Huff, puff and blow the majors down: Ariana and company get into the e-book publishing game

MagazinE-book! Phat-E-Zine! What do we call the brand new phenomenon of major magazines and internet sites getting into the publishing game by producing mid-size e-books? Regardless of nomenclature, the practice has the majors very, very worried. By RICHARD POPLAK.

What is an e-book? This question is one part Kantian, one part Hegelian, and four parts straight ontological querying. Is it merely the electronic rendering of an opus that, before the era of the Kindle or the iPad, would have showed up at your local Exclusive Books, and subsequently gathered dust on the shelves? Is it a volume specifically developed for an e-reader, assembled from bits and bytes rather than tree trunks? Alternatively, is it some hybrid of the two, a sort of poly-media creature, neither fish nor fowl, easily adapted to publishing’s new rules of expediency?

Answer: No one really knows. But plenty of players, new media and old, are trying to figure it out. Consider a phenomenon that is currently being stress-tested by the likes of The New Yorker, The New York Times, Huffington Post, Vanity Fair and Politico. They have started bundling articles, reformatting slews of previously published pieces, or outright repackaging thematically consistent writing (on 9/11, say, or the 2008 US Presidential election), and have started selling them independently as e-books.

On one hand, this is a means for these companies to repurpose their archives, in the sort of Greatest Hits volumes that The New Yorker has been particularly adept at producing over the years. But it’s also a way for magazines to start thinking outside the article. As any long form writer will tell you, the only difference between researching a book and a 6,000-word article is the size of the advance. So much material hits the cutting room floor that it makes good sense to try and package that into something longer, easily delivered to the e-book platform.

Are the majors worried? You bet they are. And that’s why Random House and Politico have been working on a collaboration for a series of four e-books detailing the 2012 Presidential election. As the furiously non-partisan, go-to site for all things American politics, no other outlet has the same credibility and insider status as Politico. Naturally, they have two seasoned vets covering the race, in Mike Allen and Evan Thomas. Each piece will run 30,000 or so words, roughly the same length as Lawrence Wright’s recent Scientology mini-opus for The New Yorker. In other words, Allen and Thomas are essentially repackaging their investigative work for Politico as a series of big, fat articles. Or e-books, as the case may be.

Random House, along with other major publishing companies, understands that the e-book format poses a massive existential threat. Why bother with stodgy bricks-and-mortar publishing companies when you can run a great idea through the e-book digi-mill, quickly and with minimum bureaucracy? The answer to that question lies with the music industry. While labels have certainly lost much of their influence over the years, iTunes poses a problem of depth. Put another way, how is a consumer to know that a particular record has made it to the e-storefront, without a marketing push? Yes, iTunes has remodeled the music industry. No, it has not negated the need for labels and their marketing departments. It is a question of scale, and everything has been duly downsized.

Random House and their peers face daunting competition from the likes of Huffington Post and The New York Times, two publications that have well established online brands, and hundreds of thousands of repeat visitors a day. Their sites double not only as possible portals to storefronts like Amazon or iBooks, but also as advertising billboards. The Huff is preparing to release “How We Won”, an e-book detailing the collapse of the US military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, written by Aaron Belkin. While Belkin may never get see his book in glorious, sensuous hardcover on a table-top in Barnes and Noble, he would never otherwise have the tome announced to one million readers on the day of it’s publication. And at a very reasonable $3,99, it doesn’t hit consumers’ pocketbooks the way a fat hardcover does.

Indeed, that $30 price differential—almost R200 by local standards—may well be the saving grace of the publishing industry. As hardcover books become fetish objects, read by a dying breed of stalwarts, the cheap e-book may become the industry’s financial mainstay. Easy to produce, topical in a way books cannot be, and drawing on the resources already at a publication’s disposal, the neo e-book could be a terminal threat to the major houses.

That said, there will always be a need for the definitive tome, the last word on a subject that demands hindsight, years of research, and Herculean commitment. The ideal format for that will always be hundreds of thousands of words meticulously assembled in the correct order, regardless of the format in which it is published. A newspaper editor is not a book editor, and a newspaper journalist is not necessarily an author. The neo e-book is an answer, but not the answer. DM

Photo: Reuters


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