First published at Nieman Journalism Lab
Try this: Call up your local newspaper or online news organization. Tell them you want to buy something and ask them what they can sell you? Of course, at first, they'd be non-plussed: Sell you something? Then, after giving it some thought, they'd say you can buy a newspaper or a subscription or a membership - or, maybe, an ad? Would you like one of those?
Those days - mark it - are coming to an end. We're on the brink of news companies producing hundreds of products for sale each year. While digital technology hath taketh (the easy ability to make money on news distribution), digital technology also giveth back, with the ability to create hundreds and thousands of newsy products at small incremental costs. The bonus: News organizations will be able to satisfy groups of readers and advertisers (often disguised thinly as sponsors) better than ever before. Double bonus: The let-a-hundred-products-bloom revolution fits neatly with the all-out embrace of all-access circulation initiatives, which news companies in North America, Europe, and Asia now can't seem to implement quickly enough.
Can we call this the ebook revolution? Maybe, but that's probably too narrow. Delivery of new products to new audiences can take several forms. A text-only ebook, a shinier iBooks-enabled product with video, or an app with all the glorious functionality apps offer. It's not the form; it's the content, content that satisfies niches rather than serves masses with one-size-fits-all newspaper or magazine products.
Call it the newsonomics of 100 products a year, or just one way to envision a much bigger future.
The 100-product-a-year model is a much-needed growth model. We can see how it fits nicely with all-access subscriptions, and together we have two interconnected Lego blocks of a new sustainable news model. We have two essential parts of a crossover model ("The Newsonomics of Crossover") that I detailed here a few weeks ago. The big, hairy challenges of accelerating print ad loss and onerous legacy costs remain, but at least we've got a couple of building blocks we didn't have two years ago. By we, I mean those of us who care about news and great professional content.
Is it a big moneymaker? We don't know yet, though we can extrapolate some numbers below.
It's directionally right, though, for at least a couple of strategic reasons. The notion of 100 smaller products reminds us that so much of the new world is based on volume. Google has built a monstrous advertising business on hundreds of thousands of smaller advertisers, while daily newspapers reaped huge profits on relatively few bigger advertisers. Even as movie watching by streaming surpasses DVD watching, more money is still in the old medium. Streaming will monetize at a lower rate, but end up generating bigger dollars over time. The same thing is true in the digital music business. Selling lots of stuff to lots of people at smaller price points is something the Internet enables superbly.
Yes, there are definitely new winners and losers in movies and music, as there will be in news. Those who transition best and fastest will win.
Second, it's in line with the strategic push to satisfy the hell out of core customers. As publishers have figured out that it's the top 15 percent of site visitors who make the big difference in building the new digital business - perhaps paying for subscriptions, consuming many more pages than fly-by users sent by Google - core customer satisfaction is key. Ebooks deeper the relationship to that reader customer.
This 100-product-a-year model may fit as well with the new California Watch/Bay Citizen combo ("The Newsonomics of the Death and Life of California News"), finalized Tuesday, as its does with The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Charlotte Observer, GQ, or Conde Nast Traveler.
Let's take one example. On Wednesday, the Boston Globe launched "Sunday Supper & More." It's a cookbook. It's New England. And it could be the beginning of a new franchise: Expect summer, fall and winter editions each year to join this spring debut. The Globe's staff built it with Apple's iBooks Author tool, so it offers video within it.
Want to buy it? Not so fast. Today, Sunday Supper & More is only available to Boston Globe print, all-access, and digital subscribers. So subscription - think "membership" (the recent riff of the L.A. Times new paywall intro) - is gaining new benefits. Surprise, says the Globe, you not only get our paper, our spiffy new replica-plus edition, if that's what you want, and our mobile apps - you also get our cool cookbooks, with more to come.
The Globe will sell the book to non-subscribers - probably at $4.99 - but will decide the timing of that sale after next week's Globe confab at which execs and editors will plot an ebook plan for the company.
"Events and ebooks will be the two biggest perks" of the new Globe subscription push, says Jeff Moriarty, the Globe's VP of digital products. Beyond Sunday Suppers and a new spin on the Fenway 100 historical Red Sox book, we can picture the Globe soon mining its archives in both sports and features to provide new value for customers and a new leg of revenue. It experimented early with three books on its Whitey Bulger stories, and learned some lessons in pricing, distribution, and the technical creation process along the way.
The Globe has plenty of company in this push. We see Canada's National Post committing to a couple of dozen ebooks in the coming year, again from hard news to features ("To learn what works (quickly), Canada's National Post dives into ebooks"). Guardian Shorts is an early innovator; Politico is churning out four campaign ebooks this year.
