Tom Whitwell of the Times says "I'd be very surprised if reading long-form quality journalism on a digital screen turned out to be a fad"Credit: by kodomut on Flickr. Some rights reserved
It is a truism of online journalism that finding a business model that pays is an ongoing challenge. Yet, while newspapers experiment with different subscription models and types of paywall, others are turning to a relatively new market: ebooks.
In London last year there were estimated to be upwards of one million iPads and Kindles in circulation according to Julian Linley, creative director at Bauer Media, with, he says, approximately one in six Londoners thought to own an e-reader device. With such a large potential market to be tapped into – a market which has already been conditioned into paying for content – newspapers from around the world are starting to tuck into the e-book pie.
La Vanguardia, a Catalonian daily, has released no fewer than one hundred ebook titles since November. Whilst the majority of these books are "short form fiction", the Spanish newspaper has also released six longer titles. Prices range from free to €5.99.
"We are constantly looking for new revenue streams," says Ismael Nafria, La Vanguardia's director of digital content, "and also for new ways to offer interesting quality content to our users."
Having enjoyed "several thousands" of downloads of its ebooks so far, La Vanguardia’s approach to monetising its content has made Nafria "very happy". Although he remains cagey about the actual download numbers, he is convinced that the e-book market is on the brink of an "explosion".
"In Spain the ebook market is really in its infancy, but starting to grow pretty fast," he says. "I'm sure some people will be surprised at the evolution of the market."
One newspaper that wasn't surprised was The Guardian. Having released its first ebook How the Guardian Broke the Story in August 2011 the newspaper has since published 20 ebooks under the Guardian Shorts brand.Producing ebooks helps to ground the Guardian as a digital first organisationSara Montgomery
"Producing ebooks helps to ground the Guardian as a digital first organisation," says Sara Montgomery, head of Guardian Books. "The business sees it as a marketplace in which we should become a key player."
The Guardian's ebook strategy relies on three major factors: its archives of content which can be re-purposed for the digital era; its digital-first approach, which means it can release books which are topical to the current news agenda; and its ability to instantly reach guardian.co.uk's 3.5 million unique daily readers.
While releasing fewer ebooks than La Vanguardia's impressively broad catalogue, Montgomery says the Guardian is "extremely mindful of quality" in its ebooks, even though the majority have been "anthologies of existing content."
"We have done two original Shorts in the series so far, both of which have performed well and we certainly plan to start actively commissioning original content in the coming months."
How have readers reacted to Guardian Shorts? "So far we have had a largely positive response to what we're doing, with an average of four star ratings on Amazon. We're learning all the time about what works and what doesn't. Some subjects have flopped and some have been hugely and unexpectedly successful."
Montgomery cites Facts are Sacred, which she says was "largely original", and Guardian Shorts' Jazz anthology. And earlier this year the Guardian also asserted that ebook sales are driven by "downmarket genre" titles.
Other newspapers have been sitting back, watching and waiting to see what works for others before entering the fray themselves. Tom Whitwell, editorial director of Times Digital, says: "Anyone who has a Kindle can see it's a great platform for long-form journalism, so it's certainly an area we're considering."Anyone who has a Kindle can see it's a great platform for long-form journalismTom Whitwell
This ties in with Amazon's latest offering for its Kindle platform, the Kindle Single. According to the New York Times, Amazon calls them "compelling ideas expressed at their natural length."
Platforms appear to have played a large part in the success of newspapers' ebooks to date. Although "selling discrete pieces of journalism could make sense," according to Whitwell, he links this with the Times' "paid-for model" across all of its platforms.
Newspapers are not the only media organisations which have entered the ebook market. Women's lifestyle glossy Cosmopolitan, owned by Hearst Magazines, has released a range of ebooks targeted squarely at its core audience. Its more popular titles include 'Sex Confessions', 'Sex Fantasies', and 'Perfect Pasta'.
Emma Dally, Hearst's group director of books, says: "These are our digital editions of old print books – humorous titles on sex and relationships, plus cookbooks." Tellingly, "sales are steady" on these works.
"Ebook publishing is a natural brand extension as people buy tablets and e-readers," says Dally. "Cosmo has always had a book publishing programme and in the future this will be digital." Pointing out the "minimal risks" of e-book publishing, Dally says it will be "easier" for Cosmopolitan to publish its own material than to partner with an external publisher.Cosmo has always had a book publishing programme and in the future this will be digitalEmma Dally
It seems that ebooks are what established publishers are now turning to in order to squeeze some more pennies out of their extensive back catalogues. With the explosion in e-reader devices amongst consumers, it seems only a matter of time before all major newspaper publishers bring out their own e-book titles.
Most tellingly of all, all of the senior editorial figures who spoke to Journalism.co.uk have agreed on one point: ebooks are most definitely here to stay. In the words of the Times' Tom Whitwell, "I'd be very surprised if reading long-form quality journalism on a digital screen turned out to be a fad."
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