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

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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.

Smashwords’ Mark Coker on E-Publishing

Mark Coker

Mark CokerEbook publishing presents a tremendous opportunity for writers with an entrepreneurial spirit, those who are willing to not only write the book but market and distribute it. One of the many distribution options is Smashwords, which distributes over 100,000 ebooks on behalf of 37,000 indie authors, publishers, and literary agents. Ebyline chatted with Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, about where the self-publishing world is headed.

What are the pros and cons of journalists self-publishing an ebook vs. signing with a traditional publisher?
With self-publishing, journalists have the ability to out-publish, out-distribute and out-sell the large publishers.

The primary benefits of self-publishing are immediacy, control, flexibility and economics.

Immediacy:  At Smashwords, a journalist can upload their completed manuscript and ebook cover image and within 5 minutes it’ll be made available for immediate worldwide discovery, sampling and sale from Smashwords.com.  Within two weeks, we’ll distribute that book to most of the big retailers, including the Apple iBookstore, Barnes & Noble, Sony, Kobo and others.  With traditional publishing, most books appear.  Most traditional publishers take 12-18 months to get a book out.

Control:  Self-pubbed authors retain all rights to their works, full editorial freedom and can price their content more competitively than traditionally published books.

Flexibility:  Self-pubbed ebook authors are not constrained by the typical word counts of print books.  Journalists and article writers can write to the word count that makes the most sense for each piece.  They can publish short form content of only 1,000 words, or longer form content of 250,000 or more words.  The author has the freedom to update and iterate their content at any time.  If they don’t like their cover image, they click a link and upload a new cover.  If they want to experiment with pricing, or a revised book description, they simply click a link.  At Smashwords, we give the author full control over every aspect of their book from their Smashwords Dashboard, and the changes they make at Smashwords automatically propagate out to our retailers.

Economics:  A self-published book will earn the journalist between 60 and 80% of the list price as their per-unit royalty.  Journalists have the ability to earn nearly same per unit selling a self-pubbed $5.99 ebook (earn $3.60 at 60% list) than they’d earn selling a $25 hardcover ($3.75 at 15% list).  A traditionally published ebook priced at $12 would earn the author only about $2.10 (17.5% list, assuming a best case) from a traditional publisher.

The immediacy and flexibility of self-published ebooks allows writers to quickly respond to reader trends and interests, and also quickly monetize their writing.

How has the e-publishing landscape changed over the last few years?  Has it become more mainstream?
Four years ago when we started Smashwords, self-publishing was seen as the option of last resort.  Self-published authors were considered the black sheep in the writing community.  Today, self-publishing is becoming the option of first choice for many professional writers.  It has definitely become mainstream.  Our authors are scaling the bestseller lists at every major bookstore, and in the process they’re inspiring the next generation of indie authors.  A few weeks ago, one of our authors, Darcie Chan, was the #1 bestseller at the Apple iBookstore.  Self-pubbed authors are also landing in the New York Times bestseller list for ebooks.  The few who’ve made it there have become indie celebrities. In the next couple years, indie authors on the NYT list will become commonplace.

Any recommendations on setting prices for ebooks? We’ve seen prices over all the map.
There’s no general rule, other than perhaps to price lower than print.  We publish over 100,000 books ranging from FREE to over $100.00.  The average price of purchased books is $2.95 for us, and for any mathematicians out there, the median is about $2.90.  Keep in mind the author retains 60-80% of that.

The best-selling, highest-earning authors at Smashwords are publishing multiple full-length books, and they use a range of pricing to simultaneously build platform and harvest sales.  Lower prices are good for platform building.  A price of FREE is an incredibly powerful platform building strategy.

If you publish multiple titles, at least one should be priced at free, and then you can use that to generate reader trust as well as demand for the other works that carry a price.  Use the free and low cost titles to generate readership and reader trust( two essential elements of platform building), and then price others in your catalog higher to harvest income.

There are multiple other factors to consider beyond price, most of which I summarized in a guest post over at The Savvy Book Marketer titled, Pricing Strategies for Ebooks.

What are the biggest mistakes that self-published ebook authors make? Not polishing their manuscript, using an amateur-looking cover, something else?

Those are excellent examples.  I wrote a blog post at Smahwords titled, The Seven Secrets to Ebook Publishing Failure in which I documented the most common mistakes of self-published authors.