Magazine publishers, faster than newspaper publishers to embrace the tablet as the next-gen platform, are also ahead of most newspaper publishers in ebooks. Vanity Fair's done more than a half dozen, and its parent Conde Nast is hosting an explosion of more single-purpose apps in the iTunes Store, some unrelated to Conde's magazines. Hearst's Cosmopolitan is embracing ebooks, and now partnering, along with ProPublica - an early tester of ebooks - with Open Road Integrated Media . Open Road Integrated Media?
Well, it's a book company, an ebook company juiced on the possibilities of our age. Headed by former HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman, the company is prototypical of a new group of middlemen. With book marketing savvy (cover design, marketing, distribution+), these companies are now feeding the emerging ebook marketplace. They are also partnering back for that old standby, print, as Open Road has done with book services company Ingram. In Canada, it was Harper Collins Canada that became the National Post's partner in bringing news ebooks to market.
Just as the web has knocked many middlemen for a loop, it creates openings for new ones.
If you talk to publishers about ebooks, they are farther along in experimenting than they were a year ago. Yet some basic issues - producing the books, marrying them to commerce engines, placing them prominently in e-stores and more - are giving them headaches as they push forward. "How do we make the right offer to the right person at the right time?" one experienced exec asked.
The marketplace has been exploding (recall that Amazon announced last spring that its ebooks were now outselling its paper books), but those issues are setting the stage for a new group of companies, many staffed with graduates of the book industry, offering their help. Newspaper and magazine publishers are looking to the Open Roads for guidance.
Some are turning to their digital circulation partner, Press+. That company, which is powering more than 280 titles' subscription commerce, says its system can handle the commerce and even help with identifying likely customers, based on tracked content usage, so its customers are just beginning to ply the ebook trade.
ProPublica general manager Dick Tofel opted for Open Road for the non-profit investigative publisher's fifth and sixth books. He says the company will start producing a half dozen or more a year now and is now fielding calls from other publishers eager to get the benefit of his early ebook experience.
So far, ProPublica has put 90,000 ebooks into the market. The first couple were free downloads, but with the addition of new original introductions to work ProPublica had already published free online, Amazon and ProPublica agreed on test pricing of 99 cents and $1.99, and new revenue is rolling in. It's small, but "pound for pound, it generates more than advertising," notes Tofel, who is a Wall Street Journal veteran. And, of course, the incremental cost of creating ebooks is closer to zero, with most sales cost able to be a commissioned cost of sale.
As assistant publisher, Tofel oversaw the print books business that's been a good Dow Jones sideline for a long time.
Those books - personal investing and more - are naturals for the ebook revolution now. Look for the Journal to experiment more with those titles, perhaps niching by life stage.
As news and magazine publishers look to this new revenue stream, here are six points to ponder:
It's about product development: Yes, it's editing, but fundamentally, it's a mindset change for many publishers stuck in the one-size-fits-all world. Publishers either need staffers with new product chops or partners wanting to license publisher content and create the products for the marketplace.
Free the archives!: Digital archives have never been a big business for publishers, caught somewhere between Google and musty library connotations. Packaged archives - for specific audiences - can offer new life for older content.
Don't think content; think problem solving: Publishers too often start with content. If we start with audience - college-planning students and parents, new mothers and fathers to be, bored cooks, and, big time, sports enthusiasts of all ages - we can see the motors of ebook publishing beginning to role. Think life stage, just for starters, and add the geo angle, and regional publishers can play.
Mining the database: As onesies and twosies, it's fairly easy to pick content from publishers' own databases. Think of bigger production cycle, going beyond the 100 a year, to a thousand, all niched products that could be semi-automated and templated over time. Better tagging of content for ebook usage then becomes a priority.
Ebook or app?: Early experimenters say let the content be your guide. The more multimedia, the better an app may work. Ebooks, though, can be sold through more distributors, while Apple continues to dominate the app business.
Pricing: What's an ebook worth? If it solidifies a subscriber/member paying $300 or more a year, it's worth a lot, even if it's free. Think of the lifetime value of that subscriber.
To the right niche, some ebooks will be worth $1.99 and others - Retina perfect - will go for $19.99. Let's take our 100 products a year. Let's average 5,000 sales for each. Let's price at $2.99 on average. That would be $1.5 million. Some books, though, could be blockbusters. We can play with this math and see where it goes.
For the ProPublicas, it's a nice non-ad revenue stream. For other publishers, it's at least a growing third leg of revenue (beyond ads and circulation) and one that may be nurtured into something significant. (Last fall, Will Sullivan offered a gaggle of reasons ebooks make sense for publishers.) As importantly, it can reinforce those two legs, pleasing subscribers/members with free (or discounted) perks and advertisers/sponsors who have new opportunities to represent themselves to niche audiences. That's a pretty good combination, and one that publishers will soon embrace, just as they lately have all-access digital circulation.
Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.