Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Behind the Scenes of Indiespensable: An Interview with Project Manager Heidi Mager

Indiespensable is Powell's Books subscription club. But it is NOT your average subscription club..it's one of very best services there is for book lovers. In their own words:

"Powell's subscription club delivers the best new books, with special attention to independent publishers. Signed first editions. Inventive, original sets. Exclusive printings.... Every six weeks, another installment to read and admire.

Plus, every package is stocked with exciting surprises!"

I first heard of Powell's Indiespensable program on a book blog and I quickly fell in love. I've been a subscriber for a long time now (looking back, I realize I've been a subscriber since installment 4!), it's one of my favorite bookish indulgences. I quickly learned, however, that not every book lover knew about Indiespensable! I've been wanting to spotlight it for some time and it occurred to me that while I could gush about how awesome it is, I'd much rather get the real inside scoop about the program from the people who put it together. I'm very happy to be able to share an interview with Heidi Mager, the project manager for Indiespensable. The Powell's staff works hard on this program and every installment is a delight. This is one of my favorite interviews I've done for this blog and I hope you enjoy it as well. (the photos are of the team packing the Indiespensable boxes!)

How did the Indiespensable program start?

Heidi: Indiespensable began, back in early 2008, with a conversation between a few people in the Powell's marketing department. One of the program's creators, Dave, says, "We knew from experience that our customers trusted our taste and that there was demand for signed and otherwise limited editions. Taking those factors into account, we tried to create a package that would deliver the best of both: limited editions of books we love."

However, it's of utmost importance to us that we not be just another "bestseller" book club. There are plenty of those. But we really wanted to set ourselves apart from the masses, and really, the solution was pretty clear -- we're an independent book store, and wouldn't it make sense to feature, as often as possible, independent publishers as well? And it was so. Thusly, 'Indie'spensable was born. But dedication to independents doesn't stop there. As often as possible, the surprise element of the package -- a handpicked gift item -- comes from a local business, or, at the very least, a business that puts a lot of emphasis on community and the environment.

The Indiespensable team now consists of Michal, Kim, Jill, Megan, and I. With nearly 1,500 subscribers across the globe, our top priority is leading our subscribers off the beaten track and helping them discover great literature from debut authors and independent publishers.

What is the purpose of the program?

Heidi: It's pretty safe to say that we're all book geeks around here, and Indiespensable lets us indulge not only our obsession with books, but our customers' interests as well.

We hope that an Indiespensable package is something akin to a birthday gift, a just-because surprise from a loved one, and a visit to your favorite bookstore -- all rolled into one. That's the aspect of this project that excites us the most -- the idea of providing a really unique and special experience for the customer.

It's our mission to feature the best in new fiction, promote independent presses as much as possible, and introduce a wide variety of excellent literature that we feel will stand the test of time. We hope that Indiespensable is a fun and truly unique way for subscribers to pamper their literate selves.

What is the process of putting together an Indiespensable box and how long does it take?

Heidi: The entire process for each installment takes about six to eight weeks, and there are a lot of moving parts and challenges each time -- though it's a labor of love, of course!

The first step of the process is choosing the perfect book. The members of our Indiespensable team are always keeping an eye out for great upcoming titles to present to the group. Sometimes there's some pretty heated debate (though never fisticuffs, I assure you). It's always tough to choose the right book, but the group's literary tastes cover a wide spectrum, so we feel like we get a pretty unbiased take on each selection.

After we choose the book, we start researching possibilities for the "extras." Sometimes, the publisher we're working with will suggest an ARC (advanced reading copy) of another book that they're excited about. It's great when we can include one of these. We think this type of "early screening" feels really special to our readers. In keeping with our commitment to independents, we try to work with a lot of small, local businesses for the other gift items we include.

Of course, then there are the nuts-and-bolts part of the process: collaborating with Rhode Island's Taylor Box Company to design and produce the custom slipcase; conducting an interview with the author; designing the collectible author cards; writing the letter explaining how we assembled the box. There are a million little details that go into each box.

Once everything arrives, the real work begins! It's a big production, with everybody pitching in to unpack well over a thousand books and gift items, and assemble each individual installment by hand. Then, our fabulous team of shipping experts carefully packs and labels each installment by hand and they fly off all over the world.

It is a lot of work, but there's a wonderful sense of accomplishment seeing something that kind of holds a piece of each of us go out that door to hundreds and hundreds of people that really love it.

Do you have a personal favorite issue of Indiespensable?

