In My Opinion: Tim Dawson: Can eBooks save journalism?

FIVE years ago, Rupert Colley was a librarian in Enfield with a long-standing dream of creating a series of popular histories that could be consumed in 60 minutes. After a decade puzzling how he might realise his plan, in the Autumn of 2009 he published a 10,000-word account of the Second World War as an eBook. Today, his ‘History In An Hour’ imprint has sold over 250,000 bite-sized digests of everything from The Reformation, to Ancient Egypt and the Cold War.

“There have been times when it was manic, but the level of the success of the series has been overwhelming”, he says today. “My hunch was that there was a real appetite for easily digestible histories, maybe in subject areas that people felt they ought to know about, or in anticipation of a holiday. ‘History for busy people’ was the slogan I had in my head.”

He is by no means the only person who has found ways to harness the possibilities of eBooks. Literary publicist, Richard Foreman, launched Endeavour Press, with journalist, Mathew Lynn, a year-and-a-half ago. Specialising in genre fiction, history and collections of journalism, they produce eBooks at a rate of eight a week. ‘Name’ journalists such as Simon Sebag-Montefiorie, Rachel Johnson and William Dalrymple and among their stable; and sales currently run at upwards of 15,000 books a month.

In the US, where the market for short eBooks, or long-form journalism, is more developed, several writers have earned more than £100,000 from ‘Singles’ – Amazon’s short book brand. Mishka Shubaly, for example, scored an unexpected hit with Shipwrecked (Kindle Single), a true account of a near fatal yachting disaster that he could not fit for any of his regular magazine clients. He has gone on to write several more successful Singles.

The success of these short eBooks appears to rest on three, related factors: a general thirst for shorter books; ‘cup-of-coffee’ pricing; and technology that brings writing, publishing and purchasing much closer together.

Traditional publishing contracts have tended to insist on 100,000 words for works of fiction and 150,000 for non-fiction – the length of eBooks is immaterial. And, a little like the market for smart-phone apps, there appears to be a willingness to pay among consumers – so long as the price is negligible.

According to Amazon’s figures, nearly 75 per cent cost $4.99 or less. Authors typically receive 50-70 per cent of the cover price of eBooks, and as the process from finished manuscript to product on sale can take less than an hour, it is easy to see the appeal.

The experience of Rupert Colley, however, suggests that you can’t necessarily expect riches the second that you add your work to Amazon’s vast catalogue, however.

“I started by putting up free-to-read articles on my website to generate some interest”, he explains. “It took four months after I published my Second World War book before I sold a single copy, though”.

During that time he was busy building interest on his site and through social media.

A year later, however, sales were so strong that HarperCollins offered to buy him out, and retain him to run History In An Hour on behalf of the publishing giant. Among the more surprising ways that professional backing has helped has been in the development of audio versions of his titles. Consisting of an actor, reading an abbreviated version of the 10,000-word titles, the resulting products have sold tens of thousands through iTunes.

“Initially I just wrote about what interested me – that is why I did a lot of contemporary history titles,” says Colley. “I also went with what people offered me – so long as they were competent writers. Since HarperCollins involvement, I have become more anniversary-driven, but writers still get the same basic percentage of sales revenues”.

Endeavour’s ambitions are even larger. Foreman happily contemplates the day when his imprint overtakes Penguin. “We are selling to a global market – a third of our sales are in the US”, he says. “Of course there is no reason why authors should not publish themselves – but we have expertise in marketing titles and working Amazon’s algorithms to maximum advantage”. Their greatest success to date has been Foreman’s own, ‘Augustus Son Of Rome’, one of a series of novelisatons of Roman history. It has sold 12,000 copies to date. The publisher is also actively pursuing out-of-print works into which he can breathe new life. AJP Taylor’s War By Timetable has been a recent success.

And Endeavour is not the only one combing back catalogues. In the US, several publications are now actively republishing classic long-form journalism, among them the New York Review Books and The Atlantic. The latter has been experimenting with eBooks since 2010, says Kimberly Lau, general manager of Atlantic Digital. “Our focus has been to leverage assets that are unique to The Atlantic – generally best-in-class writing and editing. Our audience has a seemingly endless appetite for high-quality content”. Lau won’t disclose sales figures, but says that Daniel Rauch’s ‘Denial’ has ‘significantly exceeded original forecasts”.

The common thread through all of these successes, of course, is Amazon, the global behemoth from which 1.5 million eBooks are available and through which 90 per cent of eBook sales are sold. There are alternatives, of course – iBooks, Nook and Smashwords, for example. But whatever view you take of Amazon’s corporate practices, selling eBooks without them would be a hard slog.

The mechanism of self-publishing is childishly simple. Set up an account at Kindle Direct Publishing, and upload a Microsoft Word file of your words – and the job is all but done. Many of the biggest journalism-eBook-success stories, however, are ‘Kindle Singles’; long-form journalism, published by Amazon itself.

The series editor in the UK is Andrew Rosenheim, a novelist and former managing director of Penguin books. He advertises that he will consider any original work, between 5,000 and 30,000 words in length as well as reviewing all material that is already published via KDP, with a view to adopting it as a Single. The royalties split for the author does not change, if your work become a Single – generally speaking you receive 70 per cent of the sale price. Being a Single, does, however, mean that an eBook is given a lot more profile on Amazon.

Whether the mail-order giant will forever dominate eBook sales is impossible to know. It would require a wholly unpredictable market shock to reverse the eBook tide, however. Indeed, pretty much all publishing soothsayers predict that eBooks will be snatching market share from their ink-and-paper counterparts for the foreseeable future. That may not be unqualified good news. But for those journalists and writers who do exploit the advantages of ePublishing to sell their work, this a developing market of huge potential.

Tim Dawson is a freelance journalist who, among other things, writes weekly for The Sunday Times. He also runs training courses on new ways to make journalism pay and is a member of the NUJ’s national executive council. This article was originally published in the December 2013 edition of NUJ magazine, The Journalist, and on Tim’s own website,