The Times piece ends with the claim that “If all the book revenue were to go away,” that Zagat would have to have “a couple of million people” paying $24.95 annual site membership or for its $9.95 annual mobile app to stay profitable. Fine, but why would all the book revenue “go away,” when those books are consistently on best-seller lists?
Admittedly, not every company can do well with the Zagat formula. If Nina and Tim Zagat had started their company in 2010, rather than 1982, they probably would have had no choice but to start giving away their content online for free, like all companies that start up without any name recognition. But as their story shows, they slowly and organically became known as tastemakers, offline and through word of mouth. The Times article points out that banks, ad agencies and other companies made a habit of ordering custom guides for their clients; “One year, Bank of America ordered five million [copies].”
Now, almost three decades after they self-published their first book, their brand name is synonymous with “taste.” Why shouldn’t they trade on that asset? Why shouldn’t they charge for their content, if people are willing to pay for it? It seems odd of the Times to so roundly criticize Zagat for not giving up the opportunity to make money one way now, in favor of the far-off potential of making money a different way in the future. And why does the Times article assume that “free,” “search-optimized,” and “viral” are best practices for all content providers? The Zagats haven’t given away any of their content for free, ever since the sale of their first book, and their company still makes money. Given the current state of publishing, that’s something.