Last week, BookBrewer had the great honor to be chosen by The Huffington Post, which used our platform to create and distribute its first e-book: “A People’s History of the Great Recession” by Arthur Delaney. They’re already working on their second, How We Won: Progressive Lessons from the Repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”  by Aaron Belkin, and they have more in the works under a new Huffington Post Media Group Publications imprint.

i-06c3d2babb3a2ef380b0670e89966460-peopleshistory.jpgOn her blog, Arianna Huffington explains how “A People’s History of the Great Recession” was written by a staff beat reporter who was assigned two years ago to put “flesh and blood on the data of our economic crisis.” “How We Won” is by a HuffPost blogger who has been a leading advocate for gay rights in the military. Both are excellent examples of writers curating years of work into a
narrative and selling it as an e-book — something I and others have
been encouraging journalists to do for the last year.

This is a sort of homecoming for BookBrewer to the journalism world, as our company evolved from a Knight News Challenge project called Printcasting. While most of our business now comes from top-selling novels, including one New York Times bestseller, journalism has always been at the heart of what we do. In fact, I will go so far as to say that the difference between a good romance or science fiction novel and a well-written non-fiction narrative isn’t that large from the reader’s perspective. A good human-interest story makes a good book whether it’s based on hard facts or just good observation of human nature.

A growing trend

As Jeff Sonderman at Poynter points out, this is part of a growing trend of news organizations publishing e-books. HuffPost is joined by such venerable news organizations as The New York Times publishing an e-book about WikiLeaks, and The New Yorker publishing an e-book of 9/11 stories. Both are selling thousands of copies based on their own announcements or high Amazon rankings, and so far, The Huffington Post’s first e-book seems to be on the same track.

This couldn’t come at a better time for journalists who, thanks to the double-whammy of a weakening economic recovery and struggling news business models, are once again facing layoffs.

It wasn’t that long ago that I worked for a newspaper, and I can’t tell you how many presentations I sat through asking the same question but never answering it: “How are we going to pay for quality journalism?” And to their point, paywall models didn’t work the first time and aren’t working that well the second time. As a result, the idea that readers will never pay for digital news is so ingrained in the minds of journalists that they become blind to the paid-content models that are working today.

Why you can’t ignore e-books

So let’s all take a moment and admit that we’re asking the wrong question. The real question is how to take advantage of the amazing paid-content model that e-books represent, as evidenced by this IDPF graph showing 300 percent year-over-year growth in e-book revenues:

i-620940e6b0022a37867907e1178dcedf-Trade Stats_Master_10Q3_fnl.jpg

Yes, that’s $120 million per quarter, easily up above $160 million per quarter by now since this data is almost a year old. Correlate that with the fact that some news organizations are now selling thousands of copies of e-books at an average of $2.99 per copy and we can bury the “people won’t pay for digital content” myth for good.

The convenience, affordability and form factor of e-books and tablets make readers pull out their wallets in ways that they aren’t as willing to do when sitting at a computer. Case closed!

Common news organization excuses

I delved into this topic in the spring at Steve Outing’s Digital Media Test Kitchen symposium on finding new business models for news. (See my presentation and video here.) What I found is that once journalists understand that e-books are more than just a theoretical business model, they move on to two more questions: 1) “But how can we find the additional resources to create books?” and 2) “What could we possibly write books about that people would buy?”

To the first question, compare the resources of newspapers that have an entire staff of writers to those of most self-published authors who do everything themselves, and you’ll see that it’s not about resources at all. It’s about prioritization. The top-selling writers in BookBrewer’s Red Carpet plans (reserved for high sellers) do everything themselves, from writing to marketing to cover design. Some even hand-code their own ePub files, while others build them in our simple copy-and-paste tools or through affordable conversion shops. As an entrepreneur and founder of a startup, I can tell you that they’re entrepreneurs and startups themselves — just like every journalist needs to be.

And to the second question — just look in your archives. Newspapers and news organizations are swimming in content that’s perfect for e-books. A few examples include multi-part series, collections of celebrity interviews, popular columns, restaurant reviews and — irony of ironies — collections of book reviews.

An even better source of content is beat reporters who are sitting on dozens of notebooks, e-mails and interviews they never published (precisely what HuffPo’s Delaney did with “A People’s History of the Great Recession”). So here’s a crazy idea for you news organization managers out there. Why not tell your staff that they can publish e-books of their unpublished interviews in exchange for getting 50 percent of the resulting revenue? It’s money you’re not making now, and it’s low-hanging fruit. Create some incentives that tie directly to the hard work journalists already do and watch how fast they compete to curate the best newsbook.

Don’t forget the marketing

The single hardest thing about e-book publishing is marketing, and truth be told, it’s where most self-published authors fail. Some of them would do anything just to get their book mentioned in their local newspaper or linked to from a high-traffic website. Hopefully, you see the irony and opportunity here: When a news provider publishes a book, it can easily jump that hurdle. Put up a link, some ads, send out newsletters — and you’re already ahead of most individual authors.

I could go on and on, but the message is simple. If you’re a journalist and you haven’t published an e-book yet, you’re missing out on a great opportunity. If you’re a news organization, here’s a way to grow revenue that also pays for the content creation.

So now I want to hear from you. What content are you sitting on that might make a good e-book? What’s held you back from publishing it, and what needs to happen to clear that hurdle? As a former journalist, nothing would make me happier to see more quality journalism in BookBrewer.

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