In his long career, Si Newhouse has shown shrewd business acumen. In the 1990’s, when many said it couldn’t be done, he pulled off an impressive turn-around of New Yorker magazine. This was accomplished in part by hiring Tina Brown, whom Michael Kinsley has called “The very best magazine editor alive.” At the time she had done a similar remake of another Conde Nast property and money-loser, Vanity Fair.*
While Newhouse was working his magic on these magazines, he was also busy in book publishing. But here he was selling off, not rehabbing.
He sold Random House, his company’s huge and respected book publishing unit. The financial calculus was unmistakable: With a few notable exceptions — such as Wiley Publishing (the folks behind the brilliant For Dummies series) — the business model of book publishing cannot generate profit margins that more modern media such as films are commanding. With the rising cost of printing and shipping, this will likely remain the case until e-books such as the Amazon Kindle become easier and more affordable.
So what do you do if you’re a Si Newhouse wannabe? What if you wish to make your reputation and fortune in books?
The leaders of two enterprising companies have decided to ignore the headaches of production and focus instead on bringing readers together. Although the viability of these two businesses will continue to be in question, they have survived their crucial first year. GoodReads.com was a year old in January, while Shelfari.com will mark its first anniversary in a week.
As anyone who has ever joined a reading club knows, in spite of the reclusive nature of reading, book lovers can be a surprisingly social breed of bird. Like so many distinctive tail feathers, they flash their lists of favorite books and authors as a way to bond.
Reading lists, and the opinions associated with them, can become an obsession. Take recording artist Art Garfunkel. His web site includes a reading list, in chronological order, of every book he has read in the last 40 years. The list tops 1,000 of some of the most respected books in literature (“I avoid fluff,” Garfunkel recently told a reporter).
Is the urge to list online an act of ego, OCD, or intellectual outreach? Or a little of all three?
The founders of GoodReads would tell you that Garfunkel is merely trying to display his tail feathers on a more world-wide strutting ground. And they’d point out he is not alone in this instinct to share his list online. GoodReads currently sports over 300,000 members. On average, only one in five online community members is truly active. But those who are active on GoodReads are extremely so.
The site reports that more than one out of a hundred members (3,708) have taken the time to review J. D. Salinger’s Catcher In the Rye. (This number is extrordinary for such an “old” book. Slightly fewer people – 3,641 – reviewed the first Rowling book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.) Below is a comparison of the two sites in terms of Page Views, according to Alexa.com. (Click to expand the thumbnail below.)
It’s ironic that social networks built upon a moribund business model may soon become future sweethearts of venture capitalists. Whether this is so will depend on the speed with which the internet becomes as effective an e-book delivery system as it is virtual reading club.
* At the New Yorker she introduced such innovations as the following:
- Short articles, so they could be mostly read in one sitting
- An edgier aesthetic, guided by Pulitzer-winning graphic novelist Art Spiegelman and a slew of new editors
- Actual photography in the editorial space. (I’m not kidding. What’s more, some of these photos were– Gasp! – in color)