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Ebook Bestsellers: A newspaper’s longform experiment pays off

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in the footsteps of little crow coverIn the Footsteps of Little Crow by Curt Brown (Minneapolis Star-Tribune)

It’s the oldest story in Minnesota, Curt Brown says: The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. The U.S. Government hanged 38 Dakota Warriors and it remains the largest mass execution in United States history. For years it was “swept under the rug,” Brown says. But 2012 marks the war’s 150th anniversary, and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune assigned Brown to write a long series about the conflict.

Brown received a four-month break from his regular reporting duties and traveled through the United States and Canada to meet with Dakota descendants. He read historical documents and diaries and consulted unofficial weather records and newspaper accounts to tell the story of the war through the eyes of Dakota chief Little Crow, the leader of the rebellion.

The result was a six-part narrative series, complete with infographics, photos and video. The first part of the series ran in the Star Tribune and on its website on August 12, with another part each day for the next five days. The paper also packaged all six parts together into a $2.99 ebook that went on sale August 12, for readers who couldn’t wait to read the whole thing.

Apparently, a lot of people couldn’t wait: The book is #13 on the New York Times (s NYT) nonfiction ebook bestseller list this week. It’s featured in the Apple (s AAPL) iBookstore, where it is #8 on the history bestseller list.

I asked the project’s editor, Kate Parry, why she thinks it has been so successful. “We worked very hard to put the Dakota and white settler versions of history on equal footing,” she says. “Because it is set in the same era as the Civil War, we may be picking up readers who read whatever they can find about that era. But the bottom line is that Curt wrote the series magnificently, with a lot of intrigue and tension woven through the story line. We’re hearing from readers on every platform that it was a great read and they couldn’t wait to get to the next chapter or installment. That’s just what we were hoping for when we structured it as a narrative.”

“The response has been overwhelming,” Brown says. “[The Star Tribune] was in bankruptcy a couple years ago. I got calls and emails from people saying, ‘This restores my faith in newspapers.’ People are impressed that a newspaper can let a reporter have four months to do something special and tell them about their history.”

In the Footsteps of Little Crow is $2.99 on … Amazon (s AMZN) Kindle | Apple | Barnes & Noble (s BKS) Nook

New York Times bestseller list, week of 9/2/12

Here are the titles in the top 35 that appear on the e-book bestseller list, but not on the print bestseller list (click the link to expand the chart).

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USA Today bestseller list, week of 8/23/12

USA Today includes all formats and genres in one list and notes which format of a book sold best. Here are the titles in the top 35 where e-books outsold print (click the link to expand the chart).

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Photo courtesy of Star Tribune / David Joles

3 Responses to “Ebook Bestsellers: A newspaper’s longform experiment pays off”

  1. Kerry Powell

    On the surface, this seems like heartening news. But I wonder, how much did this bestselling ebook actually make for the Star Tribune? Did it cover the writer’s salary for the four months he spent on the project? How about his expenses, plus the editing, production and marketing of the ebook?

  2. This is what Television did in the 80s to keep and attract more viewers. The “mini series” concept has worked for HBO, Showtime, MTV, and every network, whether reality or fiction, for quite some time. Glad to see a newspaper paying attention!