What news organizations are learning from their ebook efforts

News organizations have responded to changes in readers’ habits by moving beyond the newsstand and toward the bookshelf, zeroing in on ebooks as a new revenue source and a way to explore genres not typically found on front pages or home pages.

The ebook market’s growth has strengthened bonds between publications and readers, particularly for news organizations that choose to publish their ebooks in-house rather than work with a publishing company. Some news organizations’ ebooks are entirely new writing and reporting, while others repackage archived material as commemorative collections or primers about topics of interest.

“We think [ebooks] are ideally suited to the rhythms of a newspaper, where we are writing the first draft of history every day,” Vince Bzdek, deputy national political editor and lead for ebooks at The Washington Post, said in an email. “Ebooks are like the second draft, so [it] feels like a natural fit for us.”

Publishing fiction, resurfacing evergreen content

The Minneapolis Star Tribune’s latest ebook, published in-house, is a work of fiction. The book, “Giving Up the Ghost,” will also be serialized in the paper’s Variety section, beginning in early June and continuing daily over the summer.

“Our editor has always wanted to do a serialized book,” Kate Parry, assistant managing editor for special projects and features at the Star Tribune, said in a phone interview.

The Star Tribune has three other ebooks, one of which is a collection of cookie recipes from an annual reader contest. Parry said the cookbook has been a consistent seller because the paper can market it at different times of the year; the paper first sold it during the holiday season and is now advertising it as a Mother’s Day gift.

However, it was the success of the Star Tribune’s first ebook, “In the Footsteps of Little Crow,” that convinced the paper such ventures were worthwhile and could be managed in-house.

“We knew we were doing ‘Little Crow’ as a narrative series … and that each installment would be lengthy,” Parry said. Since she thought a long-form story would be hard to read on the paper’s website, she suggested the paper publish the entire series as an ebook as soon as the first installment appeared in print.

Parry said the ebook exceeded the paper’s expectations and ended up peaking at the thirteenth slot on the New York Times ebook bestseller list. It also reached No. 8 on the history bestseller list in the Apple bookstore.

Creating resources for students

Ebooks have been marketed as consumer products, but sales have also been driven by schools. Parry says schools are interested in “Little Crow” because the series covers parts of Minnesota history that textbooks only discuss briefly.

Such sales, she said, have contributed to the “significant staying power” of sales for “Little Crow.”

Other publications, including The New York Times, are marketing ebooks as educational resources.

“Education companies as well as school districts are looking for reality-based content,” Vice President of News Services Alice Ting said by phone. “There’s nothing more reality-based than the news.” She added that for students ebooks are “almost like a primer, an introduction to a topic.”

Turning reported stories into ebooks

Ting said ebooks have offered the Times a chance to explore topics in greater depth than the limits of column inches allow. This was the case for “Snow Fall,” which was published online and in print, but expanded for publication as an ebook. So far, ebooks springing from current events have begun as Times stories, with the exception of David Leonhardt’s ebook “Here’s the Deal.”

“We’re relying on a lot of our reporters to put together some original work … in addition to their general reporting duties,” Ting said. “The stuff that’s being published reflects the brand, at the end of the day.”

The Atlantic also tries to reflect its editorial voice in its ebook efforts. The magazine recently launched those efforts with “Denial” by Jonathan Rauch.

“This is right in our wheelhouse,” Geoffrey Gagnon, a senior editor at The Atlantic who’s been assigned to work on ebooks, said by phone.

Atlantic Digital Vice President and General Manager Kimberly Lau agreed, noting that the “hallmark of our audience” is that they’ve come to expect a “wide variety of topics” from the magazine.

“We’re trying to be very deliberate … our intention is not to flood the zone,” Gagnon said.

The Times has also given beat reporters a chance to expand on a particular topic in ebook format. This was the case with “Asperger Love,” written by Amy Harmon and published by the Times and Byliner — a publishing company that produces e-singles. The ebook was a continuation of Harmon’s 2011 article “Navigating Love and Autism,” which won an award from the Society of the Silurians.

Publishing ebooks in-house

For some newspapers, the decision to publish new or repackaged material is secondary to concerns about how to publish in the first place. One key difference between ebooks and traditional books is ebooks are published much more quickly.

