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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.

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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