Content Farms Are Slaughtering Books

Much overlooked in the recent fixation on the transition from physical books to e-books has been the cratering sales of backlist books. One of the mainstays of the six big publishing houses is the massive amount of subject nonfiction they produce.

For many years, Barnes & Noble (BKS) was attacking that base by producing its own no-name how-to, advice, and travel books under the Sterling imprint owned by B&N. But just as the bookselling giant was trying to undercut publishers, a new threat to these bread-and-butter books emerged in the form of the Internet.

For the first time, the head of a so-called content farm explicitly states that his company is gunning for the publisher’s backlist. He does this to insulate his industry from the accusation that it has destroyed the news business. Here’s CEO Peter Berger making his case in Ad Age:

We need to remember that content-generation sites such as Demand Media and my own,, offer something very different than the news media does, and that the reason for that lies in fundamental differences in their respective audiences.

Consumers like news sites for their ability to simplify the day’s noteworthy events into a digestible and well-researched selection of reads — ideally, in today’s environment, with editorial edge and a clear angle. Consumer trust is built by the focus and predictability of those qualities. […]

New content publishers like Demand Media, Associated Content and don’t compete with traditional news content. We have some news content, like this article on the Tour de France or this report on U.S. exports development, but it’s not our bread and butter.

It’s non-fiction book publishers that we really compete with.

In the past, consumers would buy a book to learn how to interpret a particular piece of music or when to plant specific bulbs. Now consumers can go online and find this information with no direct charge. The value we are offering is not the timely editorial “nose” of a newspaper, but rather an identification of the search demand for content and writers and guidance to assure quality at scale.

So while being named a “competitor” by news journalists is creating curiosity about our space, it is not a correct characterization. Our real competitors have to wake up to the seismic shifts we are seeing online and see that they are already at grave risk of becoming marginalized in the digital age. We’re still waiting for the McGraw-Hills, the Random Houses, Harper Collins’ and Simon & Schusters of the world to get active serving their traditional audiences online and entering the marketplace.