Ebook Experiments Adding Value to Newspaper Subscribers


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Article ImageNot only has the ease of digital publishing made it possible for everyone to be a publisher, it's also made it possible for big-name, traditional publishers to branch out into new territory. Wanting to offer subscribers more for their money-or simply seeking to diversify their overall offerings--various high-profile newspapers, including the The Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times, have gotten into the business of publishing ebooks.

"Newspapers are finally moving beyond the one product/one price model," observes Ken Doctor, a leading news industry analyst and the author of Newsonomics: Twelve New Trends That Will Shape the News You Get. "These are companies that are content-producing giants, yet they've shoved it all into a single daily edition, and said ‘You want it, or not?' So, we'll see lots of niche publishing, mix and matching current and archival content."

The Boston Globe is following that exact formula, as its ebooks "aren't original content ebooks," says deputy managing editor for features Doug Most, who is overseeing most of The Globe's ebook projects. "We are taking content that has appeared in The Globe in some fashion ... we are looking for ways we can repurpose and repackage content into a smart, sophisticated, fun ebook," explains Most.

Ebook releases from The Globe include John F. Kerry: The Boston Globe Biography and Whitey Bulger: America's Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought Him to Justice. Other selections are less serious. "One we did in December before the holidays was a cookie ebook and it was sort of like our 20 favorite cookie recipes," says Most. "These were recipes that appeared in the paper over the course of a decade or so."

"The key here," explains Doctor, is that "content production is expensive. Use it once and it's really expensive. Use it six ways and a publisher spreads his costs over a wider range of revenue streams. This is the monetizing of the mid-tail and the long tail."

The Boston Globe got into ebook publishing at the beginning of 2012 in an effort to offer special perks to their subscribers, according to Most. The Globe has published about one ebook a month on average since, he adds.

"It was roughly a year ago when we first started down this road; shortly after we launched our new website, bostonglobe.com, which is a website that's really targeted aggressively at our subscribers," says Most. "And one of the goals with our paid subscribers is to make them feel like, when you subscribe to The Boston Globe, you don't just get the newspaper-you get more than that."

"The real evolution came when tools became available for us to build ebooks easily ourselves, eliminating the need for us to work with third-party packagers in creating the ebooks that we publish ourselves," says Most. "That's when Dan Zedek, the assistant managing editor for design at The Globe, worked with our books development editor, Janice Page, and they began to produce some quick ebooks for subscribers."

All of The Globe's ebook-only titles are available for free download for subscribers at bostonglobe.com/insiders/ebook, and for purchase for nonsubscribers on iTunes, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble. Some of the books even have print companions. "We've long done ebooks along with print books that we publish in partnership with third parties, for example a book on the Boston Bruins winning the NHL championship. That was a print book with an ebook companion, produced by an outside vendor," says Most.

When asked if ebooks have been a profitable venture for The Globe, Most reiterates it was never about making money. "It's about subscriber benefit. I'm not going to get into whether they're profitable or not but that was never the goal; the goal wasn't, ‘We are going to make a lot of money on ebooks,'" he says.

In terms of staff, Most notes that The Globe does not have a separate department for ebooks and that "the work has really been aggressively spread around among a number of people." He continues, "It's sort of one of these things where everyone just sucked it up and took on a little extra role in this."

One the other side of the country, the Los Angeles Times has also gotten into the business of ebook publishing. In late 2011, the Los Angeles Times released its first ebook, A Nightmare Made Real, which is "an expanded version of staff writer Christopher Goffard's gripping account of a man accused of unspeakable acts, facing a lifetime behind bars," according to a press release detailing the Times' venture into ebooks.

The Times--which, like The Globe, is using its own staff to author the ebooks and does not have a separate ebooks department--offers its books for download at latimes.com/bookstore. Selections include a holiday cookie ebook--by the Times' food staff-featuring 65 recipes, as well as an ebook called Titanic: 100 Years Later.

And in some cases, the Times is going beyond ebooks. SoCal CloseUps is a Times' app and ebook by travel writer Christopher Reynolds. The app includes insider travel tips and pictures from around Los Angeles and Orange Counties. The iPad app, which costs $5.99, includes "more than 600 photographs and maps and 19 videos from Times staffers, along with hundreds of first-hand recommendations of hotels, restaurants, museums, neighborhoods, parks, beaches, tea rooms and biker bars," according to a the staff report; a text-only ebook is $4.99.

When asked if ebooks have been a profitable venture for the Times, Nancy Sullivan, vice president of communications for the paper, was vague but seemed to indicate they have done well when she observed, "We are pleased with our success to date."

Doctor notes that other newspapers dabbling in ebook publishing include the National Post in Toronto, the Chicago Tribune, ProPublica, and the StarTribune of Minneapolis. "Almost all this work so far leverages staff writing, which is paid by salary. Certainly, publishers can become regional publishers, licensing marketable non-staff work, but that's clearly a second priority," adds Doctor.

Moving forward, Doctor says he expects to see more products like ebooks from news companies: "As we look to Paywalls 2.0, newspaper companies will be ramping up these kinds of products, knowing that once they have members and digital paying customers, it's a great market to sell more stuff to."

(Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)