Where do you see epublishing headed over the next several years? Will we start to see more interactive or multimedia ebooks, cheaper e-readers, and so on?
Market Growth:  According the research from the Association of American Publishers, ebooks account for about 20% of the overall book market in the US today, up from about 8% a year ago and 3% a year before that.

Obviously, this exponential growth cannot continue forever.  We’ll see the growth rate slow, but I think we’ll still see impressive growth over the next few years.  There’s a larger macro trend at play here:  Reading is moving to screens.  Screens are the new paper.

For 2012, ebook will probably approach 30% of dollar sales, and maybe 40-50% for 2013.  From a unit consumption basis, ebooks will probably eclipse print by early next year since ebooks are priced less than print books.  If you include downloads of ebooks priced at FREE, it’s possible that consumption curve has already crossed over.

The market for ebooks outside the US is about 3-4 years behind us, so those markets are now just entering the most rapid phase of their exponential growth. With the next couple years, the market for English-language books outside the US will eclipse the US market.  Already, we’re seeing this trend at Smashwords.  We distribute over 70,000 ebooks to Apple, who operates in 32 different countries.  Nearly 50% of our sales are already outside the US.  As Apple opens more international stores, and as these new markets proceed along their growth curve, international will open up in a big way.

Interactive:  I’d estimate that 90% of book sales are probably simple books, primarily straight reflowable narrative, and narrative plus images.  They don’t need interactivity, nor are readers clamoring for it.

Sales of interactive books have been disappointing for most publishers, and it’s not a category we currently distribute.  These books are more expensive to produce and they can’t yet be distributed across all platforms.  In the next couple years, we’ll see better, cheaper tools for creating these books, yet I’m not terribly enthusiastic about their potential outside of non-fiction instructional materials and education.  If you want to learn how to change an oil filter in your car or crack an egg open with one hand, an embedded video could be quite valuable.  If you’re trying to learn a foreign language, interactive audio would be great.

For fiction, however, I think any attempt to add multimedia will likely fail because the magic of fiction is that it happens inside the reader’s mind.  The sights, sounds and smells within great fiction are much more vivid than reality because fiction happens inside the reader’s imagination.

Cheaper E-Reading Devices:  I think we’re only 12 months away from some smart e-reading device maker offering readers a free e-reading device in exchange for a monthly subscription plan.  For example, I could envision a $9.95/month plan that would entitle the customer to select one book a month from a list, kind of like an ebook of the month club, and then the customer could use the e-reader to discover, sample and purchase other media.  I’m really surprised someone hasn’t done this yet.

The Future for Writers:  Without a doubt, the opportunities for professional writers to reach readers with their words have never been greater.  Most professional writers are sitting on unpublished or reverted-rights works.  They should get their content out there asap as an indie ebook, build their catalog, experiment, iterate and start building a modest, long term revenue stream.  Getting your work out there is half the battle.  Readers will find great content.

Poynter Fellow Jeff Sonderman on Digital Journalism

Jeff Sonderman headshot

Jeff Sonderman headshotJeff Sonderman is the Digital Media Fellow at the Poynter Institute, where he blogs and trains journalists about using social media and mobile technology for better journalism. He has worked as a reporter and editor at print newspapers and as a community engagement specialist and editor in online local news. Ebyline asked Sonderman for his take on citizen journalism, e-publishing trends, and more.

How do you think the rise of citizen journalism has helped or hurt professional journalists and the outlets they write for?
I think it’s largely helped professional journalists. The rise of citizen, or amateur, journalism has not replace what professional journalists do, but it has in some cases freed them to focus more on analysis and making sense of the news rather than just reporting events. It has given working journalists and freelance writers many new sources and leads to use in their reporting, and it has helped fill some public information needs in areas where the business of journalism falls short.

In some circles, “aggregation” is a dirty word, but many reputable media outlets do it. Is there a right and a wrong way to aggregate content? Do you think this style of writing is a fad or will it persist long-term?
There are right and wrong ways, for sure, but each publisher should choose a precise approach that suits them. I wrote an extensive post about how to formulate your aggregation strategy.

Aggregation, plus curation, is an essential task of the modern news provider because the Internet enables abundance of content. That’s not going away, and so neither will the need for a news organization to comb through it all and decide what pieces its audience needs to know.

