Newspapers experimenting with ebook content, subscription models

This is second part of a two-part series on ebooks. Part one looked at newspaper subscription models and marketing strategies for ebooks.

By Eric Mark Do

This is second part of a two-part series on ebooks. Part one looked at newspaper subscription models and marketing strategies for ebooks.

By Eric Mark Do

The Toronto Star was working on a deal to publish an excerpt of Paula Todd's wildly successful ebook Finding Karla, which ultimately sold 70,000 copies last year. The paper eventually backed out of the deal, but as it turns out, The Star was already working on a subscription model for ebooks that shied away from single-copy sales.

“We've not found other news organizations have been very successful on that front because single-copy ebook sales are so small generally, unless you get a blockbuster amazing one like Paula Todd's. And I think that those are just very rare,” says Alison Uncles, editorial director of Star Dispatches.

In addition to deciding on what content they should run in ebooks, newspapers are figuring out how to incorporate ebook sales with paywalls. Canadian newspapers are experimenting with ebook content, price points and word counts. So far, there hasn’t been a lot of consensus on what makes the best business and editorial sense.

Content, content, content

Content is king, says Nathan Maharaj, Kobo's director of merchandising. At a panel organized by the Toronto chapter of the Online News Association on the future of ebooks, he said ebooks that are just a compilation of columns won’t fly.

“If the columns are a couple Google searches away, I don't know what you'd pay somebody to do that, but it's probably less than what it costs me in a transaction fee to sell an ebook. So it ain't gonna happen,” Maharaj says.

Reporter Paula Todd had a scoop: she was the only reporter who had initially sought out and found convicted killer Karla Homolka. That’s one example of original reporting ebooks ought to have, says Derek Finkle, founder of the Canadian Writers Group, which published Todd’s Finding Karla.

“I think the question [for newspapers getting into ebooks] is: Is it going to be content that's unique, original, has a narrative structure and isn't something you can find readily somewhere else? That's the big question.”

On that note, in January, Finkle helped negotiate a deal to have the Toronto Star to publish federal Liberal leadership candidate Deborah Coyne's memoir in the newspaper, with an excerpt online and a PDF version for the Star Store. The Canadian Writers Group kept the rights to all other ebook versions. The book was successful, he says, because readers could only get the information if they paid for it.

At the Star, reporters are more interested in working on ebooks that explore issues in a meaningful way, says Uncles. “Even if the program did want to go further down the road of repurposing content and packaging it up and shipping it out, reporters would not want to have much to do with that.”

The Globe and Mail took the opposite approach. Ebooks are seen as a way to showcase the best of its journalism to share with subscribers.

“The books that we promote to our subscribers are, very consciously, content that we've already printed in or published in our existing publications,” says Craig Saila, director of digital products at The Globe. “The way we've approached it is: we've got all this great content, now let's group it together as an anthology that brings new insight for our subscribers.”

Hazlitt editor-in-chief Christopher Frey says readers will be more accepting of older content if there is some kind of value added. He gives the example of The Globe ebook Trial on Ice on the 1972 hockey series as a “collection [that] had a multimedia element and a sort of curatorial element… and in that sense too you're talking about stuff from 1972, which is not easily accessible online. So it's almost like there's some original value even though it's archival material.”

Paywall + Subscription

The Globe — which implemented its paywall last fall — offers all ebooks free for subscribers with the lone exception of Trial on Ice. “We know our subscribers are the people who are most addicted to Globe and Mail content that's why we offer it to them for free,” Saila says. When The Star puts up its paywall later this year, it will have to decide whether to charge additionally for ebooks.

Finkle says he is unsure if additional costs will go over well with subscribers.

“I'm charging people a premium to have access to our site, and now, I'm going to charge them presumably again to have access to another set of content on our site,” says Finkle in laying out the scenario. “And are people really going to go for that?”

Even if the Star Dispatches ebooks are offered for free to Toronto Star digital subscribers, the product “has a large opportunity to grow beyond our traditional newspaper base,” says vice-president of consumer marketing Sandy MacLeod. Maharaj agrees.

“It can be available not only the week after the print story runs, but forevermore and exist as an available piece of paid content indefinitely. That I find fascinating — the idea that suddenly journalism has a backlist, and that is cataclysmic,” he said.

Learning from the competition, and through experimentation

The National Post was the first major Canadian player to experiment with ebooks in 2011 with the Globe jumping in on the bandwagon shortly thereafter. The Globe is also looking to its readers to guide its ebook program, Saila says, but there are no immediate plans to roll out a subscription-based program.

“We really want to see what our audience is interested in and if there's a strong expression of interest to start getting some exclusive journalism that way, we'll work with the editorial team to see if it makes sense to put together those kinds of things.”

The Star, with its four-month fledging Star Dispatches program, is the first in Canada to bring in a subscription model for ebooks.

“Nobody, no newspaper we can find anyway, has cracked ebooks,” says Uncles. “So we just need to keep experimenting and if we break news in an ebook once and it goes spectacularly wrong for us, then we'll know that wasn't the best idea. But until we try it, we don't know how it's going to work.”