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July 25 2012

17:25

Ars Technica fights through hassles to sell John Siracusa’s OS X review as an ebook

Mountain Lion review

Almost exactly a year ago, when Apple released Mac OS X 10.7 (Lion), Ars Technica put a spin on a time-honored tradition: The website published John Siracusa’s epic review of the software free of charge, as always, but also sold the tome as a $4.99 ebook. (Siracusa’s reviews are legendary among Mac nerds for their depth, precision, and length.) After 24 hours, Ars had sold 3,000 copies.

With the release of Apple’s OS X 10.8 (Mountain Lion) today, Ars is trying out the hybrid free-paid model again for Siracusa’s 26,000-word review. “The ebook format proved rather popular last year, so we’ve taken extra care this year to make the ebook version every bit as good as the web version,” said Ken Fisher, Ars Technica’s founder and editor, in an email.

Fisher said Ars sold “several thousand” paid copies of the Lion review in total, but he wouldn’t provide a specific number. Siracusa did not share in those profits, because Ars had negotiated a one-time fee with Siracusa upfront; they’d never done this before, and no one was sure how well it would go. “This time we were careful to structure an agreement that would explicitly compensate John for each purchase,” Fisher said.

Unfortunately, the process of producing and selling an ebook, like the initial release of a major operating system, is still a little buggy. The utopian vision of ebook publishing — instantaneous publishing across platforms, bug-free production — is still a ways away. Siracusa’s review went live a few hours ago, but the ebook is nowhere to be found on what would seem to be the two most important ebook stores for it: Apple’s iBookstore and Amazon’s Kindle.

Amazon has a simpler and quicker process for publishing an ebook than Apple, but Ars “incorrectly predicted the publication lag time,” meaning Ars is missing out on the critical first wave of nerdy excitement. As for an iBookstore version, Ars wouldn’t have been able to even submit the book to Apple for review if it wanted to until today, because the content was protected by NDA until Mountain Lion’s public release. Apple’s review process could take two weeks. (That’s what happens when the same company controls the content and the distribution.) Siracusa says an iBookstore version probably isn’t in the cards, irony of ironies.

At the moment, only paying Ars Premier subscribers can download ebook versions, in unrestricted .epub (for iBooks, Nook, and more) and .mobi (for Kindle) versions of the book. (Premier membership is $5 per month, which just happens to be the same price as the ebook itself.)

Of course, being on the major ebook sales platforms also means giving them a piece of the pie. Ars Technica had considered selling the ebook at a lower price, but Amazon’s tiered pricing incentivizes slightly higher prices. By my math, according to this complicated pricing page, Ars will take in somewhere around $2.70 for every ebook sold in the U.S. store once it’s posted. And Siracusa takes an undisclosed percentage of that.

Unfortunately for Siracusa’s sanity, there are still severe limitations on both the creation and reading sides of ebooks. User experiences vary widely. From Siracusa’s blog today:

For the best ebook reading experience, use a device or application that supports Kindle Format 8. KF8-capable readers support amazing new technologies like text that flows around images and the ability to tie a caption to an image. Yes, that was sarcasm.

Unfortunately, many Kindle reading devices and application don’t support Kindle Format 8 — most notably, the iOS Kindle app. The Mac version does support KF8, however, as does the Kindle Fire.

The Kindle ebook is a single file that contains two versions of the content: one in Kindle Format 8 and one in the older Kindle format. Open the same ebook file in both the Mac and iOS Kindle reader applications and you’ll see two very different appearances.

You could read Siracusa’s Twitter feed on any given day in the last few weeks to see what a trial it has been.

It seems like a hell of a lot of work for a lousy ebook, but there is money in that banana stand. We’ve written before about the value in repurposing otherwise free content into paid ebooks. Consumers are willing to pay for the convenience, simplicity, and uncluttered design of a single file. (We’ve even tried it ourselves with a free ebook featuring past work; more to come there.)

The success of Siracusa’s last ebook might have inspired another well-known Mac blogger, Federico Viticci of MacStories, to release a similar ebook for Mountain Lion. Viticci is selling a PDF version of his Mountain Lion review (apparently eschewing the iBooks and Kindle stores) and bundling other feature stories from the website. That edition sells for $6.99, with 30 percent of proceeds going to the American Cancer Society.

