From frontline to publication – the rise of news e-books

Report by Alex Klaushofer.

It’s comforting, if you’re in the words business, to remember that ‘crisis’ denotes ‘turning point’, a phase of breakdown prior to resolution, as well as the more common meaning of a bad time. And now, with the line between book publishing and journalism becoming increasingly blurred, comes evidence that new opportunties for journalists are opening up in the expanding world of e-books.

This month brings the latest development in this emerging trend, in the form of a new initiative launched by non-profit news outlet ProPublica and digital publisher Open Road Integrated Media. In the partnership, ProPublica is releasing another tranche of its investigative work in e-book form, including its Presidential Pardons series, material that was originally published in The Washington Post.

The organisation joins a growing number of US publishers who are exploiting the relative cheapness and ease of digital publication to bring in-depth, long-form journalism to a wider audience.

Last October US publishers Politico opened an online bookstore in partnership with publishers Random House, allowing titles to be sold through retailers such as Amazon. The titles, says editor-in-chief John Harris, offer readers a combination of ‘great minds and writers in political journalism and publishing’.

A similar venture is being developed by Random House and Collca in the Brain Shots series, covered previously on this site.

Publishing journalism as e-books allows publishers to venture into territory such as last summer’s riots that were hitherto off-limits because the long lead-in times of traditional publishing meant that, by the time the more newsy books came out, the moment had passed.

Yet, while the attractions of the new model are obvious, it does present challenges, not least the question of how to legitimise charging for material that has already been published. One obvious selling point is the convenience of having material brought together and edited into a single format, in the way that newspapers and authors have often served up anthologies of particularly successful columns in book form.

But the e-book, lacking the tangible virtue of a physical object, has to do more. So the new publishers are seeking out extra content like videos, maps and interviews with journalists, to add value to the product. One such ‘enhanced book’ is Behind the Beautiful Forevers, in which Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Katherine Boo follows the child-residents of Bombay slums as they scrape a living by sorting and selling rubbish. The e-book package includes video footage, shot by the children themselves, over three years of reporting.

Yet, as the new model gets more established, journalists may increasingly ask themselves whether they wouldn’t be better off by cutting out the middle man. Just as more and more authors are concluding they are now able to do for themselves what only a traditional publisher used to do – and with less cost and delay – the next phase may see journalists going it alone.

One example to watch is Marc Herman, a freelance journalist whose self-published book on Libya has been hitting the top few per cent of sales in Kindle Singles. In this interview about the nuts and bolts of the experiment, Herman reveals himself to be a model of the new entrepreneurial hack, prepared not just to go out and get the story, but to bring it to market too.

The next frontier in long-form journalism may be a lonely, but exciting one.