Q&A: 250 Words Editors on the New Site’s Launch and Goals

Earlier this month, Simon & Schuster launched 250 Words, a website dedicated to the world of business books. The site features reviews and encourages discussion about all aspects of business book reading, writing and publishing—not just those published by Simon & Schuster.

Sam McNerney, executive editor of 250 Words, and Ben Loehnen, senior editor at Simon & Schuster, took the time to answer a few questions for Digital Book World about the site’s recent launch, goals and where it’s headed.

DBW: How was the launch? What are your initial impressions since the site went live earlier this month, and what was the response like?

Ben Loehnen (BL): The launch has been promising. Quite crucially, writers and publishers from across our industry have reached out with ideas for how to contribute, which will be vital for the success of the site. We want the site to be intelligent and curated—but we want the voices to be varied and surprising.

DBW: Unlike other publisher-driven verticals (e.g. HarperCollins’ Narnia.com) the site doesn’t publish paid content, include any ad space, or sell books. How are you measuring success?

BL: The most important benchmark will be that people come to the site, like what they read and share it with others. My dream, which I don’t think is unreasonable, is for posts on the site to become classic pieces of writing in their own right, and for readers to find books they never knew they needed.

DBW: Say I’m a casual reader of business books. What brings me to 250 Words for the first time, how do you keep me coming back, and how can I get in on the conversation beyond just reading the content?

Sam McNerney (SM): If you’re a casual reader of business books, you’re desperate for someone to distinguish between business books worth reading and business books worth ignoring. 250 Words makes those distinctions. The main component of the site is a 250-word-long essay that I write. Each essay is not a review or summary but a piece of wisdom or practical advice that mentions a business book—you can read it in three minutes but spend an afternoon thinking about it. In a world full of uninspiring business writing, the quality and freshness of these essays will keep you coming back. And, if you want to get involved in a conversation, we welcome comments in our comments section. Also, feel free to email me.

DBW: Can the site help Simon & Schuster learn more about what readers are after? How will 250 Words inform Simon & Schuster’s editorial strategy, if at all?

BL: That’s not part of our immediate strategy at this point, but it’s a good question. Presumably, if Sam finds a self-published author or an old book that’s out of print—or imagines a book idea for someone—I’d hope he’d tell me about it!

DBW: Publishers are thinking hard lately about building platforms for their authors. Do you see 250 Words helping to boost authors’ profiles?

BL: Yes, that’s the priority. The novelist Scott O’Connor wrote a haunting piece of personal remembrance about a friend’s neighborhood job on 250 Words last week. It’s an incredible piece of writing, and I hope I’m not the only reader of that piece who thought, “I have to read his books.” Similarly, Sam just did a Q&A with Kevin Roose, the author of Young Money, last week and a piece reflecting on an idea in Alex Ohanian’s new book, Without Their Permission. I want to read them both.

DBW: Apart from providing a forum for the world of business books, are there any other specific editorial angles you’re planning to focus on?

SM: I want the site to be a forum for quality writing and quality thinking first and foremost. Business books simply provide a good foundation. I want smart thinkers who are involved in business but would not identify themselves as “business people” involved. I’m talking about designers, copywriters, web developers and other creative workers. Our primary editorial angle is to be intellectually stimulating.

DBW: 250 Words is designed to be “publisher-agnostic.” Are there any guidelines in place to guarantee that approach? Have you encountered any reluctance on the part of other publishers or authors to participate? How do you overcome it?

BL: We hired Sam for his independence and his intelligence. I don’t want him paying attention to the colophon of the books he covers. I want him to sniff out the best stories and ideas. If he extols a Simon & Schuster book, great; if he criticizes one, so be it. As for other publishers, there’s been no resistance on their part; they’ve congratulated and thanked us. Many of them have sent us “care packages,” books old and forthcoming, with appeals for us to write about them. And we will.

DBW: Take us briefly through your long-term strategy. Where do you see 250 Words headed six or twelve months hence, and how are you planning to get there?

SM: We’d like to become a hub for smart business thinking, with a focus on books. Portions of the website are dedicated to new book releases (the Interview section) and the “Opinion” column features articles that comment on recent events (the business of the Olympics, to give a recent example), but we’re not a business news website. The great part of a strategy that focuses on quality writing and thinking is that we don’t have to worry about the next best thing or being the first to break a story. The daily 250-word essays feature books released both in the last six months and the last sixty years. The market for reflective, critically business thinking is large—and surprisingly empty. We’d like to keep moving into that space.

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