MightyWords Survives Stephen King Nightmare
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report
CEO

MightyWords Survives Stephen King Nightmare

King's publisher saw MightyWords as a competitor and refused to let the company carry “Riding The Bullet” on its Web site.

Paul Holmes

 

MightyWords, an online marketplace for digital content, was about to launch its Web site in March 2000. But it was heading dangerously close to an unavoidable identity crisis – MightyWords was a new subdivision of its publicly held parent company, and targeted a completely different audience. The impending MightyWords launch had tremendous potential to cause confusion and doubt among the media and the parent company’s stockholders.

To make matters worse, potentially damaging news from a well-known publishing company broke two weeks before the launch. Getting positive press in the midst of this chaos seemed about as likely as a cheerful ending in a Stephen King novel. It became clear that MightyWords’ success rested largely on the ability of its PR team to find the silver lining in this nightmare, and to roll out a national public launch that would create and maintain buzz, momentum, traffic and sales for MightyWords.

MightyWords – where publishers, authors and readers can come to buy and sell compelling, downloadable written material – faced two formidable challenges. First, MightyWords, a pure consumer play, had to be positioned to the media and analyst communities in a way that would clearly distinguish it from its parent company, Fatbrain.com, an online business-to-business bookseller. A&R Partners, MightyWords’ public relations agency, sought to achieve this clarity without diluting the strength of MightyWords’ association with Fatbrain.com, which had earned a reputation as an innovator and market leader. The consumer-focused MightyWords needed to be seen as a logical and sensible step in the overall vision of the publicly held, business-focused Fatbrain.com. Any perceived inconsistencies in the company’s vision could negatively influence Fatbrain.com’s stock price.

Second, MightyWords executives immediately needed a set of messages that would effectively minimize being left out of Stephen King’s first online novella deal. News of King’s digital novella broke on the first day of MightyWords' media and analyst tour in February 2000. So MightyWords’ messages would need to have big-picture appeal, and a more market-influencing news hook that would allow the Web site to get equal or even more attention than the King news. In addition, A&R would need to craft a logical and positive answer to why MightyWords was shut out of the deal.

THE MARKET BACKGROUND

Online bookstores had been hot news for years, but electronic books really hit business and consumer radar screens in mid-1999. However, the ability to sell books through Amazon.com or to buy novels in digital form was just the beginning of an online technology movement that would radically re-shape the publishing industry and change lives. There was still plenty of room for improvement and growth in both the traditional and digital publishing markets. The profitability and survival of most written work was still dependent on a centuries-old publishing model, and unknown writers had few avenues for exposure.

Before MightyWords, the only way for an unknown writer to publish and receive payment for written work – online or otherwise – was to pay large fees to a “vanity publisher.” The vanity publisher would print copies of the book but make no effort to market it or sell it. Further, there was no publishing venue – online or in print – for written work that was longer than a magazine article but shorter than a book – such as a speech, short story, movie script, research report or white paper.

Fast-forward to March 2000: Enter MightyWords. At the time of the launch, MightyWords was a division of parent company Fatbrain.com, a publicly traded business-to-business company that sells technical publications online and creates custom online bookstores for its customers. MightyWords was introduced as a Fatbrain.com concept in August 1999. The concept was called the ‘eMatter initiative,’ and its raison d’être was to offer authors a way to publish and sell their original written work – specifically, work longer than a magazine article but shorter than a book. The eMatter initiative let people do something they couldn’t have done before – publish, buy and sell written work in a secure online environment that guaranteed royalties on every copy distributed, with no restriction on size or topic. Thousands of writers logged on to post their work, and material was organized by business and technical categories, and by lighter categories such as health, romance, fiction, humor and poetry.

THE CHALLENGES:

Impressed by the public’s overwhelming demand for original written work online, Fatbrain.com planned to launch the initiative into a new consumer Web site, under the name MightyWords, in March 2000. Fatbrain.com believed MightyWords would be the digital world’s champion for profitable self-publishing.

At the time, Fatbrain.com had no immediate plans to push out MightyWords as a separate company, and was determined to co-exist with its new consumer-oriented Web site, mightywords.com. Fatbrain.com planned to look at the outcome of the MightyWords’ launch as a determinant for what would become of its new subsidiary. The new two-track arrangement of Fatbrain.com and MightyWords created a challenge in explaining the viability and benefits of the relationship between the consumer-centric MightyWords and the business-centric Fatbrain.com.

