February 11, 2014

Simon & Schuster launches a businesswebsite for businesspeople to businesscelebrate the businessbusiness of businessbooks


Won't somebody build a website for the businesspeople?

Won’t somebody build a website for the businesspeople?

Simon & Schuster‘s new website 250 Words is meant to be a place for business-ey business chats, with a focus on business books. I am so entirely confused by this thing.

Simon rolled out the site in January, and announced it with a press release last week. Their key points—the site will be “publisher-agnostic,” will be cross posted to the Fortune website, and can be subscribed to as a daily newsletter. From that press release:

“Business books have long had a strong and devoted readership, and we think that 250 Words can fill the need for a smart, highly-curated site dedicated to the best in this thriving category,” said Carolyn K. Reidy, President and CEO of Simon & Schuster. “In establishing 250 Words as a publisher-agnostic site, we believe we can foster a community that will better serve authors and readers by bringing attention to the books that are of the most interest to them, regardless of the source.”

Jonathan Karp, President of the Simon & Schuster Publishing Group added, “Just as The New York Review of Books was initially backed by publishers, we hope 250 Words will become a valuable and influential source of commentary about business books. We want it to be a lively forum, with an independent editorial voice and sensibility, for people to write and discuss and argue about business books and the ideas and concepts in them.”

The New York Review of Books. How hard do you think he laughed while he typed that? Not half as hard as I did when I read it, I bet. My screen is still flecked with spittle. A funny guy, Karp.

This new site is so confusing. Not the concept—many publishers would like to be able to sell books directly to consumers; discussing the entire business book genre rather than the output of a single publisher is one way to make the site more attractive to those consumers; and I can certainly understand wanting to hold the reins of an engaged community of readers with a vested interest in your books. That’s a bit of a grail in publishing.

And it’s not the execution that’s confusing. The site is good, or good enough. It’s better than it could have been. I think I may even enjoy it. It’s attractive. The content is blessedly short—businesspeople are too busy making business to be bothered with all those words! I am not uninterested in the posts they’ve solicited from novelists—Teddy Wayne‘s entry is a bit of trollery and I can believe he’s as confused by the site as I. Most fascinating to me are the lists of what various business luminaries are reading. Alan Greenspan is reading a book about Keynes? Just in time, buddy, just in time. The CEO of Procter and Gamble recommends Sun Tzu? Cool, so does every single homeless guy in the bookstore where I used to work.

I just don’t understand who this site is for. Are there boardrooms full of people in suits, sitting in a circle, over dark tables cluttered with conference call equipment, staring at their hands, wondering what to read next? Is the business community underserved online? Voiceless? Did we all forget about the people with the money when we were building this here internet thing? I suspect not. Or is the intended audience for 250 Words, as with business books in general, the aspirants, those hungry ghosts haunting the aisles of the local Men’s Wearhouse? Yes, maybe they’d enjoy the idea of a list of books chosen by the former CEO of Amgen, but in practice aren’t these people disheartened to learn that he reads the same old dead-white-guy biographies and Jim Collins bestsellers on the toilet that they do?

I want the site to succeed. They’ve done a good job with it. I’m just baffled, I think, by the idea that a community might arise around lists of business books and an anemic drip of short articles.

Ah well, at least it’s not Bookish.


Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.