being handed the file, which you could then slink off to examine the contents like ill-gotten booty. Anything worthwhile had to be photocopied requiring a long wait at the photocopy machines, running throu 10-cent pieces trying to get as many clippings on a page (which perhaps a less scrupulous person too cheap or harried to go through this process would have simply absconded with the goldmine of information). The alternative to this was the archive of microfiche articles—an even more pedantic tedious process. At the end of the day presenting research at book group was like offering manna.

That Was Then, This is Now

By the time I sat down in front of my computer in October 2001, all the previously hard to access information on books, authors, and literary topics of discussion were now all available from the comfort of my own home. With a DSL line and an airport connection, I was in business! I found MP3 files of Wayne Johnson speaking to Sheilagh Rogers of the CBC (a favorite radio talk-host), along with readings and interviews on other sites, all of which I could download and edit for playback for my group. There was a ton of information on the real life characters depicted in this historical fiction. I was able to compare facts about the life of Joey Smallwood, the first Premiere of Newfoundland and the history of Canadian Confederation and the transition from Britain's colonial rule. There were some amusing clips from the Newfoundland site itself. Then there were the reviews of the book in leading journals and magazines as well as reading group guide questions to spark our discussion. Of course pulling it all together and then writing my script and filming the presentation took hours, but it was an exhilarating experience. I not only learned how to use my laptop, I became acquainted with the power of the web!

The Idea Formed

Although my group's collective response seemed to center on how much I said "ummm," the presentation was a success and we had a spirited discussion. I began to think, why doesn't someone create a website just for book groups that had all the best titles posted with the research links already done—and save the rest of us some time! A website where people could exchange ideas and ratings on books—like the Zagat of book groups. A website where perhaps readers could find and meet other readers, hook up with authors, connect to independent stores and stay abreast of community events such as author signings or purchase online and save themselves a trip or several stops. And a website that allowed an entire group to purchase books and ensure that everyone got the book on time. At that point, 'why doesn't someone', became 'why don't I' create such a website...

Finding a Web Design Team

I began scanning the Macromedia advertisements for web design teams. So many were deplorable: no design sense, not intuitive, too busy, too techy, too plain, too much flash. Finally I settled on a company in Vancouver, that had achieved the right mix of design and function in their company website and in their customer examples.

I flew up from Los Angeles to meet them (with the added bonus of getting to see family and friends on the trip), and pitched my idea complete with sketches of page layouts and functionality. I could see them getting visually excited about the project. As an interrelational data based website it was just the next sort of project they were looking for. One of the owners of the company had previously been an editor and volunteered with literacy programs, so she was psyched to be doing a project in that vein. I had already selected a name and researched its uniqueness, bought the domain name, and started the copyright process. They threw around some numbers and ideas and time frames and we came away knowing we would settle on a contract.

If It Looks Easy ...It Wasn't!

Speaking from the perspective of a non-tech person, I have limped along behind my scholarly/teched-out nerd family witnessing computers both controlling and empowering their lives. I was not exactly the perfect candidate to learn the intricacies of building, maintining, and marketing a website. But that is exactly the process I've gone through: learning everything I could about the Internet, service providers, web design, programmers, front end vs. back end, the various browsers available, computer platforms, load speeds, style sheets, meta tags, programming languages, data base systems, compatibility issues for users, html code, search engines, spiders and so on and so forth. It has been an enormous growing experience. I signed affiliate agreements, entered into banking contracts, registered a limited liability company, and pumped every Internet business owner I knew for information.

Hooking Up with My Partners

There was this charming man at the dog park—YES the dog park. On school days I'd drop off my youngest and run my dog through the adjacent park and neighborhood. There is always a cadre of people exercising their dogs, turning it into a kind of social hour. Over time you get to know all the owners by their dog's name, ("Oh there's Willow's mom"). Larry had a springer spaniel named Lucy who tirelessly retrieved her ball from his amazing pitches. Over cumulative doggy drive-bys I learned enough about him to suggest that my husband would enjoy meeting him and I was sure to love meeting his British wife. She and I could commiserate on unlikely prospects for a good cup of tea in America, and the men both admired and studied the life of Winston Churchill. (Larry later went on to write and Sue to co-produce the Emmy award winning BBC production on Churchill, The Gathering Storm.)

