Content Without Subscribers Will Become Worthless

Traditional Publishers Are Wising Up to the Web

The WSJ posted an article about travel publishers wising up to the web, placing large chunks of their books online:

John Wiley & Sons, the publisher based in Hoboken, N.J., is offering an array of free travel tidbits and articles on the site of its Frommer's travel-book series. Not only can visitors to the site read blogs or listen to podcasts, they can plan and book trips -- generating commission revenue for

When you think of the authority of the Frommer's domain name (over 10 years old, PR7, 364,000 links), they must be able to get millions of pages of content indexed.

The first publishers to put their whole books online will see amazing returns because few people are doing it. The WSJ article stated that Wiley was already enjoying 10 to 15 million a year from 3 flagship sittes (Frommer's, For Dummies, and Cliff Notes). After hearing the early results, others will follow, putting all or nearly all of their content online. The lagging publishers will make crumbs, but their books will flood the search results with content that undermines the value of lower quality content.

Books Publishing is Fast Becoming a Vanity Industry

I was offered to get SEO Book published by one of the leading book publishing houses. I have made more in a day than what they were offering me as down payment for writing the book. And they wanted me to do all the book marketing as well, for no further compensation unless I sold enough books to make the hot books lists. It didn't help that my profit margins from a book sale would have been less than what I pay for a click.

I was unwilling to get published because I thought there was upside in the current model, in a growing market, and realized that the model of being published did not work unless I was interested in feeding my ego, in need of credibility, or was writing a book just to up sell more expensive services.

Ad Revenues Are Richer Than Book Profits

If I couldn't afford to buy ads for a physical book, that hints that the format and price-point lock in value in a way that is far from the potential returns if that value was unlocked.

I recently went on a book buying binge to get content ideas for one of my sites. I spent over $500 buying 30+ books, searching through them for their ideas, their structure, and their format. It was easy to do that because they are so under-priced relative to their value. I have an AdSense site that was far easier to create than many of those books were, but it makes about $1,000 a day.

If those publishers just put the content online they would make far more than I am from my AdSense site. My AdSense model only works so long as they don't put their content online, or I create a better known brand than they do.

Defending an AdSense Site's Viability

If your strategy is entirely long tail keyword oriented and you don't have a real brand your income will fall sharply in the next couple years. Site targeted AdWords will cause premium publishers to get paid more for similar content, and position placement reports will trim back the ad buys on sites with limited exposure and few conversions.

Not only will many of these books go online, but many of them with serious distribution and authority will act as gateways or clearinghouses for related books. What is to stop a publisher from pushing 10 other economics books on the Freakonomics site? Why not turn Frommer's into an endless sea of travel information?

Whoever introduces an idea gets credit for it, but, as hinted by my book buying binge tip, most of the content on the web is just copied and repackaged. Packaging and formatting can make an idea or kill it before it has a chance to spread. Everywhere I look there are free tips on formatting and monetizing, numerous competitors testing and tweaking, and market feedback is near real-time if I change my format or offer.

The only way to avoid losing to big publishers is to create real brands, position them as self reinforcing authorities, aggressively monetized and reinvest in marketing, and get hundreds or thousands of subscribers to spread your message and do your marketing for you.

Momentum is a force. Use the force. ;)

Published: July 3, 2007 by Aaron Wall in contextual advertising publishing & media


July 7, 2007 - 5:43am

When you drop dollar figures your sites make, I'm not sure if it inspires, or frustrates me.

Jim Spencer
July 9, 2007 - 3:15am

Not surprised to find that those in the publishing industry see a long and useful career ahead. The CEO of Faber & Faber wrote a column in the Guardian.

He makes a salient comment here:

"It seems clear that the age of abundance has already given way to the age of attention, in which the two key attributes of successful publishing businesses will be expertise in how to catch people's attention online and developing brand identities that reassure consumers that the information, culture or entertainment they are buying comes from a reliable source."

You can read more here;,,2025116,00.html

I am interested to read your comments and what you disagree with in the entire article. He makes a number of good points.

I think that there is a big difference between an electronic SEO Book and a printed fiction book in terms of the potential target audience, the shelf life of the book and the potential size of audience.

I think that Stephen supports many of your points, except for the idea that print publishing is dieing.

July 9, 2007 - 7:24am

Good article Jim. Well worth a read.

Here are my comments on bits of it.

These publishers invest heavily in publicity. Highly committed and talented publicists work on few books, earning these businesses a reputation for supporting all titles and creating surprise bestsellers.

Right there is the problem though. When I was offered to be published they told me they wanted me to do all the marketing. Which meant they already pigeonholed my book as a loser that another book will likely subsidize.

Perhaps the very biggest authors might be able to do this themselves, and perhaps self-published writers will find a small audience they are happy with, but it seems to me that the vast majority of future publishing, be it books, ebooks, pay-per-view or audio download, will require the publisher's expert marketing skills.

The fact that I write about marketing also makes it easier for me to market my book than to trust a third party to add enough value to give up control of it. That does not apply to everyone of course, but if you are passionate audiences on the internet have a way of finding you. I don't think you have to be a marketing expert to draw a large audience, get quoted in the media, market your works, etc.

