By: Heidi Kulicke
As traditional revenue channels for newspapers collapse, publishers are seeking new and innovative ways to make a profit without expending a lot of resources. Finding the appropriate niche is the key to survival, and newspapers that recognize this are dipping their hands into everything from cookbooks to bridal guides. This first installment in our recurring series on niche publishing looks at e-books as a means of bolstering the bottom line.
In late December, Amazon announced that 2011 was the Kindle family’s most successful holiday season ever. More than 4 million Kindle devices were sold in December, and gifting of e-books was up 175 percent compared to December 2010. Couple those statistics with the iPad’s continually impressive sales numbers and the growing market share of other Android-powered tablets, and there’s clearly a massive opportunity for e-books to reshape the publishing industry.
The Rise Of The e-Book
Amazon announced in May 2011 that it’s now selling more e-books than print editions, just four years after launching the Kindle. Amazon stated in a release that 2011 was the fastest year-over-year growth rate for its U.S. book sales in more than a decade, including both e-books and print.
Amazon said its Kindle Store has close to 1 million e-books available in multiple languages. In a report released in December 2011, research firm Juniper Research predicted that mobile e-book sales will reach roughly $9.7 billion by 2016, up from $3.2 billion in 2011. The company attributes this jump to the increasing availability and popularity of e-reader devices, and the rise of brand bookstore apps such as Apple’s iBookstore and Amazon’s Kindle Store.
Newspapers Sign On
The Boston Globe views ebooks as one piece of a successful publishing future. “We’re always looking for opportunities for long-form journalism,” said Janice Page, the Globe’s book development editor. The Globe has published paper books for many years, including e-book companions. With the popularity of ebooks increasing, Page said the company is ready to place a sharper emphasis on e-book publishing.
Several newspapers are dabbling with e-books as well, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times.
“As a content company, we are enthusiastic about harnessing new mediums and business models that expand the reach of our unique storytelling,” Los Angeles Times president Kathy Thomson said in a release. “The immediacy of e-book publishing allows us to easily adapt Times coverage to a convenient reader experience that’s being heavily embraced.”
A handful of other news organizations have released e-books, including The New Yorker, ABC News, Politico, Vanity Fair, The Huffington Post, and Time. Topics have ranged from crime and justice to celebrities and entertainment; terrorism and foreign policy to business and economy; politics and government to history and culture.
E-books have the potential to be a legitimate money-maker in the future, as more and more readers embrace digital options. Newspapers have a built-in advantage in this market, because they have an abundance of content available. “It’s not a high cost to put out e-books, so it makes sense for us,” Page said.
Final e-book prices to the consumer vary depending on several factors, such as length, exclusivity, and the amount of bonus material and multimedia. The Los Angeles Times priced its first e-book at $0.99. Multimedia-rich e-books produced by ABC News on the Amanda Knox trial and the British royal wedding were $9.99. Many news organizations have priced their e-books at less than $5.
One of the benefits to e-book publishing is the short production cycle available to publishers. While a printed book can take a year or more to be ready for distribution, e-books can be sold to the public in a matter of days from initial conception.
Choosing A Topic
News organizations seeking to enter the e-book market can capitalize on the vast amount of content they already have available, especially current events. Discovering what content is of interest to readers is a vital aspect to the success of an e-book. Focusing on what type of content your newspaper does best is a smart move, and for many newspapers, crime and investigative pieces are a good place to start.
The Boston Globe’s first solo e-book venture was actually a three-part series. The newspaper published a trio of e-books on longtime FBI fugitive gangster Whitey Bulger — “Whitey’s Fall,” “The Bulger Mystique,” and “Whitey and the FBI” — just seven days after he was captured in June 2011.
Staff and administration at the Globe had known for some time that they wanted to do an e-book-only topic but didn’t know where to start. Because Bulger had been a captivating topic for its audience for many years, the Globe “jumped on it when Whitey was captured,” said Jeff Moriarty, vice president of digital products. “We had a quick conversation with editor Marty Baron and got some context, then did a little editing here and there from archived material. The next day the preface was written and the entire thing formatted, and in a week it was being sold,” he said.
Page admitted the Globe is “experimenting” with topics it thinks will be popular with e-book readers — the only way to know is to try. “This is a new universe for everyone, and we don’t know what will inspire people to buy e-books. What we did know was that our audience had a keen interest in the Bulger story. We had decades of reporting, so it made sense for us to package it somehow,” she said.