Viticci wrote on his personal blog that a paid ebook is a way for fans to support his work, many of whom have been asking for a way to give him money. Likewise, Siracusa wrote that his paid ebook is the best way for people to say “thanks” and get something in return.

Siracusa has said before he worries his nerdy, niche audience is a shrinking piece of a growing pie, as Apple products now reach a mainstream audience. “But the web traffic and ebook sales from last year’s Lion review showed me that, at the very least, my audience is still growing in absolute numbers even as it may be shrinking as a percentage of the whole,” he wrote.

Fisher told me the web — mature, open, free — remains the primary platform for Ars Technica content, while ebooks are a new frontier.

“The overwhelming majority of readers will read the review online, and that’s our primary way to share the review with the world,” he said. “Those who want to buy the ebook can, and we love it when they do, but the web is still our home and its the force that is driving readers to the review, in whatever format they consume it in.”

March 09 2010

15:00

How Ars Technica’s “experiment” with ad-blocking readers built on its community’s affection for the site

Even on the web, sometimes actions really do speak louder than words.

The technology site Ars Technica has a tech-savvy group of readers, of which about 40 percent have installed ad-blocking software in their web browsers. That’s a plugin that allows you to avoid seeing most ads on a site. The financial consequence for Ars is “devastating”, editor-in-chief Ken Fisher explained in a post. Ars sells ads based on impressions, not clickthroughs — which means it takes a big financial hit because of browsing habits of its users.

On Friday evening, Ars tried an experiment: Readers running ad blockers got a blank page instead of the story they intended to read. The move was a technical success, but caused an uproar (and confusion) among users. In hindsight, Fisher told me, the site’s experiment in retribution was the “wrong approach,” causing confusion among many readers.

“What we weren’t expecting is so many people were blocking ads and didn’t even know it,” he said. “It left a lot of people very confused. They started digging around, wasting an hour trying to fix their broken computer.” There was nothing on the site to explain to readers why content had been blocked.

But the experiment still generated positive returns for the site’s bottom line. Fisher wrote a lengthy post on Ars (similar to many the site has run before) about its goals and why ad blocking was a big problem for the site:

My argument is simple: blocking ads can be devastating to the sites you love. I am not making an argument that blocking ads is a form of stealing, or is immoral, or unethical, or makes someone the son of the devil. It can result in people losing their jobs, it can result in less content on any given site, and it definitely can affect the quality of content. It can also put sites into a real advertising death spin.

And since Saturday, Fisher has received about 1,200 emails from users saying they had whitelisted the site — meaning they had told their ad-blocking software it was okay to show Ars’ ads. Based on Ars data from IP addresses, 25,000 users whitelisted the site in a 24-hour period — evidence that the goodwill the site has built up with its audience could be converted into user acts of generosity.

Another 200 users signed up for Ars’ premium accounts, which run $50 a year or $30 for six months. A subscription gets users access to an ad-free version of the site, full-text RSS feeds, printable PDFs of posts, and closed community sections of the site. (But Fisher notes that many subscribers just feel a sense of obligation, not a desire for premium features. “We get many people who subscribe just because they love us. They just want us to survive.”)

I asked if the $50-per-year subscription makes up, financially, for the loss of ad revenue on the ad-free version of the site. It depends on the user, Fisher said. For anyone who visits the site more than its user-average 89 visits per month, probably not. But he doesn’t think of the equation in those terms. Fisher views the subscription fees as covering the cost of specialized content that only the most dedicated user would want, like the online community sections. Ads alone wouldn’t generate the revenue to cover that. An advertising strategy that assumes a broad audience can cover the more general-interest content that audience wants. Having a multi-pronged revenue approach allows the site to provide different kinds of content for different audiences.

Fisher said he’s also had good experiences using a sponsorship model to support specialized content, including in-depth coverage that attracts a highly engaged, technical audience, but not huge pageviews. For instance, IBM sponsored a recent series on the future of collaboration. The writers didn’t know IBM was the backer, and IBM was told only the broad topic for the stories. Topic-specific sponsorship “delivers more value than display advertising, in my opinion,” he said. “It’s much more targeted. It takes the best of contextual advertising.”

But Ars’ bottom line still relies heavily on traditional display advertising. Its particular audience likely has a worse ad-block problem than other sites. But the benefits Fisher found from communicating directly with readers — making the ask along with a gentle but clear nudge — can apply to any site.

“It affects so many sites,” he told me. “And just getting the message out there makes a difference.”

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