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August 25, 2011

Fifteen Years Measured By a Bottle

Posted by Anonymous

The Book Report Network celebrates 15 years this weekend. And while I have a flood of memories that float through me when I think of this decade and a half, it’s hard for me to crystallize the excitement and joy that has come from building and running this company in a few paragraphs. Thus I asked Greg, my older son  --- who was just six when we launched the first site and has been working with us part-time for a few years now --- to write a piece from his perspective instead. Hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did.

And for a timeline of what’s happened the last 15 years, click here.

In celebration, I raise my mouse and thank all of you for reading. And now…Greg’s words.

Carol Fitzgerald ([email protected])


In the refrigerator here at The Book Report Network office in New York, tucked in the back of the freezer compartment, is a large bottle of Jose Cuervo Gold tequila with a few inches of liquor left in the bottom. We haven’t opened it in a long time --- in fact, this weekend, it will have been there for 10 years. It’s a reminder of our past here at TBRN, and its lore makes its way into many a staff gathering.

In August 2001, we celebrated the fifth anniversary of TBRN and, by extension, the site that first launched on AOL as The Book Report and then became We gathered on a muggy late-summer evening for a party in our New York office, an evening that got progressively hotter as the room filled with people and the building shut off the air conditioning at 5:30. Yet stuffy as it was inside, no one seemed to mind.

We marked the fifth anniversary with publishing colleagues, authors, family and friends…and three essential party components: my mother’s famous olive tapenade, homemade guacamole, and blue Curacao margaritas.

The olive tapenade is a requirement of any party we throw in the Fitzgerald family. It goes on everything: crackers, chips, bread, anything. We made a big batch, alongside a large batch of guacamole that involved approximately two dozen avocados. We put the bowls of dips on the large wooden plank table that sat in the center of our old office, the one that held books that came in from publishers and had a tendency to collapse about once a month if we didn’t keep up with controlling our stock. (We have since replaced it with a much sturdier creation my father built for the new office.)

The margaritas were a crazy idea that my mother came up with that summer, the cocktail of the year. The concept: if a margarita is good on its own, why not add blue Curacao and make them better, as in prettier? Besides, for a woman who already was the Queen of Turquoise, it would match everything else. She barely drinks, but a signature cocktail is a totally different story.

We brought our blender in from home along with the tapenade and guacamole and mixed up frozen Margaritas in the back room of the office for a crowd that quite quickly became a bit bigger than expected. Apparently, we now knew “quite a few people.” The room began to fill and swell, as we printed out and tacked up emails that came in from virtual partiers onto a bulletin board next to the door.

We had obviously come a long way from the weekend my mother flew to the American Booksellers Conference in May of 1996 and shipped back book catalogs so we could FAX over requests to publishers in a pre-email world. You know, when the Internet was a passing fad; Amazon was a river; and promoting a book meant a tour, a print ad in the newspaper, and front-table placement at Borders and Barnes & Noble.

At one point during this energetic night, I seem to remember there being serious tequila spillage, or some part of the room turning blue. I also seem to recall issues with ice shortages, a problem considering it’s a key component in frozen margarita making. Being 11 at the time, I’ll blame the fuzziness on the distance of memory instead of my modern-day approach at 21 years old of blaming such things on the tequila itself.

After the party was over, we had a little bit of the tequila left, and we put it in the back freezer to keep it cold. And it has stayed there as a talisman that has seen us through a lot. It got a bit warm through the Blackout of 2003, as everyone in the office that day struggled to get out of the building by the light of cellphones down the fire escape, including my mother wearing high heels cursing herself for not changing after doing a morning appearance on a CBS early morning news show. We shuffled it around in the Great Office Renovation of 2007, the summer where we moved every piece of furniture and equipment TBRN owned across the office about five times as we expanded into bigger quarters as we dramatically expanded our staff. Just this week it rocked a bit in Tuesday’s East Coast Earthquake. Today, it sits there beside some popsicles from staff birthday parties, a few frozen lunches, and the ice trays.

Through the years, as much as changed, the bottle of tequila is a symbol of what has stayed the same and what has evolved here. At the start there was just one site, a chat room and message boards, the essentials of the early Internet. Now we have grown to six editorial sites, as well as our website design/development and Internet marketing/publicity and research businesses. From one little website on AOL, that’s an incredible amount of change over a decade and a half.

To put the amount we’ve grown into perspective, here are some numbers: with the relaunch of we moved more than 6,400 reviews and 2,000 author features from the old site to the new. That’s not counting the rest of the features and content that also was repurposed. And in the next few months we are poised to do the same with the rest of our sites. And since life is never dull here, we will launch a new college/twentysomething site in 2012.

I remember plotting the original versions of and when I was seven or eight in a big inflatable rowboat we used to float on in our pool in the backyard. I made designs with an art kit I’d gotten for Christmas, and I’d look over them with my mother, telling her when she was trying to use words too big for an audience of 6-12 year olds. Some of the concepts that we cooked up in that pool still live on in those sites today.

Books still crowd the center table as each day packages of books arrive, which still after all this time make this place feel like we perpetually celebrate Christmas. Throughout the years, it’s been amazing to get to know authors I once thought of as just names on a cover as friends. Last month at Thrillerfest, the annual conference of the International Thriller Writers, I realized that I’d gotten to know R.L. Stine --- something I would have never thought would happen as I read his books in the third grade.

And through it all, what has been really fun to see is how readers have reacted to all we have done. My mother still reads all the reader mail and responds. She gets a particular kick out of hearing from those who remember all the way back to the Bookaccino chat room back in those AOL days. Through the years we have had a number of staffers, and most of them still keep in touch and come back to visit. This company is a pretty special place.

At the same time, as the Cuervo has aged with the company, so have I. A company like this is an extended family affair, one that now has a lot more family members, and just as we have grown over the past years, I have grown with it. As I’m now legal, I could say that we should celebrate these past 15 years with a few shots…but I think that the tequila, and Bookreporter, are going to get even better in the time to come. And thus this weekend that bottle is not going anywhere.

---Greg Fitzgerald ([email protected])