Starving to death on $200 million

Another “not really a book review”–I can’t resist this time, because I liked the subject matter so much during its brief existence.

To wit, The Industry Standard–a weekly magazine devoted to “the internet economy” that lasted about three years, from April 1998 through August 2001. It was well-written, much more skeptical than most magazines and trade papers related to dotcoms…and it went under rapidly and dramatically.

In my semi-random library borrowing, I sometimes turn to the 330-340 section to read about interesting or alarming business stories. Thus it was that I encountered Starving to Death on $200 Million: The Short, Absurd Life of The Industry Standard by James Ledbetter. Checked it out. Finished reading it last night.

It’s an odd and sad story. At its peak, the magazine was selling more ad pages than any other magazine and producing some thick, remarkably content-filled issues. Between September 2000 and February 2001, it even included an extra monthly issue, Grok (yes, a stupid name), devoted to a single theme each issue.

Maybe the magazine’s fate was sealed by the dotcom crash of 2001. Maybe it was corporate shenanigans. Maybe it was foolish long-term leases (including one lease for a substantial quantity of pricey New York office space that the magazine never used). Maybe it was all those things and more.

The book’s a good read, and Ledbetter’s fairly up front about his insider status (and possible lack of objectivity). He gets one simple fact surprisingly wrong for someone who moved to England and was in charge of the magazine’s foolish attempt at a “European edition” based in England–namely, he says that A4-size paper is taller in Europe than in the U.S., where it’s 8.5×11. Well, no: The standard “letter paper” in the U.S. is just that–letter paper, 8.5×11. It’s not called A4. A4 is a standard metric size paper used in most other countries; it’s taller and narrower than letter paper. What Ledbetter says is like saying that the liter is larger in Europe than in the U.S., where it’s 32oz… (yes, a liter is a little larger than a quart; no, nobody in the U.S. calls a quart a liter–and they don’t call 8.5×11″ paper “A4” either).

That’s trivial, although a good copy editor should have caught it. I wish there was another book on the subject with a different perspective, but I don’t find one, and that’s not surprising.

Oh, one point in passing: This book is seven years old and only held by 240+ libraries on I could see some libraries weeding it because, you know, it’s old news. For larger libraries, I think that’s a shame–and I was saddened by the Awful Library Books blog naming Megatrends as a book that should be weeded. In that case, at least for larger libraries, weeding old futurist books full of bad projections by Gurus is a great way to help assure that Gurus will never be called to task: Their old bad projections simply disappear. I love reading the old projections; it helps provide insight into the quality of current work. I’d hate it if the public libraries I use made a practice of weeding such books simply because they’re old. (Yes, I know weeding has to happen in most public libraries. I just hate to see it being at the expense of being able to follow contemporary history.)

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