What the Toronto Star, Chicago Tribune and other media companies have learned from publishing ebooks

In the last year, plenty of media and content companies have started publishing ebooks for the first time. In a panel at the Publishers Launch conference at Book Expo America on Wednesday, several of them discussed what they’ve learned from their new businesses.

Alison Uncles, editorial director of ebooks at the Toronto Star, acknowledged that the newspaper decided to start publishing ebooks partly because it was “completely desperate and panicked” by the paper’s loss of print advertising and was looking for new revenue opportunities. So the Star launched a subscription program, Star Dispatches, that sends subscribers a new ebook every week, for $1 a week. The ebooks have ranged between 6,000 words and 30,000 words, with an average length around 10,000 words.

“We did it to make money and we’re not quite there yet,” Uncles told the panel’s moderator, HarperCollins’ SVP of publishing transformation Carolyn Pittis. The Star‘s break-even point is 10,000 subscribers, “which we hope to meet by the end of the summer.”

frederator booksIn terms of pulling readers in, Uncles said that “the best strategy we’ve settled on is a six-week sample program.” 160,000 users are sampling Star Dispatches right now, and the paper is seeing a 20 percent conversion rate. Sampling lets readers see the broad range of topics that the ebooks cover, Uncles said. For example, the fact that Toronto mayor Rob Ford was recently filmed smoking crack might be a boon for the program: “That’s an ebook waiting to happen…as a reader [sampling the ebooks], you understand that that’s going on in the news, and that’s something you might get an ebook about this Friday.”

Jennifer Day, editor of the Chicago Tribune‘s weekly subscription book section “Printers Row Journal,” says the paper sees ebooks largely as a branding initiative and a way to repackage content. One of the paper’s bestselling ebooks, a photo book about Al Capone, has been so successful that it will be released in print this fall.

Steve Kobrin, publisher and executive director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Digital Press, said that WDP has seen some success in driving paid sales by giving away copies for free. Often, though, he said, “there seems to be very little relationship between publicity and sales.” He also noted “it’s much more difficult to reach readers directly than we thought.” WDP has access to Wharton’s list of 90,000-plus alumni, but recently, when it wanted to give away a free ebook on social entrepreneurship directly through its website, it was worried that most users would not understand how to load a Kindle-compatible MOBI file directly onto their e-reader. “That stopped us,” Kobrin said. As for profitability? “At this point, I’m very glad I have the University of Pennsylvania standing behind me.”

Frederator Books is the newly launched illustrated children’s ebook division of animation studio Frederator Studios. (Frederator created animated children’s series like Fairly Oddparents and Adventure Time.) David Wilk, who was hired in March to head Frederator Books, said, “The frustrating thing for anybody in television is, when they look at books, television comes out every week, while a five-book series might take five years to get out…if we come up with a book, it’s going to be a series of at least five books, and we’re going to get them out every two weeks.”

The company started publishing ebooks in January and plans to have 50 to 100 titles published by the end of the year. That’s a manageable goal in part because the ebooks are very short: 10 pages and just 100 words. “We’re not bound by the forms and formats of the traditional children’s business,” Wilk said. And “we will use YouTube (s GOOG) as a way of publicizing and adapting our contents.” A Frederator YouTube series could inspire a book series — or the books might be turned into a series of YouTube videos.