Lynn Liedman wakes up every morning looking for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. She’s been a loyal subscriber for years, but it wasn’t until this summer that she really got hooked.
She’s not reading for news. Instead, Liedman eagerly flips to the Variety section to read “Giving up the Ghost,” a novel split into bite-sized segments.
“I just like the idea of having a little bit every day to look forward to reading,” Liedman said by phone. “The next day, the paper comes and it’s like, ‘Oh what’s going to happen today?’ ”
“Giving up the Ghost,” written by Mary Logue, joins a collection of e-books the Star Tribune published last year, including “In the Footsteps of Little Crow” by Curt Brown and “The Cookie Book,” a collection of cookie recipes.
Kate Parry, assistant managing editor for special projects and features, said in a phone interview that this is the first time the newspaper has published fiction and “serialized it in the printed paper and on the website.”
Parry and Laurie Hertzel, senior editor for books, talked about how the e-book came together and shared strategies and tips for other publications trying similar projects.
Determining the right story — and writer — for an e-book
Because they wanted to publish a novel, Hertzel and Parry had to look for writers outside of the paper. The search for manuscripts took six weeks, beginning in February. Hertzel asked for recommendations from mystery bookstores in the Twin Cities, a small press specializing in mysteries, and the Loft Literary Center.
“I didn’t want to be inundated with manuscripts,” Hertzel said, noting that the Star Tribune team was juggling other full-time work for the paper while working on the e-book. She warned that publications looking for submissions shouldn’t open the floodgates — “it really will crush you.”
Hertzel whittled submissions down to six finished manuscripts from local authors. The editors wanted a “whodunit” so the story would have natural breaks and cliffhangers, encouraging readers to pick up the paper the next day.
They ultimately chose a ghost story by Logue, a local writer. The structure of the book, written in short chapters that could be divided into even smaller segments, made it “easier to break up for serializing,” Parry said.
Liedman said the story “struck” her because the protagonist’s grief over her husband’s death reminded Liedman of her own emotions after her daughter’s sudden death in 2004. Furthermore, Liedman enjoyed the “the Minnesota connection in ‘Giving up the Ghost’ ” with “references to Minnesota places.”
The Star Tribune negotiated a contract with Logue in April and the first episode of “Giving Up the Ghost” ran June 9. Parry said the Star Tribune worked with a law firm to draw up a traditional book contract “that’s very different [from] a freelancer’s contract. There are all kinds of rights issues connected to book publishing.” The Star Tribune offered Logue an advance and a percentage of royalties based on e-book sales.
Logue sees the project as a way for the publishing and journalism industry to experiment together and cross-promote.
“The other thing I get is my name in the paper for 50 days, which is huge publicity for me,” said Logue, who has seen an uptick in sales of her other mysteries on Amazon.com.
Figuring when/where to publish the story & who to involve
Serialized fiction is a centuries-old tradition; writers such as Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote some of their most famous novels as series first published in newspapers.
Parry said the editors deliberately avoided publishing on the front page of the Star Tribune because they “didn’t want to start it on page one and then jump back to the feature section,” Parry said. “We wanted to give people a habit.” On the first day, the story took up the entire cover of the Variety section, which seemed the best fit based on the novel’s themes. Since then, it has appeared either as “a narrow column down the side or a strip across the bottom of the page.”
Hertzel saw summer as the ideal time to experiment because there’s less news. People are on vacation — including journalists, meaning “that’s one less story reporters have to produce.”
The Star Tribune promoted the e-book with house ads, a daily countdown on the Variety cover, social media and e-book ads alongside every installment in print and online. The publishing team included Web designers, copy editors, primary editors, a designer producing the e-book, an artist to paint the cover and a designer to convert the painting to a digital image.
“Pretty soon, I had eight people sitting at the production meetings,” Parry said. Hertzel recommended smaller publications with limited resources cut the Web version or skip the e-book to make the project more manageable.
Interacting with readers
Hertzel held a live chat with Logue the Monday after the second installment appeared in the paper. According to Parry, approximately 600 people participated in the chat. The Star Tribune simultaneously conducted a poll asking people whether they believed in ghosts. (56 percent said yes.)
The e-book, Parry said, has received much more attention than the free version on the Star Tribune’s website (though readers would eventually hit the pay wall). Longform journalism “doesn’t read very well on a traditional website. You end up scrolling a long, long way,” she said. As for the decision to offer the e-book right away, Parry said that “there’s just a certain group of people who are impatient waiting around.”
Parry and Hertzel said they receive regular requests from readers like Liedman asking for another series next year but haven’t decided if they will do a project like this again.
“We’re just checking it like mad everyday to make sure we don’t have the wrong installment in the paper,” Parry said. “That’s our biggest terror right now.”