Niche both a help and hindrance to online start-up Bookbrunch

Case study by Alex Klaushofer.

When Nicholas Clee and Liz Thomson were casting about for a new job, with full-time staff jobs behind them and freelance opportunities on the wane, a digital solution seemed obvious. Between them, they had over fifty years experience in writing about publishing and the book trade: Clee was a former editor of the Bookseller, while Thomson had edited Publishing News until it folded in July 2008, and both had published widely elsewhere.

So, on Thomson’s suggestion, they joined forces and embarked on a publishing (ad)venture, creating Bookbrunch, a website and daily online newsletter covering the book trade. Nearly three years on, the site is proving a sustainable business which provides a partial living for both of them.

The revenue model was decided from the outset. The site would have a free-to-view blog and opinion section, but readers who wanted access to the daily news would have to become subscribers, paying £99 a year or £55 for six months. It would be supplemented by only a modest amount of advertising.

‘We thought that the only way to make money is through subscriptions. – trade advertising was shrinking fast and there was just two of us doing all the day-to-day work; neither of us was a sales person,’ says Clee.

In the event, the erection of the planned paywall took longer than anticipated, coming some nine months after the site launched in October 2008. By then, it was pretty well established among publishing professionals; Clee and Thomson capitalised on their contacts in the industry, and worked hard, sending ‘lots of emails’ and ‘putting ourselves about a bit’.

It seemed there was room in the market place for a trade publication apart from market leader the Bookseller. Instead of going into direct competition with its rival, with had a 12-strong editorial team, Bookbrunch concentrated on developing a distinctive approach based on its editors’ personalities and particular takes on the industry they had known so long. As a result, the editorial places a strong emphasis on opinion and gossip, running plenty of coverage of the people and events that drive the book trade.

Bookbrunch’s reputation soon translated itself into figures, with 500 of the 5000 people on the mailing list becoming paying subscribers. ‘We’re quite pleased with that, but given the opportunities in the book trade we’re not going to triple that any time soon,’ says Clee. ‘The size of the booktrade is both a help and a hindrance.’

As a result, both partners can draw an income which just about covers the half-time job that the site demands, leaving them free to take on other work – although, as Clee readily admits, there is a perennial danger of the work expanding to fill the entire week – some days they produce over 20 stories, and the site already has an archive of over 9000 articles. But, thanks to a recent partnership with data firm BDS, the more time-consuming, technical tasks have now been farmed out.

Meanwhile, the experience gathered along the way adds to the growing body of evidence that the web, far from killing off the in-depth article, is a hospitable place for long-form journalism; Bookbrunch publishes articles up to 1500 words long.

‘It used to be thought that what people wanted online was short, punchy news stories,’ says Clee, with satisfaction. ‘What we’re discovering is that they actually like opinions, and they like to engage online, so some of the long pieces we run get a good response.’

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