In E-Books, Publishers Have Rivals: News Sites
By JULIE BOSMAN and JEREMY W. PETERS
Book publishers are surrounded by hungry new competitors: Amazon, with its steadily growing imprints; authors who publish their own e-books; online start-ups like The Atavist and Byliner.
Now they have to contend with another group elbowing into their territory: news organizations.
Swiftly and at little cost, newspapers, magazines and sites like The Huffington Post are hunting for revenue by publishing their own version of e-books, either using brand-new content or repurposing material that they may have given away free in the past.
And by making e-books that are usually shorter, cheaper to buy and more quickly produced than the typical book, they are redefining what an e-book is - and who gets to publish it.
On Tuesday, The Huffington Post will release its second e-book, "How We Won," by Aaron Belkin, the story of the campaign to end the military's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy. It joins e-books recently published by The New Yorker, ABC News, The Boston Globe, Politico and Vanity Fair.
The books occasionally snap up valuable spots on best-seller lists - "Open Secrets," an e-book published by The New York Times, landed in the No. 19 spot on The Times e-book nonfiction best-seller list in February.
"Surely they're competing with us," said Stephen Rubin, the president and publisher of Henry Holt and Company, part of Macmillan. "If I'm doing a book on Rupert Murdoch and four magazines are doing four instant e-books on Rupert Murdoch, then I'm competing with them."
But as much as news outlets and magazines would like a piece of the e-book market, it remains to be seen whether what they produce can match the breadth and depth of the work produced by traditional publishing houses.
"I'm doing something different than they're doing," added Mr. Rubin, who is in fact offering a book on the phone-hacking scandal at News of the World. "I'm going to get the book on Rupert Murdoch that is the definitive book for all time."
The proliferation of e-readers has helped magazine and newspaper publishers find new platforms for their work, publishing executives said.
"On the one hand, a Kindle or a Nook is perfect for reading a 1,000-page George R. R. Martin novel," said Eric Simonoff, a literary agent. "On the other hand, these devices are uniquely suited for mid-length content that runs too long for shrinking magazines and are too pamphletlike to credibly be called a book."
Some publishers have joined forces with news organizations to produce e-books on a faster schedule. Random House, the world's largest trade publisher, is partnering with Politico to produce a series of four e-books about the 2012 presidential race.
Many of the works sold as e-books are more of a hybrid between a long magazine piece and a serialized book. Each Random House-Politico e-book will be in the range of 20,000 to 30,000 words, and the releases will be spaced out over the course of the campaign.
"We think that the nature of a book is changing," said Jon Meacham, an executive editor at Random House and a former editor of Newsweek. "The line between articles and books is getting ever fuzzier."
Part of the appeal is cost. Instead of paying writers hefty advances and then sending them out on the road to report for months at a time, publishers can rely on reporters who are already doing the work as part of their day job. Politico, for example, has assigned Mike Allen, its chief White House correspondent, to write and report with Evan Thomas, a noted political writer. The e-book will be the combination of their efforts.
"Our cost," said Mr. Meacham, "is me and Evan."
The Huffington Post, which began publishing e-books this month, is not paying its authors advances for their work, but will share profits from the sales.
Some publishers are trying a different approach - one that requires even fewer reporting and writing resources. Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, for example, have created their own e-books by bundling together previously published works surrounding a major news event.
When the phone-hacking scandal erupted at Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation in early July, Vanity Fair collected 20 articles on Mr. Murdoch, his family and their businesses and put them in a $3.99 e-book that went on sale July 29. Graydon Carter, the magazine's editor, wrote an introduction. The articles were then grouped into six chapters, each with a theme that reflected various aspects of Mr. Murdoch's life.
"It's like having a loose-leaf binder and shoving new pages into it," Mr. Carter said. "E-books are a wonderful way to do a book and do it quickly. They don't need to be fact-checked again. They do go through copy-editing. But you're not reinventing the wheel each time."
The New Yorker created a similar e-book about Sept. 11 using content from the magazine's writing on the attacks and their aftermath - everything from poetry to reported pieces on Al Qaeda. It sells for $7.99.
So far, sales for the handful of digital special editions that The New Yorker has released remain relatively small. Pamela McCarthy, the deputy editor, put the number in the thousands. "The question of what constitutes well in this new world is one that seems to be up for grabs," Ms. McCarthy said of the success so far.
Another problem for e-books that are not simultaneously published in print is that they pose a marketing challenge. With no automatic display space in thousands of bookstores across the country, making readers aware of a book that lives only online is a problem.
"I think one of the challenges for everybody is letting people know the material is there," Ms. McCarthy said. "The e-book stores are tremendously deep, and what's there is not at all apparent on the surface. It's not like walking into a bookstore and seeing what's on the front table."
Authors who are using news organizations to publish their books also may have to miss the pleasure of seeing their work produced in print.
Mr. Belkin, whose e-book will be published by The Huffington Post, said he still hopes that his book will be released in print eventually. And if not, he's content with the potential exposure offered by The Huffington Post, which draws some 25 million visitors each month.
"Even if the page itself is not as beautiful as a page from Oxford University Press," Mr. Belkin said, "Oxford University Press would not be getting the word out to a million people on the first day my book is out."