From the Wire

What I Would Do If I Were Starting Book Riot Today

A couple of times a year I fly to New York and make the rounds with Book Riot advertising clients. I ask them what’s going on with them, tell them about what’s going on with Book Riot, and in general keep in touch about how what we do can help them do what they want to do (let people know their books exist, basically).

Some of these folks we’ve worked with for years, but many are new. Either new clients, new to their particular job, or new to the world of books itself. And I could talk about Book Riot for hours, though I try to keep it to the most interesting bits. It’s hard to believe, but some of these people are in their 30s now and were just graduating high school when BR started. For the first time ever, someone said to me in a meeting “well, Book Riot’s been around for such a long time.” And it took me aback. First, he was right. In internet years (and business cycles and social media fades and funding frenzies), Book Riot has been around a long time. Not compared to The Atlantic or The New Yorker or The New York Times, who need triple-digit candles on their birthday cakes, but certainly long enough to have seen several waves of change in media, books, and reading.

And it got me thinking: if I was trying to start something like Book Riot now, where would I start? Book Riot was very much a child of the late 2000s blogging boom. It was Twitter and RSS and commenting on each other’s blogs back then. Book Riot’s main idea then was pretty simple: there was a lot of new, energetic, and disparate writing out there and what if there was a shingle some of it could go under? What if there was infrastructure to build a site and a brand that people could recognize and that maybe, just maybe they would come back to again and again. In essence, it was a project of gathering writing together (and a sensibility as much as the writing I think, especially in the early days). Many then thought (and probably still do) that BR was a little too rough or casual. Not as professional or as polished as some would like. And they were probably right, though we thought that was a feature, not a bug. But we have tried to write, podcast, and post about books as readers first.

And if you liked this sensibility, you could bookmark and make it part of your morning (or lunchtime, or between meeting time, or putting-off-that-email time) internet routine. Or you could follow us on Twitter or Facebook or RSS to be notified when there was something new. And that was it, and it worked. For a while.

I didn’t realize then how lucky we were to start when we did.

The distribution wonder that was Google Reader was in its prime. Twitter and Facebook were growing and growing and there was not an algorithm in site. If you followed Book Riot on Facebook, you would see everything that we posted. In order. Same for Twitter. One stat that I repeat often to show how different of a world it was: in early 2013, averaged 14 visits per month per Facebook follower. So for every thousand Facebook followers, we could count on Facebook sending 14,000 visitors per month. Today, that number is closer to 1/10th of a visit per Facebook follower.

For those of us who survived this first extinction, the scramble was on to figure out where eyeballs could come from next. This was the age of Search. Write so that your page would show up as a top answer when someone entered “audiobooks for a family road trip” or “what does the last line of The Great Gatsby mean” into that little white rectangle. Then it was pivoting to video, either in the form of YouTube recommendation widgets and scale or Facebook’s siren-song of unsustainably lucrative creator payouts for suspect metrics. More than a few companies drowned in that quick sand.

During this time is when Book Riot looked to email. That long-disloved dinosaur of the early internet suddenly didn’t seem extinct: it was not a dinosaur, but a tortoise. Slow, unglamorous, but a survivor. Email wasn’t going anywhere. Everyone had it. And no Zuckerberg or Musk or holding company could take it away from you—only your reader could hit unsubscribe. 30+ newsletters and 3 millions subscriptions later, this is the spinning molten core of what Book Riot does. It is the best way to get the right content to the right reader with something like predictable, sustainable, and investable results. Many have woken up to the virtues of email, to the point that some have wondered if it is in a bubble of its own. Maybe. There always can be too much of a good thing. But it still lives in the shadow of where the big money action is, out on the casino floor of Big Algorithm.

The Age of the Algorithm that Facebook ushered in killed many an internet darling (remember Upworthy? just me? BuzzFeed itself is at this moment in Wall Street hospice). And it is the age we live in today. Search Engine Optimization (Google search for you civilians, basically) is trying to guess the rules of search engine algorithms. Instagram and TikTok are algorithmic pure-plays: the hub of content is no longer a site or a company or even a celebrity. It is the math of attention recalculating and distributing every split second what it thinks you will be the next most interested in. The rewards, if you manage to reap this computational whirlwind, can be greater than anything we would have managed a decade ago. Tens of millions of video views, without needing, if you are lucky, to have spent years building a brand or cultivating an audience. Of course it helps to start with a metropolitan-area sized number of followers, but you don’t have to have it.

This odd and terrifying new scale and shape produced in the book world unexpected and differently shaped phenomenons of its own. Colleen Hoover. The commercial paperback romance. Romantasy. To just name the titans. Hits that happened like hits had never happened before. The attention potential is mesmerizing (5 million views for a four second video with the right sound bite and bookish platitude!), but we have shied away from taking a stack of chips to the table. We have seen the magic carpet of algorithms pulled out from us, and others, too many times before.

The obvious parallel to the early days of Book Riot would be to get a dozen or so video creators under one shingle.

But the shingle doesn’t matter on the FYP of TikTok. It doesn’t offer name recognition or a sense of voice. It is just another handle that flies by—as good, and no better, than any other. You might as well fly solo.

Paid newsletters could work, but they seem best suited for an individual voice and the dominant Substack model is not conducive to either plurality nor a coverage as vast as books. (If I were one person, that’s where I would go to start, paired with a podcast.)

After that: I don’t know. I don’t think I would start Book Riot today. It’s not about what we do, not at all. I think in many ways we are just beginning to figure out what we can be. But the road we took here is washed out and what remains is too unstable to build anything lasting on, not without the kind of money and time no one is giving media companies these days. (Warren Buffet once said that if you offered him $100 billion to beat Coca-Cola, he would turn it down. In this line of work, I would swap Coke for The NYT. )

The feeling that I get when I think about this is—don’t squander this. You worked hard, but you got lucky. A bunch of people were right there and a bunch are still right here trying to keep it going and growing. So much has changed and continues to change that really we are starting Book Riot today—and every day. I know that if I ever think that I have it all figured out, that we have finally cracked it forever, that’s when our days will be numbered.