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Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Instant eBook: A Publishing Game-Changer?

Last week, former Newsweek editor, current executive editor at Random House, and all around awesome dude, Jon Meacham, went on The Daily Show to talk about the Modern Library's re-release of Shelby Foote's classic Civil War Trilogy, to which he contributed a new introduction. Four minutes into the interview, though, Meacham switched gears to talk about an "instant eBook" he'd edited titled Beyond Bin Laden: America and the Future of Terror.

"How did you edit an eBook on the future of terror and Osama bin Laden's death?  It just happened on Monday!" quipped Jon Stewart. "I know, that's why it's called an instant book," Meacham replies. The book is a collection of entirely new essays written by high-level foreign relations and terrorism experts collected together with an intro by Meacham...and published five days after the event that inspired it!

Beyond Bin Laden is Random House's first instant eBook, and as best I can tell, the first significant instant eBook by any publisher. In my mind, this is an idea that could be an absolute game-changer in the publishing industry. Even if you're not totally sold on the eBook idea, the instant eBook is actually something entirely new — sort of halfway between a weekly magazine and a rushed-to-publication book. But because it's all original content written specifically for this new format, the instant eBook can actually be more flexible and limber than either. Publishers are acutely aware that the key to getting readers to pay for content is to give them something they can't find elsewhere and at a high enough quality that readers "can't live without reading." If done right, as struggling publishers are looking for new ways to package content and engage new readers, the instant eBook satisfies both of those requirements.

It's no surprise that this first instant eBook was the brainchild of the former editor of a weekly magazine — Meacham says he simply emailed each contributor and ask them to write something on very short notice. (If you're unfamiliar, that's how we magazine editors roll...giggle, giggle.) So production costs are minimal and the possibilities are endless — even for fiction. Imagine a newspaper holding a creative writing contest and publishing the winners in an instant eBook — not something they could do in the newspaper itself, and much quicker than publishing it as a collection in a magazine or book.

Beyond Bin Laden is only $1.99 and is available for Nook, Kindle and iPad. I don't even own an eReader yet, but I couldn't be more excited about this. What do you think? Is the instant eBook a potential game-changer or a gimmick?

18 comments:

  1. I love the idea of it and the possibilities it opens, especially at the low price. But I worry that, in general, quality will suffer in the rush to get something out. That doesn't mean a few gems won't shine though and I'd love to see some short story instant eBooks come out.

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  2. I agree with Red, how can this be of quality when it came out five days after the event? Hell, it takes me longer to fill out my son's football registration form. Still, I have an open mind, and this topic definitely interests me. For $1.99, what do we have to lose?

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  3. I think that this kind of book could do well as an instant release. For a collection of essays, I'm not really certain that quality will suffer. Pundits and other experts write essays all the time immediately after events occur and this is simply a collection. If it was a full-fledged non-fiction narrative, I'd have my doubts. Although I'm sure those aren't too far off. I've noticed books like this recently, as well. There's one about the imprisoned Chinese Nobel prize winner Liu Xiaobo that was released within a month or so after the Nobel Prize ceremony. not quite instant, but pretty fast. Good post!

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  4. Two things: First of all, I feel like the quality of this won't necessarily be lower than that of a daily paper, if treated properly. In the same way that daily newspapers are published with only a few hours notice (!) or magazines are published within a week (or so...!), the instant eBook, if given attention and care, will be produced equally well.

    The second point is in reference to whether or not this is just a gimmick. I honestly feel that if publishers wanted to use this as a gimmick, it would have been announced, hyped and discussed to death a long time ago. That this appeared rather quietly and casually slipped into existence is... refreshing.

    To be put it simply, I like the idea. It's clean, classy, cheap and effective. A very interesting idea, one to think about some more.

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  5. I think it's a great idea.
    Much like a blog being written about a current event and being published as a book...

    http://www.ManOfLaBook.com

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  6. It's definitely a game-changer and I'm thinking it would be smart for authors and writers to take advantage of this and get in on the ground floor while it's new. I'm reading articles on a daily basis regarding how everything in the book and publishing world is going to be strictly digital before too long; including online review publications, magazines, etc. I don't have an eReader yet either, but I'm bound to get one in the next year or so!

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  7. Great topic, Greg. I hope this is a game-changer. I could see instant pieces like this attached to big stories and feature articles, offered through newspapers and magazines who get a cut. Quality doesn't have to suffer. Wire services, newspapers, reputable web sites (and even magazines when they have to ;) ) can produce quality content on a dime. Besides, time doesn't necessarily produce quality -- just look at celebrity books or ghostwritten genre novels by names in politics, business, government.

    As far as novels go, I can imagine a new kind of novella that resembles a screenplay, not in format (please no!) but rather in the relative lack of narrative and more emphasis on dialogue. I may scoff and you too, but as long as it leads more to read real novels, why not?

    Cool to see that longer essays could make a comeback in this way. Just a few years ago that would have been like wishing for the horse and buggy to come back. This is just beginning. Lots of thoughtful types haven't got there e-readers yet, but they will.

    (Weird note: this post reproduced in a rush from a comment attempted last Thursday -- just as Blogger decided to melt down!)

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  8. I'm going to disagree with Steve. Quality can only suffer in this format. And unless this book is constantly updated, it's already out of date. What we now know about Bin Laden's last days is already significantly different from what we knew about them last week.

