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March 15 2011

16:00

Foreign Policy tries a new ebook experiment, selling outside Amazon

It took 18 days for Egyptian protesters to topple Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year regime; it took about 10 days for the editors at Foreign Policy to publish a 70,000-word ebook about the revolution.

“Revolution in the Arab World” is FP’s second attempt at a new publishing model — call it the medium form — to quickly repackage its own reporting and charge for it (in this case, $4.99). The stories inside are already on the web, free, but the magazine hopes readers are willing to pay for the context of a compilation and the convenience of a single download.

It’s about “putting this smart journalism in front of people outside the very, very fast web cycle — but while it still matters to readers,” said Susan Glasser, Foreign Policy’s editor in chief. The medium form, more comprehensive than a story but less so than a traditional book, is a fast and inexpensive way to satiate readers who demand information right now.

One thousand copies of “Revolution” sold in the first 10 days, Glasser said.

Foreign Policy is one of a number of news organizations experimenting with journalism-as-ebook. The New York Times recently published an ebook of reporting on the WikiLeaks story for $5.99, and we’ve written about ProPublica publishing Sebastian Rotella’s 13,000-word piece on the Mumbai terror attacks as a 99-cent Kindle Single, Amazon’s new format for inexpensive, 30- to 90-page stories. That ebook sold 3,500 copies in about a month.

For “Revolution,” the FP editors reviewed a year of their own reporting and selected about four dozen stories they deemed to have lasting insight and value. They decided on a structure of six chapters, opening with a January 2010 piece from Issandr El Amrani that presciently describes Egypt as a “ticking time bomb.” The pieces were updated, lightly edited for clarity and dressed up with introductions from the editors.

Glasser views this midform journalism as a low-impact experiment; the pricing was chosen because Glasser said, as an iPad owner, it just felt right. “Listen, we’re testing it out. We don’t know. We’re a small organization trying to figure out the business,” she said. Foreign Policy employs 30 people.

The magazine’s first ebook — a series of dispatches from Anna Badkhen in northern Afghanistan — has sold 5,000 copies, at $2.99 each, since September. That title is available exclusively for the Kindle in an arrangement with Amazon, which published and marketed the book in exchange for a much higher cut than the 30 percent the company normally takes. The process took “months of back and forth,” Glasser said, and felt very much like onerous, old-school publishing.

For the second book, Glasser opted to self-publish. “We decided the tools have become even easier and there’s more possibility for us to do it directly and quickly ourselves,” she said. “Revolution” is available in three formats — Kindle, PDF and, soon, iBooks — but the magazine is pushing the PDF version on its website to rake in more proceeds.

The trusty PDF has its own drawbacks. There is currently no way to prevent readers from “sharing” the file to avoid paying. And while it’s easy enough to buy the PDF through PayPal and transfer the file to an e-reader, nothing beats the seamless, impulsive experience of one-click purchasing and downloading that Amazon’s and Apple’s platforms provide.

The market for repurposed journalism is still evolving. Consider how much changed for ProPublica in the two weeks between its first and second Kindle Single. After selling thousands of copies of the Mumbai piece, a deeply reported piece on oil drilling hit the Kindle Store at a price of $0. Amazon had a change of heart, reasoning the material should be free in the Kindle Store if it’s free on the web.

But even with their fickle rules and hefty cuts, vast marketplaces like Amazon’s are too big to ignore. Glasser said her piece of the pie is search — reaching readers who take interest in the subject but would never visit her website. Before publishing “Revolution,” Glasser ran a quick search in the Kindle store. “I realized there was nothing about Egypt except a bunch of tourism guides…and a bunch of old mummies-and-pharaoh kind of books,” she said. (Search for “egypt revolution” on Amazon.com today; Glasser’s ebook is No. 1 in the Kindle Store, behind a 2008 book, and No. 2 sitewide.)

I asked Glasser what would qualify as a wild success: reaching No. 1 in Amazon? Two thousand copies? Ten thousand? She laughed — she doesn’t know. If nothing else, she said, the ebook is a really satisfying way to give good journalism a longer tail. “We’re publishing so much stuff on our website, and the news cycle is so quick. Some of it is wonderful magazine-quality thinking and reading, in real time,” she said. “It goes so quickly.”

Glasser expects Foreign Policy will publish more ebooks this year, but she doesn’t know yet what they might cover. That’s kind of the point of this new model — we can’t predict the next Wikileaks or Libya, but the medium-form ebook is a way for newsrooms to react swiftly and nimbly — and maybe even make a few bucks.

