Four years ago Mark Dressler, who at the time was responsible for the educational component of BookExpo America, asked if I could deliver a presentation to guide publishers interested in purchasing web sites.
I said sure. I also said I wasn't sure I'd get much of an audience, but Mark was optimistic. So over the next few months I pulled together the elements of a presentation that became "How much is that web site worth? Considerations for buying specialized content and targeting niche audiences".
The day came, and I found myself facing a room with 500 chairs and maybe 75 attendees (including my friends). I tried bribing people with color handouts to get them to move closer to the front, to limited effect.
In the end, the presentation went pretty well. Perhaps confirming a bit of my initial skepticism, most of the questions came from folks who had web sites they wanted to sell to publishers, not from publishers looking to buy operating web sites. I packed up the extra handouts and enjoyed the rest of the show.
Since 2008, the world has shifted a bit. Today, publishers do buy web sites. Just yesterday, F+W made a deal to purchase the Martha Pullen Company, which it describes as "a leading ecommerce provider, event producer, and content company in the sewing and craft category".
Not that long ago, companies like O'Reilly Media and platforms like Safari Books Online (which O'Reilly owns with Pearson) were considered the exception that proved the container-driven rule. Now, content, e-commerce and events (to borrow the phrasing) are increasingly seen as ways to surround an audience.
If there's a lesson here, it's probably not simply that publishers should buy web sites. Rather, publishing success starts with meeting the explicit and implicit needs of readers, and users, whatever those needs might imply.