What, in your opinion, were the biggest changes in digital media during 2011? Any predictions on what we’ll see in 2012?
I labeled 2011 as “the year of the e-book” for news organizations, and I think we’ll see that trend grow in 2012 as many more e-readers are sold.

The increasing spread of smartphones and fast early adoption of iPads also made a big mark in 2011 and will be a big force on both the content and business models of journalism in the next few years.

Anything else you’d like to add about this brave new world of mobile and web-based journalism?
There’s never been a better time to do what we do. The Internet and now mobile tools are bringing us closer to our audiences, enabling us to learn more about what they actually want and serve them in new ways. It’s an extremely different media world than it was 10 or 20 years ago, but for those willing to disrupt themselves and challenge their old thinking, it’s a huge new opportunity.

Prolific Freelancer Thursday Bram on Pricing Infoproducts, Working with Subcontractors

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Freelance writer Thursday Bram has contributed to websites including CNET, GigaOM, and Lifehack. She’s also created a variety of information products like ebooks and online classes and recently launched an online membership site at EnhancedFreelance.

Ebyline chatted with Thursday about media trends and new opportunities for writers.

Ebyline: What are some of the limitations of the traditional hourly or per project freelance model where you’re working with clients? How can freelancers bust out of that model?

Thursday:
The biggest limitation, especially to charging hourly, is that every freelance writer has only 24 hours in every day — and if we try to work all of them, it tends to end poorly. At the very least, a lack of sleep makes for less than excellent work. There are certainly other limitations, as well, but that’s the limitation that I’ve run up against the most often. It means that the amount of money that can be made by someone that purely freelances is limited.

Breaking out of that hourly model is crucial. Charging per project is an important first step, because it means that you’ve got room to start exploring if there are time intensive parts of the work you do can be outsourced. I have a virtual assistant who can handle repetitive tasks, like tracking down email addresses for potential sources, freeing me up to do more actual writing. From there, it’s a question of what additional income sources you can think of that fit well with your specialties. That might mean subcontracting out work, creating ebooks or something entirely different.

When and why did you decide to start working with subcontractors? 

I’ve actually been working with one of army subcontractors for well over a year now. What sparked the idea to bring her on was a client who wanted me on a project where the budget was too low for me to actually take on. But I knew a writer who could handle the work with some editing and charged a rate that would allow me to get the posts written and still budget a little of my time for the necessary editing. It felt like a win all around.

Nowadays a lot of writers monetize their content by selling infoproducts but prices for those products are all over the map. What are your thoughts on pricing infoproducts?

Pricing can be tough, just because one group of buyers might be willing to pay a lot more than others. The first thing that I look at when I’m creating a new product is how much time I’m going to put into it. That’s in contrast to what some people will tell you (“look at the audience size” is pretty common advice). I want to know what I need to make for a project to make financial sense for me. From there, I’ll make a table of how many copies I need to sell at which price points for a total. Then I’ll run down the numbers to see what I think is realistic  There’s a bit of gut instinct at play, but you can usually get a good feel based on your research.

One of the dangers with infoproducts and content marketing is that you share too much and give away the farm for free or you don’t share enough and readers wonder if the product is all hype. Any thoughts on finding the right balance?

I’m happy to give away plenty of information in general. I blog all over the place and have given away plenty of free ebooks and the like. But I don’t generally do a lot of free information in connection with a specific product. I think that having built up my expertise is enough.

Another reason that I’m not scared to be forthcoming with free information is because much of what I write about (and sell in product form) is not some secret great truth. I learned most of it for free, by trial and error, reading everything in sight and bothering people who know more. What I’m really offering in a product is organization and guidance through all that information. And most people really do find that worth paying for.

I’ve seen a few other freelancer writers create membership communities as you’ve done. Do you think these communities are the new ebook or blog? Or is there another emerging trend you’re noticing?

I actually see live events being one of the big trends coming up. There have always been tons of forums and membership sites for freelancers (think about all those sites that offer guidelines for publications behind pay walls). I definitely can tell that there’s a lot of differences between the membership sites that have been started in the past few months. Mine really focuses on building up a business as a whole — marketing, additional income sources and the like. I’ve seen one that’s much more of a mentorship program and another that’s more geared towards honing writing abilities.

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