St. Louis Beacon’s Presentation Editor on Publishing its First E-Book

News organizations increasingly use multiple platforms to reach different audiences, including Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. One nonprofit news site, the St. Louis Beacon in Missouri, decided to venture into ebook territory after Apple launched the free iBooks Author app in late January. The Beacon’s presentation editor, Brent Jones, created Meandering Mississippi, an e-book about major flooding last year in the region.

Ebyline recently caught up with Jones to discuss the opportunities and challenges of creating an e-book for the first time.

What led the St. Louis Beacon to take on publishing the e-book Meandering Mississippi, and how long did it take?

Meandering Mississippi is the first e-book we’ve published. When I saw the announcement of iBooks Author, I thought it looked interesting and wanted to check it out. We had talked about possibly publishing e-books before, but I didn’t know how to do it other than publishing as a simple PDF, so it was always a back-of-mind thing.

The timeline was that the tool was announced and released I believe on a Thursday. I downloaded it that night at home – we don’t have OS X Lion in the office and that’s the only version of the OS iBooks Author runs on – and laid out a couple sample articles. I brought that in on my iPad the next day, and the other editors loved it. We decided it would be worth my time to do it and thought it would be nice to be one of the first, so I got the green light to finish the book. I worked on it over the weekend, tweaked it over the course of the week and submitted it I believe the following Friday. Then the approval process took a couple weeks, so it didn’t appear on the store until the 15th of February.

Tell me about the content included in the e-book — what forms of storytelling did you use? Articles? Photos? Videos, etc…? Was it content previously published, did you make any changes for the e-book?
The e-book is almost entirely content that has been previously published on the website. We strongly believe in not putting up paywalls or otherwise restricting access to our content in that way — all the articles in the book are available for free. The draw here, I think, is that the book pulls the articles together into a more cohesive story. We used articles, photos, graphics, a video, slideshows and some audio clips, as well as linking everything back to the original site, where readers can comment on the articles or share them.

Each article was specifically laid out for the book — not just copied from the website. There’s more flexibility with how the multimedia components work with the story than there is sometimes on the website, so that was nice to take advantage of.

During my education, I was primarily a print designer, so the book was a good opportunity to combine what we’ve been doing for the last four years at the Beacon with a more flexible design. It showcases our strengths: Talking to real people, digging into the story and sticking with it and showing why it matters.

How did you end up using iBooks Author? What was the experience like using it? Was it easy? Difficult? What were the pros and the challenges? 
I have a background in print design so I feel like I may have had a little bit of a head start when working with iBooks Author. And it seems like the difficulty level also depends on how complex you want to make your book. The software provides a number of templates that are pretty much drag-and-drop, and it’s quite easy to fill those in with your information. If you want something with a little more customization, it’s going to take a little more effort to get there, but it’s possible.

How long did it take you to put the e-book together with iBooks Author? What is the process like to get approval from Apple?
The “how long did it take” question is tough to answer because I was only able to work on the book at home. Mostly outside of normal work hours, the actual time was eight days between when I downloaded iBooks Author and when I uploaded the book to the store. Some of that time was spent learning the program, some was setting up the account to submit the book, some was preparing the book to be submit. Once I have the app learned, and assuming all the material for the story is already selected and ready to go, I’d estimate it would take between three and four workdays to do the actual layout, styling and uploading.

The approval process was mostly hands-off from our perspective. I submitted the book and checked its status every once in a while. When it hadn’t changed in a week, I used the built-in contact form to ask if there was a problem, and then the process completed. I don’t know what the delay was. Other than that slight hiccup, there was no back-and-forth between us and Apple. The book was uploaded, then it was published.

Do readers have to pay for the app? Where is it available, and how many downloads have you seen so far?
The book is 99 cents. It’s available through iTunes.

So far we’ve sold just over 30 copies.

What advice would you give other journalists and article writers who want to create an e-book?
Given that the medium is so young, it’s my – and the Beacon’s – philosophy that we’re experimenting with it. This was an experiment to discover many things: how to put it together, what are some things that work well and don’t work well, what are good ways to promote it, who will read it, how will they use it, and so on. Is this a good way to tell the bigger story that we’re telling day to day using the articles? What kinds of stories work well in this format, and what kinds don’t?

From our point of view, it all goes back to the story. We didn’t and won’t make an e-book for the sake of making one, or for the sake of trying out this new piece of software or because the other media organizations in town are or because it’s the cool new thing. We decided to make it because we feel like it tells the story in a way that makes sense, in a way that makes connections and in a way that makes it apparent why it matters.

That’s the yardstick I’d use if I was giving advice to others: Will readers get something out of this e-book that they don’t get on our website or in our broadcast or newspaper? Whether that’s exclusive content or the addition of multimedia in a new way or just being able to tell a more cohesive story in a visually appealing manner, in order to be meaningful. I think the e-book needs to provide some benefit that readers aren’t going to find somewhere else. If the project fails that test, I think I’d take a step back and reevaluate the purpose.

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About Tim Sohn

Tim Sohn is a freelance writer and editor. He can be reached at timothyjsohn@gmail.com and on Twitter @editortim. Also, check out his website at TimothyJSohn.com.

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