In a publishing listserv discussion, triggered by the planned shutdown of Washington Post’s BookWorld, I contributed to a discussion about how the franchise in The New York Times Sunday Book Review (TBR) could be preserved. One suggestion was that the section be spun out of the paper as a separate business which, it was hoped, could provide the focus and flexibility to enable it to thrive.
But, of course, TBR already does have a sale outside the Times itself, both as a separate subscription product and as a stand-alone purchase available in many, if not most, bookstores.
Distributing TBR inside the Sunday Times is “inefficient” in some ways because most purchasers of the Sunday Times don’t crack every section. So they’re printing (and distributing, although bundled with the paper, distribution costs are relatively low) many copies that don’t get read and that advertisers wouldn’t want to pay for. The dedicated subs and bookstore sales, on the other hand, are to an audience that is focused on the TBR content.
Any steps to be taken, though, occur within the context of declining print advertising in general and almost no print advertising done by publishers. And the Times has probably already lost the battle for online book reader community to LibraryThing, Shelfari, and others, which would have been where TBR could have had a big head start five years ago.
It isn’t really surprising that the Times wouldn’t have seen it that way five years ago, or even three years ago. After all, the upstarts that have eclipsed it online had no prior business model to defend. They were financed by the 2.0 investment boom to try a new model of social engagement around books. They didn’t have a legacy business to confuse them while it sustained them. That’s an old story, like the railroads being displaced by airlines because they didn’t know they were in the “transportation business.” But this case is another example of how verticality on the web trumps the horizontal content delivery models of the 20th century.
This morning’s news suggests that The Times is defending a legacy position to its detriment even now. Michael Cairns observes
that the Times released an API of their bestseller lists, but didn’t think to include the reviews
of all those books! He’s right that it is an enormous lost opportunity. Whether the right strategy today is to compete with the other book communities or to join them, it would be pretty damn important to push out the reviews!