    In my experience, if you want to know what really happened, you have to wait several years for the media hype to die down and for someone to do the serious work necessary to sift through everything and figure it out. You need to wait for an expert book like The Looming Tower or Dave Cullum's Columbine. Read either of those and you'll see just how much the media got wrong in the first few weeks after the 9/11 attacks and the shootings at Columbine High School.

    If instant books like this are the future of publishing, then we should all mourn the future of journalism.

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  9. @Steve - First, thanks for reproducing your comment. I'm heartened to see another person who's excited by this prospect (as opposed to a few of the Debbie Downers below!). Some of the other comments that disappeared - which I've reproduced below - also complain about quality decline, but I think you're exactly right - the quality would be no different than that of a weekly magazine or daily newspaper. As we know from the Power of Print campaign (www.powerofmagazines.com), people are hungrier than ever for good journalism, good writing, and good essays. And I totally agree also that this is just the beginning. As my publisher says about four times a day - "tablets are the future", and we're just scratching the surface of ways to distribute quality information with them.

    @CB - If it wasn't called an instant eBook, and instead was called "instant reporting" or "instant essays" ow whatever, would that forestall your dire warnings about the future of book publishing? Don't you ever read newspapers or magazines? Do we wait for three years to find out anything about anything that's ever happened. The instant eBook woul dhave the same level of reporting and analysis - if not better - than weekly magazines. Yes, I've read The Looming Tower and loved it - but that's its own thing. This is different. The future of publishing must be more nimble to meet demands of readers hungry for information on demand. The future of journalism will be juuuuust fine.

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  10. Red says: I love the idea of it and the possibilities it opens, especially at the low price. But I worry that, in general, quality will suffer in the rush to get something out. That doesn't mean a few gems won't shine though and I'd love to see some short story instant eBooks come out.

    @Red - Glad you agree about the possibilities. Sure, quality could be a concern, but when isn't it with short-deadline publishing. Magazines get in-depth, high-quality coverage out about recent events on a weekly basis. I think it's the word "book" that throws people off here. ;) And I'm very excited about the prospects for fiction, too.

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  11. Sandy says: I agree with Red, how can this be of quality when it came out five days after the event? Hell, it takes me longer to fill out my son's football registration form. Still, I have an open mind, and this topic definitely interests me. For $1.99, what do we have to lose?

    @Sandy - Glad to see you're open to it - sure, there may be a few false starts here and there, but overall, I think this format holds a lot of promise. And if something stinks, as you say, at $1.99, it's not like you lost much!

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  12. Petekarnas says: I think that this kind of book could do well as an instant release. For a collection of essays, I'm not really certain that quality will suffer. Pundits and other experts write essays all the time immediately after events occur and this is simply a collection. If it was a full-fledged non-fiction narrative, I'd have my doubts. Although I'm sure those aren't too far off. I've noticed books like this recently, as well. There's one about the imprisoned Chinese Nobel prize winner Liu Xiaobo that was released within a month or so after the Nobel Prize ceremony. not quite instant, but pretty fast. Good post!

    @Pete - Good point about the distinction between an analysis essay and a narrative - I think you're right that there could be a slight decline in quality of the latter. But again, I think these will most resemble the content produced for weekly magazines, only with more flexibility.

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  13. Biblibio says: Two things: First of all, I feel like the quality of this won't necessarily be lower than that of a daily paper, if treated properly. In the same way that daily newspapers are published with only a few hours notice (!) or magazines are published within a week (or so...!), the instant eBook, if given attention and care, will be produced equally well.

    The second point is in reference to whether or not this is just a gimmick. I honestly feel that if publishers wanted to use this as a gimmick, it would have been announced, hyped and discussed to death a long time ago. That this appeared rather quietly and casually slipped into existence is... refreshing.

    To be put it simply, I like the idea. It's clean, classy, cheap and effective. A very interesting idea, one to think about some more.

    @Biblibio - Regarding your first point, you took the words right out of my mouth. I think the detractors here are having trouble getting over the idea that this is a "book." Regarding your second point about it being a gimmick: Very well said! It's the Summer Blockbuster theory - the more fast food cups and bus signs and public appearances by its actors a movie has, the more it sucks quality-wise. Like you, I think this format has a lot of potential - and I'm excited!

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  14. Man of la Book says: I think it's a great idea.
    Much like a blog being written about a current event and being published as a book...

    @Man - Well, hopefully the quality will be a little higher than most blogs ;), but yeah, same concept. There is a distinct difference between journalistic writing/analysis and blog writing/analysis, though in some spheres, that gab is closing a bit.

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  15. Sarah Ann says: It's definitely a game-changer and I'm thinking it would be smart for authors and writers to take advantage of this and get in on the ground floor while it's new. I'm reading articles on a daily basis regarding how everything in the book and publishing world is going to be strictly digital before too long; including online review publications, magazines, etc. I don't have an eReader yet either, but I'm bound to get one in the next year or so!

    @Sarah - Yeah, being an early-adopter of this idea would certainly give you an advantage. As I said somewhere above, many folks in the publishing industry are betting big that the tablet is the future - and this format is perfectly suited to that one. I'm glad you're excited too!

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  17. I love the feel of a hardcover or the glossy look of a magazine in my hands. However, I recognize the convenience of eBooks, especially when traveling. You can't exactly have your favorite reads in a suitcase.Multimedia

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