Heidi: That's a tough one. I've worked on so many of them and consider them to be full of my blood, sweat, and tears, so I'm pretty emotionally attached to all of them. It's also difficult to pick a favorite because I like the gifts better in some installments, but the authors and/or books better from others.

Thematically, my favorite is probably #14, in which we featured Sam Savage's The Cry of the Sloth, a novel told through letters and various ephemera like grocery lists. We wanted to go with a pretty literal interpretation for the other elements of the box, so we included issue 17 of McSweeney's -- which takes the form of a seemingly ordinary bundle of mail. Additionally, we featured a special printing of Brian Evenson's short story "Invisible Box." The super crafty people over at Coffee House Press suggested printing the story on cardstock, cleverly die-cut to create a flattened-out box that you assemble yourself! Speaking of Coffee House Press, they were one of my very favorite publishers to work with. They have a great team of very creative people over there!

On the other hand, we loved, loved, loved visiting The Meadow to research the gourmet sea salt that we chose for #20, the installment that featured Per Petterson's I Curse the River of Time. Mark Bitterman was a pleasure to work with, both as an author (of an awesome book called Salted, which we also promoted along with a special recipe card that utilized the gift of salt) and as the proprietor of the The Meadow.

But overall, I have to say that #22, featuring Ben Percy's The Wilding, is the winner. Collectively, we adore the folks at Graywolf Press, and the Indiespensable branded Klean Kanteen is, in my opinion, one of the coolest gifts we've featured. As far as authors go, you don't get a whole lot more awesome than Ben Percy. A few of us might have had a tiny crush on that guy.

What kind of reader would most enjoy a subscription to the program?

Heidi: We put a lot of consideration into attempting to make the program appealing to everyone, but we realize that this is an impossible task. If you have an open mind, like surprises, anticipate the joy of discovery, genuinely like reading -- with a focus on literature -- and appreciate the collectible aspect of these installments, then Indiespensable is definitely for you. If you tend to veer more toward well-established, bestseller-type authors, specific genres, and don't really branch out all that often, you might not enjoy it as much.

What kind of feedback have you received?

Heidi: As with any project of this scope, we get all kinds of feedback. Some of it is overwhelming, tear-jerking, over-the-top accolades from deep within a subscriber's heart. And then there's the merely good, the bad, and the unforgivably ugly. When people take the time to email us and tell us a little about themselves and how they feel about the program, it really means a lot and helps us provide the best service possible.

Have you had a particularly unique or interesting experience with an author when including their book?

Heidi: Almost two years ago, when we featured, for Indiespensable #8, a little book called Tinkers by then-unknown author Paul Harding, we thought to ourselves, "Wouldn't it be awesome to host a happy hour event and invite Indiespensable subscribers?" So we did. Even back then, Tinkers was making waves in the literary world, and now? Pulitzer!
Anyway, everyone met up at the Someday Lounge in northwest Portland, and we got to hang out and have cocktails with Paul Harding, who is now super famous.

Personally, I still get a little star-struck by famous authors. So, for me, the most interesting experiences are when the authors actually come here to sign the Indiespensable editions. Our most noteworthy visitor so far was probably Jonathan Franzen. He came to our warehouse here in northwest Portland, sat in a little room surrounded by hundreds upon hundreds of books, and graciously signed for hours. As to why it was particularly unique or interesting... well, he himself is a particularly unique and interesting person! He shared a bunch of stories and personal perceptions. He was funny, engaging -- with a very slight edge -- and was a trooper about doing such a huge signing. Later that day, he had an event at our City of Books, so spending the afternoon signing a whole passel of books was a huge, and very nice, favor to us.

All of the authors we've worked with, though, have been wonderful people and very gracious about signing extra books, doing interviews, and providing interesting and humorous answers to Q&As. They've seemed genuinely pleased to be a part of Indiespensable.

What else would you like readers to know about the Indiespensable program?

Heidi: We live for feedback. When a subscriber emails us to say that it feels like their birthday when Indiespensable arrives, we get all warm and fuzzy inside. Even if someone doesn't like the selection, we want to hear about that, too. Every comment helps us make Indiespensable better for the people we create it for.

Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to share more about Indiespensable with us, Heidi!

For more information about Indiespensable or to become a subscriber, please visit the Indiespensable page at Powell's Books website. You can also follow them on Twitter!

The next installment of Indiespensable has been announced, and it's Hannah Pittard's The Fates Will Find Their Way.

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