Ebooks vs apps: What next for news?

I was just writing a comment on Adam Tinworth’s blog post pointing out that there’s a huge ebook market out there that’s largely lying untapped by news organisations, but it started to get too big so here it is as a blog post.

There are a few challenges that news organisations need to overcome in order to really make the best of the ebook market. The first is around file formats. A friend of mine who does web comics looked at the Kindle, and the problem she came across was that anything with images becomes problematic, not just in terms of how the layout is affected by the ebook formatting, but also about upload file size limits. It makes doing a webcomic on Kindle impossible, and I would imagine that the same would be true of any news content with images. The standard news article format of image or video plus text doesn’t seem like it would work well on the Kindle.

That means that one would have to properly repackage content for ebooks: either big, timely articles, such as Ars Technica’s Apple OS X Lion review by John Siracusa, which netted Ars Technica $15,000 in 24 hours OR content with more legs, such as analysis, market intelligence, etc. I know some news orgs are experimenting with this, but some ebooks that I’ve seen of the latter type have been terrible – just a bunch of articles cut and paste into a file, barely formatted, and with no sense of cohesion or context.

In order to do ebooks well, you do need to have someone able to spend the time both on making sure that the content is right and typesetting it in a style suitable for ebooks, and getting it out onto the main ebook platforms, not just Amazon. I personally think there’s a market there, and news orgs really should have all the requisite skills in-house, but what seems to be missing is vision, budget, and time. The idea that you can simply slap a load of related articles into an ebook and Bob’s your uncle is erroneous in the extreme. You need to add value to your content, so provide analysis or information or context or something that your readers can’t simply get from your website. The added value in terms of the Ars Technica Lion review was timeliness and convenience, but single topic articles where that will be enough to prompt so many sales will be rare. I do think that news orgs should be looking at ways in which they can use ebooks to exploit their archives and start to gain revenue from reanalysis of existing content.

As for apps, I think they actually scratch a different itch. They are mainly about accessing today’s news in a more convenient manner. Were I to be pointing in a direction for news apps,  I’d say that news orgs should be looking at hybrid HTML5/native apps which require less in the way of original coding (think of platforms like PugPig), and which can stretch across operating systems with just a single source of content (the HTML5). The development and redevelopment of apps for this platform and that platform is time-consuming and uses up resources unnecessarily. As I said to .Net Magazine, this is the only real way that content producers can keep up with the demands of different platforms.

Of course, this isn’t actually an either/or scenario. News orgs should be looking at both ebooks and apps with a clinical, disinterested eye, working out what users want and how to provide that effectively, rather than simply shoehorning their existing content into these different-shaped buckets and hoping no one will notice that it doesn’t really fit.

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