In 2012, we launched Thought Catalog Books. With Thought Catalog the website, we mastered producing short-form writing for the web and we wanted a new challenge. We hoped to build a counterweight to Thought Catalog’s trendy digital brand with a more contemplative spin-off brand as a book publisher.
There were two questions driving the identity of our book startup: In the age of algorithms and social media, can we create an enclave where creative and intellectual sophistication still matter? Can we build a publishing model where readers instead of advertisers are the main stakeholders?
It’s critical to understand Thought Catalog Books in the context of the website because when ThoughtCatalog.com went live in 2010, it wasn’t a viral publisher. The non-buzzworthy “Thought Catalog” name reveals a total lack of foresight into the viral publisher trend. Thought Catalog was supposed to be an “experimental cultural magazine.”
The problem was, the experiment with journalistic writing had a conclusive and dire result. Long-form writing like profiles of musicians, book reviews and cultural analysis would bankrupt us, and we pivoted. Audience insights from Facebook data become our publisher, Google data our editor in chief, and Twitter signals our managing editor. Thought Catalog was one of the first magazines built by data from social media and that made us, along with BuzzFeed and a few others, part of the first gold rush of digital publishing.
Money wasn’t the only goal, though. Money is a lifeblood for any company, but we still had higher ideals. We wanted readers, not just visitors; artistic appreciation, not just social likes. This desire to elevate the conversation is what separates a content company from a media company, and we consider ourselves the latter. Well-funded media companies deal with this by commissioning what is deemed the “important stuff” as a loss leader.
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The book business model is kinder to long-reads. A 5,000-word piece commissioned at $1.00 a word requires about one million reads for the publisher to break even on an optimized ad setup. Often even viral lists won’t get one million visitors, let alone long-form investigative journalism or in-depth creative work. With book publishing, you would only need about 2,000 people to buy the e-book at $4.99 to recoup your investment.
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We were surprised to learn that print books and digital books were almost two distinct businesses with totally different operating models. While a print book and an e-book share identical content, they reflect diametrically opposed media formats. Print books are luxury goods and e-books are utility, and this has real implications in the strategy and workflow behind the marketing and production of each.
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You can’t create much markup on utility, whereas you can create a great deal of markup on luxury. This has been perhaps one of the most important insights driving Thought Catalog Books’ growth. The print books department needs to be run like a luxury goods company, while the e-book department needs to be run like a technology company. The content is the same, but the medium dictates an entirely different business model.
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Online native content is effective for short-form stories, but if a brand wants to cut deeper and build an in-depth story, the print book is the perfect medium. Native and sponsored content is short-form content that readers only engage with for a few minutes. With sponsored books, advertisers tap into an in-depth branding opportunity using the most time-tested storytelling technology out there — a printed book, where readers often spend hours if not days with their content and keep it perhaps forever on their bookshelf.
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As e-books become increasingly popular, selling physical books on Amazon might make less sense. At Thought Catalog Books, Amazon is a dream partner for digital distribution and certain kinds of print distribution. Amazon doesn’t make sense, though, for selling our premium print books. For us, there is more personality in ordering the book through a more custom e-commerce experience or through an independent brick-and-mortar retailer. If books are truly luxury items, then just as a high-end clothing brand doesn’t want to sell on Amazon, we, as a specialty book publisher, don’t want our products there either. This might eventually be the case with other, larger publishers at some point which, at the very least, may begin limiting their print distribution on Amazon.
PG says another difference between “online native content” and printed books with advertising is that an advertiser can measure whether anyone actually reads online content and can’t measure whether anyone reads a printed book.
As for publishers “limiting their print distribution on Amazon,” readers seem to be helping to limit the distribution of printed books on and off Amazon.