Sue was a delight. I felt buoyed by her ease of manner, intelligence, and professionalism and her background in book publishing set me thinking. Sticking my courage to the post, I telephoned her the following day about my concept—BookBuffet. She thought it was a splendid idea and her interest was instantly piqued. We began to meet on a bimonthly, then monthly, then weekly basis in which I would relay progress and we'd discuss developments on the project. I felt I had my own cheerleading section and was motivated to show forward results for our next get-together. She discovered a newspaper article on book group moderators and suggested we meet the woman who formed ABGRL (Association for Book Group Readers and Leaders), Rachel Jacobsohn from Chicago, who offered to introduce us to her 800 members in the mid-West. We formed a friendship with San Diego book group leader, Leslye Lyons. (In addition to facilitating over fourteen book groups a month, Leslye produces her own Literary Lines, a free book group book reading list publication, and runs a literacy program for prisn inmates!) It was Sue's idea to incorporate these amazing professionals into BookBuffet and so we did. We believe we are the first registration website that connects book clubs with moderators.

About a year into the project, Sue asked if I wanted to meet Frances, a former colleague at Penguin Putnam who was presently working as Editorial Director for Knowledge Kids Network, a project funded by Michael Milken consisting of inter-related educational websites. We three met for lunch and could immediately tell that Frances possessed complimentary and synergistic qualities and characteristics. First off, she insisted on an NDA (Non Disclosure Agreement) and this was exactly the kind of detail and business savvy we both needed. I credit Frances with the dogged determination to get many pesky details on functionality of the website correct. (Her mantra: "Never click back!") We began meeting Monday nights over dinner to discuss the project and formalize our relationship. It was to be simply divided: Sue was in charge of marketing, Frances had editorial, and I had the rest: finance, accounting, legal, administration and all the web design and team building issues. Over time the lines have blurred—for the good.

Ready to Launch

Is one ever ready for this? It was like standing on the street with no clothes; the sense of vulnerability, the fact that months of preparation and content development—the moving of buttons and loading of links and book images, laboring over privacy statements and user agreements, and writing and editing of feature articles, were going to be "out there" for anyone to see. Did we find all the typos? Did we adhere to known copyright guidelines? Would people be able to "see" what we saw on their particular screens? We'd run through the site numerous times, but we really hadn't done as thorough a beta test as we would have liked, and I was feeling extremely edgy.

Live and Learn

One year into the project and it hasn't all been smooth sailing. A dynamic website means that things are constantly changing and code breaks as a result. It requires obsessive determination to stay on top of every page, link, and function, and each detail or issue spawns dozens more. But looking at the site I can honestly say it embodies not only everything I envisioned but with the expertise of my partners, and creative spirit of our designers and programmers, it has become something really useful and quite unique. It's been a lot to learn: how to write for the Internet; how to interview authors and transcribe our conversations; how to critique books; how to work with publishers; how to use an inter-relational data base and grasp complex programs and perform simple queries; how to track bugs; how to read and manipulate spread sheets; how to use professional accounting programs; how to upload content to the website and use our back tools editing software; how to market to media; how to broadcast electronic messages; how to write and negotiate contracts; and when to consult professionals! We could never have imagined the growing process—or the unending challenges.

I registered and completed formal training in Publishing at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California with a faculty drawn from experts in field from across the country, truly - one of the premiere programs in the field. Being that a website such as BookBuffet operates much like an e-zine - and the fact that the book publishing business is key to the other aspects of the website, I registered in both streams and was able to attend lectures usually confined to one stream or the other. I next followed the Professional Publishing Course with their up with Publishing for the Web Program. To my surprise, while there was a lot to learn, my hands-on experience had already primed me with a good understanding of the principles. Both experiences connected our group to luminaries in the field: Dorothy Kalins, Executive Editor of Newsweek; Richard Stolley, Sr. Editorial Adviser, Time Inc.; Rober Baensch, Director, New York Univeristy; Mary K Baumann, Hopkin/Bauman, Paul Saffo, Director of Institute for the Future, and on and on. The list of expert speakers were the likes of: Helen Gurley Brown, who launched the new Cosmopolitan Magazine now in available in 53 countries and languages; Jonathan Karp, bestselling acquisitions editor and other leading specialists.

