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July 27, 2011, 10 a.m.

The Staff Recommends turns book suggestions and advertorials into a potential business model

The model is to provide the kinds of book recommendations you’d get at your local indie bookstore — if you still have a local indie bookstore —and to build a business around it.

For many journalists there’s something halting to the phrase, let alone the idea, of an “advertorial publication.” After all, advertorials are something of a boogeyman (but a boogeyman with a checkbook, which is nice) in the straight-journalism world, products that look, walk, and talk like news content — but that are, in reality, advertising. They play into all the deep-seated feelings journalists generally don’t like to acknowledge about how the bills are paid and about the tricky relationship between advertising and news.

But if you stripped away the pretense and assumptions to focus on how an advertorial publication would work as a business, what would it look like?

It would look like The Staff Recommends, a site that wants to offer up the kind of reading suggestions you would find on the shelf at your favorite local indie bookstore. A collaboration between Andrew Womack of The Morning News and John Warner of McSweeney’s, The Staff Recommends could be classified as something we would call a recommendation engine, but one with a human (Warner, in this case) working the gears, not an algorithm. So far they’ve offered up books like Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test, Sarah Vowell’s Unfamiliar Fishes, and David Levithan’s The Lover’s Dictionary, each with links to other interviews, reviews, and, of course, ways to buy the book. Warner, whose mom used to run an independent book store and often offered suggestions to customers, said the site fits a natural need for readers. “It’s an ocean of books, and we can read a cupful in our lifetimes,” he said.

But The Staff Recommends is more than just a book site and review blog. It’s also an experimental business model: The staff recommends only books they have read and liked, and in turn are paid by publishers. Hence the unique idea of an “advertorial publication,” a proposition that could yield substantial rewards, but that also most definitely brings risks.

And not the ones you may think. “We turn down a lot of books, and consequently we probably turn down, I’d say, six times as many books as we’ve accepted,” Womack told me. “As a result, that makes it a challenge in the entire [business] model.”

That’s right: Womack and Warner see their biggest hurdle as getting publishers on-board, not allaying fears of undue advertiser creep into their recommendations. Why? As it turns out, if you’re honest and transparent with your audience, the idea of accepting payment for things you like — and only things you like — is not that problematic to readers.

“The primary purpose of this was to give people a new way to find out about books they want to read,” Womack said. “You can’t do that if it feels like there’s some sort of mysterious force operating behind the curtain.”

So frankness, Womack said, is key. “If we’re not up-front, if we don’t explain the concept to people from the beginning, we wouldn’t be able to respond to questions, and [readers] wouldn’t place any trust in the recommendations,” he said.

The Staff Recommends’ business model is reliant on three revenue streams: affiliate links to places like Amazon and Powell’s, ads placed on partner sites (they keep it in the literary family with The Millions, The Bygone Bureau, and The Morning News), and, of course, payments from publishers. That last one is the main line, Womack said, and the one that needs the most tending, especially considering that book publishers have to be selective about how they spend their marketing dollars. “By not accepting books we feel are not a good fit, we miss out on a lot of revenue,” he noted. “So the challenge for us is how we present this to the publisher.”

In that way, the site’s goal now is to grow its audience in a way that creates a thriving community of readers, but also presents a quantifiable demographic to offer up to publishers. Which is where Warner comes in, picking and choosing books that appeal to him but also have potential to speak to a larger audience. “The Staff Recommends intrigued me,” he said. “The notion of having a site where everything on there is something someone is going to love.”

Warner, who has also written for The Morning News, said he’s confident there’s an audience for The Staff Recommends because people will never stop looking for the next good book to read. And with more books being published in more formats than ever before, the choices can be overwhelming. “When you’re finishing a really good book, there’s that sorrow you’re not going to have it anymore, and that anxiety about starting the next one,” he said.

It’s something Warner identifies with. He said he finds himself downloading countless book samples onto his Kindle to look for ideas, as well as reading blogs and The New York Times Sunday Book Review. It’s a hunt, Warner said, in no small part because buying and reading a book is an investment. Which is one reason why he still gets a lot of book recommendations in the same way everyone else does: through friends and acquaintances. “A lot of it is the same personal networks anyone has,” Warner said. “Mine just happens to be populated with writers, editors, and publishing professionals.”

The way any good book (or music, TV show, or movie) recommendation works is by having tastes that align, but can still surprise. The trick for The Staff Recommends, and particularly for Warner, will be to avoid becoming “the friend with the predictable taste” — the one we all know whose recommendations, while sometimes good, aren’t always inspiring. Warner said he tries to find books that are under the radar or that take predictable material and spin it in new ways. For him that also means checking his blind spots, the genres or themes he may not regularly like, but could hold interesting stories.

“What’s true of all writing is it’s either alive or it’s not. There’s a spark of something really interesting or there isn’t,” he said. “I don’t think I have any special ability to find that spark, but I have a willingness to try those things on and see what works.” 

Image by mySAPL used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     July 27, 2011, 10 a.m.
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