Stephen King’s release of a 66-page electronic book, “Riding The Bullet,” complicated matters just before the MightyWords launch. While the offering of King’s online-only novella was a huge validator for the digital publishing market, it also led to an unexpected setback for MightyWords. King's publisher, Simon & Schuster, saw MightyWords as a competitor and refused to let the company carry “Riding The Bullet” on its Web site. To make matters worse, MightyWords was one of the only sites banned from carrying King’s anticipated new work, which was otherwise available at barnesandnoble.com, Amazon.com and other Web sites.

THE STRATEGY:

A&R had a two-pronged strategy.

1) Minimize the confusion

A&R scheduled a Fatbrain.com press and analyst outreach program to revisit the company’s key targets in the weeks before the MightyWords launch. A&R’s objective: Clearly define Fatbrain.com's role as a business-to-business player to minimize potential confusion when consumer-focused MightyWords launched. MightyWords was not discussed during this outreach to press and analysts.

A&R followed up the Fatbrain.com outreach program with a full-scale bicoastal press and analyst tour for MightyWords. A&R facilitated more than 40 interviews with more than 60 national media and analyst targets in the two weeks prior to the launch. Rather than ignore MightyWords’ roots, A&R incorporated MightyWords’ history into the press and analyst briefings. MightyWords executives presented the new division as a sensible evolution of Fatbrain.com’s successful eMatter initiative – that it was only logical to shape what had developed into a strong entity all on its own, to name it and to present it as a new consumer site. This sensible move would let MightyWords grow while letting Fatbrain.com focus on what it does best – online, custom business and technical bookstore development.

2) Re-position the negative into a strong news angle

A&R turned the Stephen King dilemma on its head by positioning the story as an emerging struggle between old-school publishing versus new-school publishing. A&R argued persuasively that the struggle would have dramatic implications for consumers, effectively minimizing what would prove to be short-lived news about MightyWords being left out of a partnership deal.

THE RESULTS:

MightyWords’ official launch date was March 16, 2000. Coverage of the launch was reported by more than 65 top national news outlets, including launch-day stories in USA Today, Business Week and The Wall Street Journal, plus live interviews with MightyWords’ Chief Executive Officer Chris MacAskill on CNBC and CNN. Additional coverage of the launch ran in TIME magazine, CNET, Dow Jones News Service, San Francisco Chronicle, “CBS Marketwatch” and other notable magazines, newspapers and publishing journals.

Coverage was glowing overall. It focused on how MightyWords was democratizing the Internet and bringing the first significant changes to the publishing industry since the Gutenberg Press. USA Today, in particular, wrote an engaging article about MightyWords on launch day. A favorable quote in the article, from an Aberdeen analyst, validates MightyWords’ market, estimating it could reach “$10 billion in four years.” Newt Gingrich, Coretta Scott King, Whoopi Goldberg and Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg all wrote pieces for the Web site. The article also includes a quote from MacAskill and the mightywords.com link.

A good deal of MightyWords’ coverage explained MightyWords’ ties to Fatbrain.com, and the two businesses were never confused. The February 2000 press and analyst outreach program for Fatbrain.com kept the media in line with the company’s core focus on business-to-business, and the stock price remained steady through the MightyWords launch.

MightyWords’ messaging for the Stephen King novella snub was confident and powerful. Reporters and analysts were hooked by a compelling story of old, brick-and-mortar publishing houses battling with young scrappy e-publishing sites – a battle with an outcome still undetermined, but one that would impact the way the written word would be sold and read. This messaging helped the MightyWords story piggy-back on many stories intended to be exclusively about the King novella.
The buzz flowing through the press and analyst communities created substantial momentum for MightyWords. The new Web site had more activity in its first month of existence than the preceding four months when it was known under the eMatter initiative name. The success of the launch encouraged Fatbrain.com to spin off MightyWords into a separate, privately held company in June 2000. MightyWords has since been able to close a round of funding, obtaining $36 million from barnesandnoble.com, Vulcan Ventures and others. The company’s publishing model was so compelling that barnesandnoble.com, one of the sites that was allowed to carry King’s “Riding the Bullet,” acquired MightyWords in October 2000. MightyWords today aggregates and distributes unique, compelling material from publishers, authors and experts from its Web site and through partners like barnesandnoble.com and Fatbrain.com. Fatbrain.com continues to successfully build custom bookstores and manage information for Fortune 500 companies.

Article tags
Technology-New Media
comments powered by Disqus