Planning a paywall? Maybe you should sell some e-books instead

The number of newspapers and other media entities that are erecting paywalls or launching subscription-based apps for the iPhone and iPad (s aapl) continues to grow, and even some smaller regional newspapers are throwing up walls to try to protect their print subscriptions. Other publishers, however, have found alternative methods of monetizing their content — such as packaging their older content in different formats to appeal to readers in different ways, including e-books and special feature offerings like those The New Yorker has started selling. While these may not fill the yawning gap that continues to grow between print revenue and online revenue, they are arguably a more creative response than a pay wall.

As Reuters’ (s tri) blogger Felix Salmon notes in a recent post about The New Yorker’s approach, the venerable magazine has a treasure trove of past content that it has been able to bundle into easily digestible chunks and offer as one-off iPad packages — most of which are sponsored by an advertiser or a group of advertisers and are either available to existing subscribers through the magazine’s iPad app, or can be bought for as little as $2.99 through iTunes. The first of these, Salmon says, was a collection of articles the magazine had published about the digital revolution, from a profile of Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg to a 1958 “Talk of the Town” story about a chess-playing computer.

Repackaging existing content for the “long tail” reader

Other packages have included historical collections about baseball, including pieces dating back to 1929, some written by famous authors such as John Updike, as well as golf and the topic of “sustainability.” As Salmon notes, the number of potential feature packages that could be created is almost limitless, and the cost of doing so is relatively minor — unlike the printed anthologies that entities like The New Yorker come out with from time to time. All it takes is a search of the archives, a short foreword written by an editor to describe the collection, and an upload to the iTunes store.

How many readers are likely to be interested in these packages? That’s hard to say, but the revenue generated by sales — or sponsorships — of these collections is likely to quickly eclipse whatever cost was associated with producing them.

Until the web and mobile reading devices like the iPad came along, there was no easy way to monetize this kind of “long tail” content. Many newspapers created elaborate electronic libraries that could be accessed only by librarians at huge cost to the end user, or packaged their content on CD-ROMs, but the costs involved were so prohibitive that they were only of use to corporate customers or professional researchers. These kinds of collections also often took so long to produce that any interest readers might have had in the topic was likely to wane before these collections even appeared on the market.

With iPad apps and e-books that can be published quickly on Amazon’s (s amzn) Kindle platform, however, publishers can pull together a collection around a news event — such as the arrest of Boston mob kingpin Whitey Bulger, or the death of Steve Jobs — and sell it quickly (Jeff Sonderman at the Poynter Institute had a look at some of the newspapers that are doing this recently, including the Boston Globe¬†(s nyt) and the Washington Post(s wpo)). So publishers can benefit in two ways: They can take advantage of the short-term interest in content they have already produced, and they can also easily put together packages like The New Yorker has done, that appeal to a broader and less time-sensitive reader.

Some readers will even pay for what is available free of charge

There are other examples of publications taking this approach too, including the technology blog Ars Technica (owned by Conde Nast), which recently published an e-book version of the massive review that writer John Siracusa produced about Apple’s new operating system, OS-X Lion. The review — which ran to 27,000 words — certainly benefited from the e-book treatment, and many readers said they preferred to read it on an iPad rather than on a screen. And despite the fact that Ars Technica charged $5 for a review that anyone could have read on the website for free, it sold more than 3,000 copies of the e-book in less than 24 hours.

The non-profit political publication ProPublica has also made use of e-books as a way of extending the reach of its content, publishing feature packages on the terrorist attacks on Mumbai and Wall Street corruption. In some cases, these collections have been offered free of charge — which means they effectively function as marketing for the publication — while others have cost as little as 99 cents. Wired magazine has also used e-books as an alternative method of distribution for some of its existing content, including a new book about Steve Jobs based on articles the magazine has carried in the past.

Obviously, selling a few e-books for 99 cents or $2.99 isn’t going to produce gigantic sums of revenue for newspapers or magazines. But at least this approach takes something those companies have in abundance — the content they’ve already produced for other purposes — and finds new ways to monetize it, instead of trying to charge readers for something they can get anywhere, such as breaking news or political commentary on the topics of the moment. E-books and one-off apps may not replace pay walls for some newspapers, but they’re an idea worth exploring.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Giuseppe Bognanni and Rego Korosi