Why Jon Meacham’s ebook is better because he’s no longer at Newsweek

Former Newsweek editor Jon Meacham, when not writing cover essays for Time magazine, is now an executive vice president at Random House.

Today, Meacham and Random House released something that I, as both a reader and professional magazine-geek, believe is far superior than anything Meacham could have published if he were still at Newsweek and locked into the business-model and process paradigm of a, what?, newsweekly print magazine/daily tabloid website business.

Beyond Bin Laden: America and the Future of Terror is being published today exclusively as an ebook and audio book. The ebook version cost $1.99. (More on that in a minute.) I purchased it on Amazon as a Kindle ebook but a google search reveals it is available elsewhere on the web.

The following are some key reasons I think this project was better conceived and published as a “book” edited by Meacham than as a magazine edited by Meacham. (Disclosure: I do not know Meacham, but his Tennessee roots and connections have always earned him extra points on RexBlog.)

Context: Meacham is a Pulitzer prize winner — for non-fiction, for a book about Andrew Jackson. While I could connect some dots between Jackson and Navy SEALs or terror, for that matter, my point is about the conventions of book-writing vs. magazine-writing. Take “notes” for example. While not included in each essay, Andrew Exum’s “How Al Qaeda Lost the Arabs,” has more endnotes than Infinite Jest. Thanks to google, I found a post Exum wrote yesterday on his blog that actually explains why he included so many notes:

“In part this is due to the fact that I’m trying to describe some pretty complex phenomena, and thankfully, quite a few scholars and journalists have gone before me. So I basically pulled all the relevant books I could find off my shelves at home and in my office and did my best with what was available…Part of this is to keep my own work honest, while part of this is intended to direct the reader to more serious scholarly work that I think supports my own work but which does a better job of explaining what, again, are phenomena to which a 5,000-word essay cannot do justice.”

Such an explanation of the need for context in journalism — and the unique ability digital media provide authors to introduce contextual understanding within the flow of a narrative — comes, I believe, from Exum’s roots as a blogger, as well as his training as a scholar. Context is not a strong-suit for most “news” online. (Disclosure: I do not know Exum, but his Tennessee roots earn him extra points on RexBlog.)

The book is priced at $2, okay $1.99: Hey, that’s exactly the price suggested by Amazon for the Kindle Singles storefront (which, for some reason, was not touting the new title at 9:30 a.m. today — geez, Amazon Kindle Singles promoters).

I applaud Random House for recognizing the unique opportunity this book offered if priced at $2 ($1.99). If this were coming from a major magazine group, they would still be debating whether or not to make it a part of the subscription plan or offer it as a multimedia app with a videogame embedded.

The format: While the vast majority of punditry about magazine content and iPads has been devoted to how apps are going to enable all sorts of whiz-bang features, those of us who have actually spent hours using iPads and Kindles and iPhones to read content have discovered something earth-shattering: Making something easy to read is THE killer feature when it comes to eBooks. Having incredibly thoughtful, well-written essays formatted for reading via the Kindle App is enough to make me recommend this book.

And I do.

Bonus link: Be sure to read Exum’s Readers’ Guide.


In addition to Meacham and Exum, essays in the book are by the following who may, or may not, have connections to Tennessee:

James A. Baker III, former Secretary of State

Karen Hughes, former counselor to President George W. Bush and former Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy

Richard N. Haass, president, Council on Foreign Relations

Bing West, author, The Wrong War, and former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs

Daniel Markey, senior fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia, Council on Foreign Relations

Evan Thomas, award-winning historian and former editor-at-large, Newsweek

Update – Bonus video:

Meacham appeared on Jon Stewart’s show last night promoting The Civil War Trilogy Box Set: With American Homer: Reflections on Shelby Foote and His Classic The Civil War: A Narrative along with the Bin Laden “insta-book,” as he refers to it. Foote’s trilogy took 22 years to write. Beyond Bin Laden took five days. Foote’s trilogy in paperback retails for $115 ($69 on Amazon). Beyond Bin Laden costs $1.99 on Amazon. Just let all that sink in. (Disclosure, I never met Foote, but his Tennessee roots and the unforgettable interview clips of him in Ken Burns’ Civil War and his remarkable writing have earned him legend status on RexBlog.)