For example, Bzdek said the Post’s ebook “The Hunt for bin Laden” was published a month after bin Laden was found. “Normally such a book would take at least a year to get to market,” he said.

There’s also the question of whether to work with a publishing house or produce ebooks within the news organization. The Star Tribune has produced its ebooks in-house; an artist at the paper painted the cover art for “Giving Up the Ghost,” while a photographer for the paper took the photograph used on the cover of “Little Crow.” Star Tribune designers have also worked on text layouts.

“It’s all by people who normally put out newspapers,” Parry said. “We’re lucky we have some excellent designers… [It] gives them a chance to use some skills that are out of their normal wheelhouse.”

The Boston Globe also designs its ebooks in-house, but worked with publisher WW Norton to produce an ebook edition of a recent biography of Whitey Bulger, which Norton published simultaneously in print. Once the Globe saw the work that went into making an ebook, the paper decided to move such efforts in-house.

“We thought, ‘Hell, we can do that,’ ” Dan Zedek, assistant managing editor at the Globe, said by phone. To Zedek, ebooks represent work the Globe is already known for. “It positions us almost to be a regional publishing company in the same way that we’re a regional newspaper.”

In some ways, ebooks at the Globe have turned the traditional publishing model on its head. For example, the Globe published an ebook, “Boston by Air,” that it now plans to offer as a physical edition. The book is a collection of aerial photographs by David L. Ryan that have run in the paper.

“We wouldn’t have thought about them as a collection if we didn’t have ebooks,” Zedek said.

Publishing ebooks with outside help

Other organizations, among them the Times, have partnered with ebook publishing companies such as Byliner.

“It was clear to us several years ago, when we first began developing the idea for Byliner, that there were fewer and fewer opportunities for great writers to continue to publish the kind of ambitious work that brought them into this field in the first place,” Mark Bryant, the company’s editor and co-founder, said in an email interview.

Bryant attributed the decline in longform journalism in print to declining ad revenue and shrinking space.

“We realized there was a sweet spot — for writers and for Byliner — in that space between magazines and books,” he said.

Byliner has published content with the Times, Esquire, New York magazine and others, as well as work from writers such as Amy Tan and Chuck Palahniuk. Bryant told me the majority of Byliner’s published work has been original. While there have been opportunities to work together, newspapers and companies like Byliner have also jumped at the opportunity to work on their own independent projects.

As the e-reader market expands — the Kindle and Nook now face competition from tablets such as the iPad and Surface — there’s a lot of room for growth in the ebook market. News organizations face new competition from publishing houses, as well as independent ebook producers.

While efforts between publishers and papers have been collaborative so far, Bryant noted that such efforts are no longer just about the market for news.

“If there’s competition — and there is — it’s about competing for people’s time, their attention out there there in the larger news-and-entertainment universe,” he said.

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  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Agreed, Matt. I think there’s another story to be done on revenue from eBook projects. We hope to cover it at some point in the near future.

    ~Mallary Tenore

  • http://twitter.com/mattderienzo Matt DeRienzo

    One thing not addressed in this article, that I’d be interested in hearing about, is publishers’ experience with revenue on eBook projects. We are about to do our first and really have no idea what to expect. What has trial and error been on pricing, return on investment?

  • King-Stanley-Krauter

    Readers of online newspapers would buy more ebooks if the newspapers really knew what their readers wanted. This could be accomplished if the online newspapers programmed their print and email buttons to remember every selection made by a reader. Then after ten to fifteen selections, the newspaper could send a reader an offer to buy an ebook with all of his selections. These emails could also include advertisements for ebooks that were edited by the newspaper. And with the technology for print on demand books, some readers will want to buy a real book instead of an ebook. The print and email buttons could also generate revenue if the newspaper charged a small fee for remembering the selections. And the small fee could be a psychological incentive for paying a higher cost if the newspaper implements a paywall. But this will never happen because newspaper reporters are not really interested in what their readers want or need. If they were interested, they would realize that their readers are not taking notes when they read a newspaper. Which is why surveys by the news media have shown repeatedly that most voters are too ignorant to vote intelligently. Almost everything that a reporter writes about in his daily first draft of history is being forgotten as white noise. But reporters are not interested in communicating like a teacher instead of an entertainer by writing an annual one week second draft of history.