What we've accomplished is remarkable! We are constantly developing and updating the website. We keep finding new features and functionality to implement so that the site is truly robust and offers members meaningful tools and features not available to them anywhere else. And we look forward to the relationships formed between ourselves and a growing community of publishers, authors and media.

Getting The Word Out

Operating on a grassroots basis, we've run information meetings at book stores and developed collaborations, spoken to any and all interested individual book groups, exhibited in a booth at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival, for which we designed and built our own props, signage and hand decorated 1,000 cookies with the BookBuffet url for give-a-way! (We can tell you that people will take anything that is free, even a soggy, smudged cookie and our bookmark slipped into their hands, of course!) From bookmarks and business cards, to picking friends brains and developing a media campaign… the list goes on!

Necessity being the mother of invention, all of the marketing trips so far have dovetailed with accompanying my husband to his academic meetings. In these forays into new communities with distinct cultures and reading interests, I've visited the local book stores, handed out our bookmarks and talked up our site. I've taken the pulse of the reading community and written feature articles that have been fascinating (to me at least) from a psycho-social perspective. From the political and historic focus of the US capital to the unique French Canadian cultural perspective of Montreal, from the prominent role of race relations in the deep South and immigrant perspectives in the Southwest, to the native heritage and Asian immigrant influences in the Pacific Northwest, a love of reading remains a common thread. On BookBuffet we strive to broaden our members'perspectives by high-lighting local authors from around the world.

The Rewards of BookBuffet and Book Groups in General

It's been a delight to meet first time authors, read their largely autobiographical books, and help to introduce them to the reading public (and in some cases, developing what will become long lasting friendships). As well, it's been enlightening to meet book group members. They are composed of the most interesting people—all with a unique bent on literature and an approach to enjoying it together. Some go hog-wild with food and music. Some sport tiaras and faux animal print clothing. Some groups are mixed sex, while others are multigenerational, mother-daughter, etc. Some read only classics, while others stick with contemporary genres or historical fiction.

As a reader myself, I have the luxury to discover with each new book the richness of experience and perspective that one could never hope to garner in a single lifetime even with unlimited time or resources; experiences that bridge time periods and languages, cultures, and social strata. Think of the belle epoque of Paris in Marcel Proust, the depression years in Steinbeck's agricultural communities, the magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the turn of the century Harlem experience of Zora Neale Hurston, and the struggle from apartheid and Disgrace of Coetze.

Books have enriched my life and understanding through an osmotic process. The discussion of them is a social highlight of my month—to which the group has become a whole greater than the sum of its parts; a support network of people who share not only their perspectives and life experiences as related to the novel of the month, but our trials and tribulations in our real lives as well. The cancer struggling sibling of one, the birth of a love child to another, the exotic trip taken, the business milestone made. It's all there: love, support and connection. In this day and age of disparate families and lives, the book group has become the encounter group, the therapy couch, the singles dating forum, and the recreational intellectual stimulant—not to mention the national television phenomenon! Over three billion books are bought in the USA each year. How many of those are sold to book groups, those sturdy readers averaging ten per group each purchasing at least twelve books a year?

Goals and Dreams

Quite honestly, to have created something useful in this world is an honorable goal. That it may enlighten and inform, that school children might have their interest sparked in reading, delve further into the books they've been assigned, and become life long readers, is a worthwhile goal. To pass on a legacy to my children that an idea is worth pursuing and taking a risk for and seeing it through to completion, is a satisfying goal.

The support of my husband and family has been outstanding. The friendship, professionalism and respect of my partners have made the journey worthwhile. We all bid you explore the site and drop us a line!

Pick up a book and invite a friend to share the story! • 440 Ocampo Drive, • Pacific Palisades, CA 90272