BuzzFeed, famous for its viral quizzes, listicles and exploding watermelon videos, has added another line to its colorful resume: bestselling publisher.
The online media outlet has sold more than 100,000 copies of its self-published “Tasty the Cookbook” in less than two months. It marks BuzzFeed Inc.’s biggest success yet in its recent e-commerce push and highlights how new technology lets authors, especially those with large online followings like BuzzFeed, bypass the traditional gatekeepers of book publishing.
“I’m sure there are book publishers that are a little freaked out by this,” said Ashley McCollum, general manager of BuzzFeed’s Tasty, which reaches 500 million people a month with short online cooking videos that get shared across social media.
Lorraine Shanley, a publishing consultant, called BuzzFeed’s sales “impressive,” especially since the book didn’t have a celebrity chef attached to it. The New York Times bestseller list typically requires sales of at least 25,000 or 30,000 books over three months to make its rankings, said Shanley, president of Market Partners International. Because the Times surveys retailers, BuzzFeed didn’t qualify.
Instead of printing thousands of copies at once like most publishers, BuzzFeed’s cookbook is printed on-demand, one at a time, and can be customized. Customers can choose from 21 categories of recipes on Tasty’s website. New York-based BuzzFeed used its massive social-media reach to promote the cookbook. McCollum said working with a traditional publisher would have taken too long and most couldn’t offer a customized book.
Online, the most popular recipe is a 100-second video with techno music thumping in the background showing four ways to make sliders: barbecue chicken, cheeseburger, chicken Parmesan and breakfast sliders. It has 170 million views.
“The idea of a customizable book would have seemed crazy to most publishers,” McCollum said.
These days it’s relatively easy to publish a book. New technology allows writers to load their manuscripts into a template and print using off-the-shelf technology. Several companies, like Reedsy, offer self-published authors copy editing, design and marketing services. And customized books are especially popular in children’s publishing.
“The barriers to entry are getting lower every day,” Shanley said.
Yet not everyone can do what BuzzFeed did. Novels, for instance, don’t lend themselves to customization. Most authors aren’t celebrities and don’t have big social-media platforms like BuzzFeed, so they must rely on the marketing muscle that traditional publishers provide.
BuzzFeed’s cookbook ranges from $24 in paperback to $39 for a gift set that includes a hardcover cookbook and apron. BuzzFeed declined to provide revenue figures, but given those prices, sales would range between $2.4 million and $3.9 million.
That would be a relatively small fraction of the overall business at BuzzFeed, which is valued at about $1.7 billion, based on recent funding from Comcast Corp.’s NBCUniversal. Still, e-commerce is providing a new revenue stream at a time when growth in online advertising is dominated by Google and Facebook.
Publishing a cookbook is one way that BuzzFeed is expanding beyond its online roots. Fueled by two $200 million investments from NBC, BuzzFeed is looking to expand into TV and movies. Its cookbook was created by the company’s new Product Lab, which started two months ago to focus on e-commerce. Another new product from the lab is the “Fondoodler,” which is “a hot glue gun for cheese,” said Ben Kaufman, who leads Product Lab and founded Quirky, a startup that builds products for companies.
BuzzFeed also sells a variety of products, such as tote bags and wine glasses, that feature four-letter profanities printed on them, as well as $30 “homesick candles,” which target people on Facebook who recently moved with candles that smell like the place where they’re from. A candle for someone from Georgia smells like peaches, while one for someone Florida smells like oranges. Kaufman said BuzzFeed sells “tens of thousands of candles a month.”
It’s all part of BuzzFeed’s push to use its intellectual property, like Tasty, to find new revenue. As another example, BuzzFeed has taken a story by one of its reporters who had his iPhone stolen and turned it into a Warner Bros.-produced movie featuring “Big Bang Theory” star Jim Parsons.
“When you build intellectual property, the business opportunities are endless,” McCollum said.