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IQ News: Big Book, An Early Web Star, Makes Hasty Exit

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Big Book, considered a top online yellow pages contender less than a year ago, is pulling out of the business and is seeking a buyer for its directory. The decision by the San Francisco company, one of the few entirely independent online business directories left, has led many industry insiders to speculate that a further shakeout is imminent with large telecommunications companies such as GTE and Bell Atlantic, with strong online directory brands in Big Yellow and SuperPages, respectively, seizing control.
Big Book is shopping its online directory (www.bigbook.com) and has found a prospective buyer, said chief executive officer Woody Hobbs. The company has decided to concentrate on a network marketing business--or the building and hosting of Web sites for small businesses combined with the sale of ad space on other online yellow pages. Advertising on bigbook.com was its primary source of revenue a year ago. Today, it's not even a consideration, according to Hobbs: "Ad revenue, unless you're in the top five Web sites, doesn't have any hope of paying the bills."
One source said the asking price for the directory could be as low as $2 million. Hobbs wouldn't comment on the price and said he was unsure whether the company would be able to retain its name after the sale of the directory.
Sources said Big Book's ad revenue and traffic figures have been on a continual slide. As of January, Big Book was attracting 238,000 unique visitors per month, according to Media Metrix, New York; last summer the company boasted 1 million visitors monthly.
Big Book's folly, according to critics, is the company's failure to secure distribution deals on popular Web sites or spend money to advertise the brand. Kris Hagerman, the founder of Big Book, said last year that advertising the brand was not necessary to its business success. Launching early into the marketplace in 1996, Big Book had generated considerable buzz, and some investors were predicting a public stock offering this year.
But the business environment has changed. Telcos and Yahoo have now been lured into the category, seeking to grab a chunk of the $12 billion-plus business print yellow pages market.
"My observation about this industry is that consumers are not brand loyal at this point," said Cheryl Lester, director of marketing for Vicinity Corp., the Palo Alto, Calif.-based supplier of yellow page listings to Yahoo.
--with Laura Rich