Which news media publishers should go the e-book route?


When should the first draft of history become an e-book? Publishers are looking at e-books as a quite profitable possibility for long-form journalism. And why shouldn't savvy publishers keep an eye to the current state of sales reporting across all of the e-book retail marketplaces and consider, seriously, e-books as a possible revenue stream? Newspapers, like the New York Times, already publish e-book bestseller lists for fiction and non-fiction. So why not take the next logical step?

Some data: e-book sales are trending up. Last July, Amazon announced that e-books were outselling hardbacks, selling 143 e-books for every 100 hardcover book in 2010's second quarter.  And last week, Amazon announced that Kindle e-books are outselling paperbacks. In the same week the New York Times and ProPublica unveiled new e-books. According to Bloomberg, Amazon will probably sell more than 8 million Kindles in 2011. 

Which leads us to the question: what kind of long-form journalism might work in the form of the e-book?  MondayNote argues, persuasively, that e-books would work best with non-fiction, news-related stories. And business news, which is vital and often pays for itself, would probably be the best fit. Using the euro crisis as an example of a subject that could work magnificently in e-book form, MondayNote (which is based in France) says:

"Now, let’s consider a large national daily selling 400,000 copies per day and assume that 2% of its buyers will purchase this riveting narration of the euro crisis; that translates into 8000 sales. Since the newspaper is already paying the writers and the editor, we’ll cap these two cost items at (US $13,676)  for the month of work required by the project. Altogether, the e-book will make (US $60,184) before tax. This translates into a (US $28,450) margin for the newspaper acting as the publisher, a 47% gross profit margin — not bad in the news business!  And the risk is minimal: taking into account the (US $13,676) of pure editorial costs (writer + editor, which are due no matter what), the break-even point is around 2500 e-books, an easily achievable sales volume considering the promotional firepower wielded by a good newspaper."

One could just as easily replace "riveting narration of the euro crisis" with "riveting account of Too Big to Fail." If business stories in long form would probably be the most effectively iterated in e-book form, politics and technology cannot be far behind. Publishers in those non-fiction, news-related niches should keep that in mind. Q&A site Stack Overflow, heavily frequented by programmers (and my most recent obsession), has its Top 20 tags also now available in e-book format. Where else would people interested in e-books on technology turn than to sites with strong programmer cred? And as far as politics goes, The Atlantic, which very effectively publishes some of the most thoughtful work, has always struck me as the type of publication that could possibly have an e-book hit.

Finally, veering away from business, politics and technology news media publishers -- James Patterson, Nora Robertson and Steig Larsson have each sold more than 1 million Kindle e-books. Could a hip digital publisher like, say, The Awl, with its vaguely literary angle break the next big adult fiction digital e-book author? It is not inconceivable. While non-fiction, news-related stories work best in e-book form I cannot for the life of me shake the belief that the next big e-book adult fiction star might just be discovered through a savvy digital publisher.

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