November 05 2010

16:00

The six-figure fan club: How Global Post got 100,000 fans on Facebook

GlobalPost, the online-only foreign news outlet, has over 100,000 fans on Facebook. (As of this writing: 104,180.) While, sure, that’s far fewer fans than some of the bigger, more established publications out there — The New York Times has, at the moment, nearly 900,000 fans; The New Yorker, more than 162,000 — it’s also far more than, say, The New Republic (under 7,000) or, for that matter, the Washington Post (nearly 90,000.) And within GlobalPost’s more direct peer group, both Foreign Policy and Foreign Affairs fall in the 20,000-follower range.

Which is all to say: For a startup that, given its age (young), its size (small), and its ambition (huge), can fairly be called “scrappy”…a six-figure fan club is a pretty big deal.

So, then: How’d they do it? The size of the young outlet’s Facebook fan base is to some extent a matter of simple serendipity — it’s “more than we’d ever imagined,” notes Phil Balboni, GlobalPost’s CEO and president — but it’s also one of strategy. “It goes without saying: Facebook is a tremendously important part of the web and people’s consumption of information,” Balboni told me. “And we really wanted to grow our Facebook engagement as much as we could.”

“Some kind of magic”

The growth came, in the end, from a concerted effort to take GlobalPost’s content and turn it into a campaign. In late May, the outlet began an overhaul of its website — giving GlobalPost.com not only an image-heavy aesthetic that reflects web design’s current trend toward timeless magazine-iness, but also baked-in social plug-ins from Facebook. Now, Balboni notes, in addition to the outlet’s brand-building efforts on Facebook.com, “we’ve completely integrated GlobalPost with Facebook for commenting, liking, and sharing stories.”

Starting in early July, Balboni and GlobalPost’s marketing director, Rick Byrne, built on the site’s social integration with an aggressive, Facebook-based marketing campaign, creating ads to capture the interest of the site’s members. When they began those efforts, GlobalPost had 5,000 or so followers, Balboni estimates; by late October, they’d reached the six-figure mark. (For the statisticians out there, that’s about a 2,000-percent increase.) The ads that fueled all the liking focused on some of the broad narratives that are, for better or for worse, evergreens in the sphere of foreign reporting — among them human rights issues, green technology, and the war in Afghanistan. (The latter of those, “the Forever War,” has drawn particular engagement and interest on Facebook, Balboni notes.) The how’d they do that here, then, comes down not to a strict formula so much as a loose recipe. As Balboni puts it: “There’s some kind of magic between the content, the brand, and the types of issues we cover.”

You might think that the explosion of followers would be tied to particular events that occurred between July and now — I think there was something going on in Chile at one point? — but, no: The fan-base increase “was a pretty steady rise,” Byrne told me. You could argue, in fact, that the evergreen nature of the stories the site’s ads focused on — the environment, the war — allowed for the kind of steady, month-over-month engagement that builds name recognition iteratively…rather than via the momentary surges that come from event-based traffic, which spike suddenly and tend to plummet just as quickly.

You could also add that the narrative- and context-heavy journalism GlobalPost specializes in — “a look at the world that is quite different and richer and varied than you’d get from any other news organization,” Balboni puts it — is precisely the type of journalism that people like to, well, like: It’s political in the kind of broad way that allows users to demonstrate engagement with foreign news without having to act on that engagement. (It’s also often supra-partisan in a way that much of our national journalism is not.) There’s also the more hopeful view that people actually want more foreign coverage than most of us assume. And liking, of course, is an extremely low-barrier form of brand affiliation: see the invite, click the button, and move on. The transaction cost involved is basically zero.

The halo effect

Which begs, then, another question: For a site that has bills to pay and investors to please, does a Facebook-based marketing campaign offer enough in the way of return? Does GlobalPost’s fan base on the closed world of Facebook translate to traffic for a site that lives in the the open web?

Yes and no. While the direct correlation between GlobalPost’s Facebook likes and its site’s traffic is impossible to measure in concrete terms, “we’ve seen a significant increase in direct traffic since we started the Facebook campaign,” Balboni notes. Even if direct causation can’t be determined, the correlation is clear: The Facebook fan base helps GlobalPost build its brand, and brand recognition, in turn, creates a halo effect — the kind of broad recognition that radiates back to the site itself. “It’s important to not only maintain, but also to increase the number of direct visits,” Balboni notes, “because those are arguably the people who are most committed to your brand: your loyalists, your most enthusiastic readers.”

