Fast Company

Is Yahoo Burning Tumblr's Books?

Tumblr has long been a spawning ground for books about everything from parenting to hipsters to rap, but as the network's Yahoo-ification continues, some wonder if it will be harder for publishers to find new titles.

When Yahoo acquired Tumblr in May for more than $1 billion, there was more than sufficient outcry: Some users fled, others criticized the deal, likening Yahoo to a "mom trying to be hip." The message from Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer was that she wouldn't "screw it up." But based on what's happened since, it seems like she's done just that--and the folks in the print-book publishing industry who, for the last six years, have relied on Tumblr blogs to produce a steady stream of readily marketable content, could feel the effect.

Just before he sold the company, Tumblr CEO David Karp told PaidContent Live that more than 70 Tumblrs have made the leap from the web to the printed page, culled from the roughly 130 million blogs on the platform. These Tumblr-to-books cover topics from parenting to hipsters to rap. This system relied, of course, on Tumblr's vast audience to elevate content worth looking at. Yahoo, however, seems to be doing its best to alienate both creators and readers, first by increasing the ad presence on users' dashboards, then by announcing that it would render its vast collection of adult-themed Tumblrs unsearchable (a decision they eventually reversed following mass public outcry). A few weeks later, BuzzFeed's John Herrman noticed a potentially troubling drop in unique visitors to Tumblr, leading many to wonder if Tumblr was losing its cool.

So with conditions at Tumblr so volatile, what does that mean for publishers who poached ideas from the network?

Likely nothing, at least for the time being. Because deals happen directly between publishers and creators, there's little in the way of damage that any new Yahoo-imposed regulation would be able to do. The changes could still have indirect effects, however: Kate McKean of the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency, who's been scouring Tumblr for clients for the last two years and has found several clients there, sees danger in two possible, though improbable, scenarios. "I think the worst thing that could happen is that they change the interface in a way that makes people not want to use it," McKean says. "The user is fickle." She also expressed concerns that altering the site’s terms of service to somehow monetize user information, content permissions could push users--and potential authors--away. A permission backlash is not unheard of, as with the reaction to Instagram's terms of service change back in December.

Rachel Fershleiser, who heads Tumblr’s literary outreach team, isn't concerned. "I think Yahoo bought us because they’re interested in a big community of creative people and will only put more resources toward it," she says. "It's been very clear that Tumblr is going to stay Tumblr.” To Fershleiser, the only way to shut down the platform’s budding creators would be to fundamentally change Tumblr’s share-heavy philosophy. “If Yahoo was going to turn off reblogs, you couldn’t build an audience anymore. I can’t imagine," she says.

So Fershleiser has faith, but the future, as they say, is unwritten. Besides, says McKean, "if I knew the wonderful ways to easily monetize websites, I probably wouldn’t be a literary agent."

[Image: Flickr user Courtney Emery]

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1 Comments

  • Sarah Jocson

     It was really a good question. The idea for Tumblr was to offer a simple way for anyone to start a blog and involve the audience.