The Los Angeles Times made its ebook debut in mid- November 2011 with the release of “A Nightmare Made Real” by staff writer Christopher Goffard. Goffard’s account of violent criminal acts committed by Las Vegas banker Louis Gonzalez III, which put the man in prison for life, was one of the Times’ most-read stories last year.
By buying the e-book, readers will also have access to new features they haven’t seen before, even if they followed the case closely. For example, “Nightmare” readers can expect new material, including detailed portraits of key players in the case, and a deeper look at the alleged suicide note that emerged at a pivotal moment in the case, said Nancy Sullivan, Times vice president of communications. Goffard also provides an account of how the story began through an unlikely tip and grew into a narrative.
The Times may release up to 10 e-books this year as part of a wave of different topics the newspaper is eager to try out. Future ideas include everything from recipe compilations, photo-driven narratives, Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage, and topical e-singles, as well as short- and long-form stories, Sullivan said.
“E-books offer an exciting opportunity to take the Times’ world-class journalism and present it as a different reading experience,” former editor Russ Stanton said in a release. “Be it an overview of a significant news event, a collection of Steve Lopez columns, or a dip into our rich archives, we’re excited to release titles that span our areas of expertise and can be easily and conveniently accessed.”
Discovery And Monetization
Of course, having the content and publishing the e-book are not enough to make the whole venture worth the expenditure. In a company blog post, Dan Tonkery, president of Content Strategies, Inc., wrote that discovery and monetization are the two greatest challenges publishers face in the ebook arena.
In today’s competitive market, a steady supply of high-quality content and a rapidly expanding e-reader user base aren’t enough to guarantee success. More than ever, content needs to be discoverable. At the annual Book Expo in New York City last summer, Tonkery said discovery was a main issue of concern. “Publishers are worried consumers are not going to be able to find newly published books, as the traditional marketing and sales channels are not as useful in the digital age,” he said.
Several start-up companies are working to solve the problem of discovery by creating tools for publishers to suggest content to readers, rather than relying on the reader to stumble across something she finds interesting. Such tools would know the reader’s particular tastes and be able to make recommendations for future reads based on those tastes.
BookTour, an online directory of authors funded by Amazon, is currently developing software to help publishers tackle book promotion. Other start-ups such as Goodreads and BookGlutton are focusing on engineering or social media-like experiences to help users discover new books to read.
Opinions vary regarding the best way to monetize e-books. Tonkery suggests publishers work out a pricing strategy that will enable a user to buy the full book, a chapter, a paragraph, a chart, a photograph, or any other unit that can be supported. “We need the systems in place to allow users to acquire information in any number of units or subunits,” he said.
Not all newspapers have the time, staff, or resources to successfully churn out an e-book on the first try. With the exception of technology-driven organizations, most publishers will turn to third-party vendors for their digital publishing solutions.
When selecting a company to assist with e-book production, look for high-quality, cost-effective delivery to a number of different e-reader devices, smartphones, and tablets, Tonkery said. “The company not only has to help prepare the content for the appropriate e-reader format, it must also assist with the distribution to Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Sony, and others.”
Data Conversion Laboratory, a provider of digital publishing services, released a survey in December 2011 drawn from a cross section of the publishing industry. DCL president Mark Gross said the survey found 70 percent of respondents cited quality as the most important consideration when publishing an e-book, showing that publishers acknowledge reader dissatisfaction with errors, whether in print or digital form.
Additionally, 64 percent of the respondents said they plan to publish nonfiction and technical digital content — a great sign for newspapers that want to find a way to monetize archived news content through e-book publishing. This shows a shift from consumers using e-readers for casual reading of novels to more businessdriven, news-oriented stories, the study concluded.
Future Of e-Books
Figuring out the best way to include advertisers will be an important step in the success of e-books. When appropriate, the Los Angeles Times may consider mixing customer payment with advertiser involvement, Sullivan said. “We anticipate innovative partnerships may well be part of the slate of e-books we’ll roll out in 2012,” she said.
The Times will be looking at different product bundles and opportunities to reach new audiences, or provide bonus enticements for existing subscribers to expand their relationships with the newspaper. That may take the form of working with flash sale sites or other subscription incentives such as free tote bags and mugs, Sullivan said.
The Boston Globe will continue to react to news such as the Whitey Bulger capture but sees news as only the beginning. Future e-book ideas being tossed around include everything from sports, politics, travel, and food, to fiction, including the young adult category. “We’re talking to publishers, researching, finding our place. Looking at what we can do to bring something unique that makes us competitive and that our readers will respond to, where we can be seen as an authority,” Page said. “Topics that speak to the coverage we’ve amassed and topics that are identifiably Boston.”