(Slate, it’s worth noting — along with Gawker and several other online brands — employs a similar logic based on branded traffic: A small group of loyal readers, the thinking goes, is worth more to publishers than a large group of casual ones.)

And that logic applies to site subscriptions, as well — aided by the fact that the outlet, which has partnered with Journalism Online to help facilitate its e-commerce activities, reduced its fees this summer. (Membership now costs $2.95 a month, or $29.95 a year.) “I think you can make a logical connection between people who are very interested in what GlobalPost does and those who are becoming members,” Balboni says. “The more people who care about what we do, the greater the chances that they’re going to click on that big red arrow at the top of our site and consider becoming a GlobalPost member.”

Strategy, on Facebook as everywhere else, is key. “You have to take deliberative steps,” Balboni says. “It doesn’t happen just by putting up a Facebook icon on your site. It takes more than that. You have to get people’s attention, in the Facebook community and everywhere else.”

September 21 2010

16:00

Foreign Policy quickly turns daily dispatches from northern Afghanistan into its first ebook

Susan Glasser, editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy, wrote a piece for the new issue of our sister publication Nieman Reports on how she relaunched the magazine’s slow-paced website in 2008, turning it into a vibrant, go-to place for international news and commentary, ramping up the amount and variety of content published everyday. The site now runs multiple daily feature stories and a network of notable blogs (as compared to a single story “every day or so” and just a single blog before the relaunch).

To Glasser’s credit, FP is still experimenting. Foreign Policy is now promoting its first ebook, Waiting for the Taliban: A Journey through Northern Afghanistan. The book is a compilation of daily dispatches filed by war reporter Anna Badkhen from April of this year. It’s available on Amazon for $2.99.

Glasser commissioned the pieces after Badkhen received a grant from the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting to return to Afghanistan, where she did reporting in 2001, 2002, and 2004. The grant covered Badkhen’s substantial costs (translators, drivers, satellite phone). Glasser said that when Badkhen finished her series, the work felt like it could fit into the broader genre of travel literature — perhaps making a better read as a book than as individual postings. But any such book would need to be published quickly, given the timeliness of the material. “We thought, well, that’s exactly where ebooks are going and should be going,” Glasser said.

This first ebook is a good test case for Foreign Policy because the investment it required was relatively low. The work got a second edit mainly for clarity, consistency, and structure by Badkehn’s primary editor, Britt Peterson, who said the work “translated well” into book form. Badkhen wrote an introduction. All that was left was production, which Amazon handled.

“We don’t know how many copies we can sell,” Glasser told me. “We’re trying to understand what kind of business [ebooks] can be.”

For now, Amazon is serving as publisher of the book, which means they handled conversion of the text into Kindle format (Foreign Policy sent them a Word doc) and cover (with input from FP editors and Badkhen). Amazon is also taking the lead on promotion, sending out email blasts and featuring the book for likely buyers on the site. Slate Group, which owns Foreign Policy, will take a cut of the sales. Badkhen will also get a share. Badkhen and Glasser wouldn’t disclose the exact percentages.

Amazon hasn’t released initial sales numbers to Foreign Policy yet, but Glasser pointed out the book cracked the Amazon Bestseller list for paid Kindle books its first weekend (the 9/11 anniversary), sliding in around slot 50. As of today, Badkhen’s book holds the number one slot for all Amazon books in the 20th Century world history section and the Middle East travel section. Those rankings are updated hourly, so it’s difficult to say what kind of overall sales the book is pulling in.

Badkhen noticed that people who have bought her book have also bought books unrelated to foreign policy (like this thriller in a small Texas town). “I think my excitement comes from the idea that I’ll reach an unexpected audience,” she told me. “As a journalist, I believe my job is to reach as many people as I possibly can. A lot of times we’re preaching to the choir.”

This isn’t the first time a magazine has repackaged content for a quick-turn ebook. For instance, Newsweek published, A Long Time Coming, shortly after the 2008 presidential campaign. That book was written by Evan Thomas, using the reporting of several Newsweek staff writers from the trail. Unlike Waiting for the Taliban, Thomas’ book was later published in print format. Foreign Policy’s model is straight ebook.

Glasser and Badkhen, who have both written books (Badkhen has a book coming out in print this October, also on Afghanistan), agreed that ebook publishing and book publishing are miles apart. Glasser’s book on Russia, Kremlin Rising, was considered a “quick turn” — which in publishing terms meant it still took six months to make it to bookshelves after editing was complete. “The whole world can be reinvented between January and June,” Glasser said. “It was an agonizing wait.”

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