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Star Tribune sells 2,000 e-books on Dakota War series

A series that took four months to prepare for the newspaper tops Bill O’Reilly in the e-book charts.

'Footsteps of Little Crow' home page
Star Tribune

Kate Parry insists she would’ve been thrilled to sell 100 e-book versions of the six-part Star Tribune series she edited, “In the Footsteps of Little Crow.”

“When we sold 2,000, I thought that was pretty good,” Parry says. “There’s a website that keeps track of Apple’s e-book sales, and [reporter] Curt [Brown] was number one for two days, above Bill O’Reilly’s e-book on Lincoln.”

The $2.99 e-book was not the reason behind the 150th-anniversary lookback at the U.S.-Dakota War, but it underscores the passion the series unearthed. Parry has a 29-page Word document of “really lovely emails,” TPT got a 50 percent audience boost re-airing two 1990s documentaries Thursday, and newspaper readers were treated to some fine summer reading.

It takes a staff …

Although the 1862 Dakota Conflict is well-trod ground, there are plenty of yutzes like me who know little about it, even though I’ve lived here 33 years. Philistine that I am, I’m not usually up for book-length history. However, a daily serial, from one of the paper’s better writers, was, for me, the perfectly digestable primer.

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“I know compared to [traditional] books it might seem like a superficial pass at it,” Parry acknowledges, “but our motive was different. It was this fabulous story, this incredibly dramatic story of Minnesota, and we wanted to make it deeply accessible to the most Minnesotans.”

Though it didn’t take a scholar years to write, “Little Crow” required a substantial time commitment in newspaper terms. Brown and photographer David Joles were deployed full-time April 1. (Even today, Brown is at the Minnesota-South Dakota border chronicling a symbolic Dakota march back from exile. “Curt’s a go-to guy in the newsroom for breaking news, so getting him for four months was huge,” Parry says.)

Visual journalist Jim Gehrz spent weeks getting rights to historical photos for the multimedia package. History buff Ben Welter was deployed as copy editor for weeks. Parry’s been editing it full time since late May.

“I counted it up, and at one point, there were 18 people around the room working on this,” says Parry, the paper’s special projects and features editor. “That includes the e-book and the ‘rail’ of interactive features. Those things take time.”

Staffers with specific interests pitched in. Reporter Tom Horgen, the newsroom Newspaper Guild diversity chair, read drafts to make sure Dakota oral history was treated as respectfully as the white record. Reporter and history buff Kevin Duchschere was another veracity check. They complemented professional and amateur historians who were sort of a kitchen cabinet for Brown, Parry says.

‘Overwhelmingly positive’

The Strib was rewarded with six installments that were among the top 10 most-read every day, sometimes number one, even with the Vikings in training camp. 

I asked Parry if there was any sort of “Daughters of the Dakota Conflict” who got upset the native side was treated with such respect.

“The nice things is, we haven’t had to turn the comments off on any piece,” Parry notes. “Earlier this year, we wrote a story on how difficult the year would be for the Minnesota Historical Society,  and we braced for disturbing comments, but instead we got some of the most thoughtful comments we’d ever seen.

“This was the same thing. There are sometimes history buffs who really get into the minutae, and a few commenters see agendas that aren’t there. One asked us if Curt Brown was related to Dee Brown, who wrote ‘Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.’ We told him there was no relation and no conspiracy among the Browns.”

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The e-book strategy

Cory Powell, the Strib’s managing editor of new products, says the e-book play is “not about putting another leg on the revenue stool — it’s about extending the life of content, another way to distribute it in a form [readers] enjoy.”

At 2,059 copies as of Friday morning, the Strib probably grossed about four grand after Apple, Amazon and Barnes and Noble took their cuts — not enough to pay Brown’s salary for one of the four months he labored.

Still, Powell says the e-book is fantastic for extending the shelf life of a series designed to link the past to the present. “In the old days, we would’ve done a big reprint run right away, which some readers might’ve gotten their hands on, but a lot would’ve wound up in the basement or the storage closet. Now, it’s a good opportunity to extend the life” of the series for years.

There was no new material in the e-book, which Parry broke into 10 chapters rather than the six parts that ran in the newspaper and online. Powell says producing the book was “not gargantuan from a time standpoint because the platforms take a lot of choice out of it — the reader picks the font size, the typeface. Doing the book was easier than designing it for print or the web.”

The e-book tail did wag the dog at least once.

The Strib had sold an e-book before (a fictional story readers added chapters to), but it only sold 200 copies and wasn’t in the iTunes store. Having heard horror stories about how long it takes Apple to approve iTunes selections, Parry and Brown had to complete their parts three weeks before the series hit print.

As it turned out, Apple approved the e-book in about a week and a half. “At least we could have it for pre-sale,” Powell says with a laugh. “We sold nine before the series ever ran.”

The Strib, Parry says, was willing to wade into this particular piece of history because it still resonates in Minnesota life today. I asked her if such efforts would become an annual summertime thing, and she sighed.

“I need a weekend to recover!” she replied. “I’d love to see it be an annual thing, but it’s a lot of work, and we haven’t talked about the next serial narrative. I can tell you this: readers would like one right away.”