Taste does not end at the acquisition of books; it exists in the editorial process that Geoffrey Faber called criticism, revision and initiation. We try to help make the work better. To be a writer's first reader is to reassure them of the quality of the work, but also to engage with them about how it could be improved.

Just by tracking the evolution of a marketplace I think that teaches you what ideas the market cares about. You can write it in a blog to get a following and help gather feedback on how to change it. While you are getting free market feedback you are building an audience that will help you market your book.

Publishers also have a role which is about to become much more urgent: ensuring that authors' copyrighted works are sold and not given away. In the digital age, piracy is becoming a serious issue for copyright creators

When an author is new and unknown piracy is one of the cheapest forms of market they could ever hope to come across. As the author gets more established they can probably shift their model to an ad supported one.

I also believe niche published books will be driven toward biased edges, which will make it easier for those groups of people to draw large followings.

Book publishers will still have a role of course, but for most authors it is not worth getting published unless you are using that position as a credential to push another business model.

Publishing as a model intends for most books to fail and the best ones to do so well that it still profits overall. If you are honestly passionate about your topic and are at least aware of marketing I think in most cases you can do better without a publisher.

July 3, 2007 - 9:37am

You always share a wealth of information Aaron. It shows what a bad model the "physical" publishing business is. After producing a few sites with my best friend, I will start a new site that will abandon the current monetization channels of similar sites and offer something truly valuable to its users. I bruised my back for over patting it.

stuart at travelfish
July 3, 2007 - 10:59am

Having both published "dead-tree" travel guides in the past and now publishing travel information solely online, I can vouch for the net winning hands down -- both from a financial earnings point-of-view as well as usability on the reader's behalf.

We took the next step and combined the two, allowing users to purchase travel guides in PDF format to destinations that are not economically viable as a standalone dead-tree guidebook, and that's also doing very well.

Worth noting that you can dump a travel guide online and have it not work well -- Rough Guides went down that road a few years ago. Market leader Lonely Planet is still trying to figure out how to do this without canabalising their booksales.

It's an interesting playing field, that's for sure.

Brian Turner
July 3, 2007 - 12:08pm

Baen Books is a publisher who has always published their books in full online. May be in the SFF niche, but it's always made them a point of conversation.

As for being published with SEO Book - some fair comments, there - I think it's really a case of the publisher not making a serious offer, and basing it on you simply being a first-time author risk, rather than an established authority voice in your market field.

If you really wanted to explore being physically published a literary agent should be able to help get a serious offer from a serious publisher.

I'm reasonably well connected with agencies and publishers in the UK, but afraid nothing really stateside - but feel free to give me a shout if you'd like me to dig around for a US agency who may be willing to take SEO Book to a serious level of publishing.

July 3, 2007 - 12:54pm

just like content without SEO may as well be blank.

Khalid Hajsaleh
July 3, 2007 - 7:54pm

Hey Aaron,

would it be possible to share with us the list of books you bought?


July 3, 2007 - 8:13pm

@Brian Turner: I think the main problem with book publishing online vs. offline is the profit margin. Even if he got a great deal and got a bigger reach I guess it might still pale in comparison to his >99% profit margin for the e-book right now.

Especially as most people who are interested in learning SEO and willing to pay the 79$ (or more in the future) are probably rather internet-savy and will type in "SEO book" or something similar into a search box and find their way to his site (though possibly some will buy another book from Amazon before they get there).

Plus the e-book is just the perfect fit for this business model..usually Id say a normal book is better than an e-book (u can take it anywhere, read it on the plane on the train at the beach) but as SEO is inevitably changing the e-book is actually the better fit than a physical book.

Jon Morrow
July 4, 2007 - 1:00am

Interesting post. I've studied this extensively for the past few months. On a direct, per word basis, content sites will definitely earn you more money than a book. However, a book brings you added credibility in the eyes of some people, and that credibility can add up to big indirect sources of income. For example:

- David Bach charges $50,000 per one-hour speech and is booked solid
- Robert Allen sold $20 million in mentoring programs, tracked directly to his Nothing down books
- Seth Godin... well, do I even have to talk about Seth?

Of course, those are extreme examples. Most authors don't make nearly that much money. It is fairly common though for a mildly successful author to command 5-10K per speech. Plus, there's backend info product and mentoring sales. Pursued diligently, it can add up to six figures per year for the first-time author.

I think it depends on your market as well. Turning your knowledge into a published book would be stupid, but not because of the money. It would be stupid because you're already talking to a tech savvy audience, and publishing a book probably wouldn't bring you that much additional market share.

The only way I would consider doing it is if you target a more mainstream customer, such as the business owner that wants search engine traffic. You'd have to dumb down the content and put it in a book with a pretty package. To make money, you would push your consulting services, probably hiring other consultants to scale the service to the incoming customers.

Except, I've been reading your blog for two years, and maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think that's something you would enjoy doing.

In any case, I think you're making the right choice of shying away from traditional publishing, but I don't think it's the right choice for everyone.

Just my two cents.

July 4, 2007 - 1:03am

Great comment Jon :)

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