Stanford Math Professor Tests A New Book Publishing Equation

Leonardo & Steve

When a section was cut from Stanford mathematics professor Keith Devlin’s new book The Man Of Numbers, Devlin could have pitched it as an article to Scientific American or Wired. Instead, he decided to self-publish it as an e-single, “Leonardo & Steve: The Young Genius Who Beat *Apple* to Market by 800 Years.” And his publisher, Bloomsbury, went for it.

Many authors have been experimenting with e-singles recently. There are currently 76 Kindle Singles, as well as many more e-singles that, like Leonardo & Steve, aren’t part of the Kindle Singles program. (Authors can submit their works to be considered for inclusion as “Kindle Singles,” which are sold in a special section of Kindle store and are heavily promoted.) It’s too early to know whether the format will be profitable, but e-singles’ low prices move them into impulse-buy territory. For authors like Devlin — who would have gotten a one time fee for selling Leonardo & Steve as a magazine piece — there is a potential promise of a new ongoing revenue stream, in addition to the opportunity to experiment with a new medium.

“If Bloomsbury had sold the first serial rights to this piece, Keith would have gotten 90 percent of the revenue anyway because of the way those arrangements are structured,” says Ted Weinstein, Devlin’s literary agent. “And they’re not set up yet to be doing short-form stuff. So they were delighted to let us put in the effort and experiment.” The new e-book by Devlin, who is also the “Math Guy” on NPR, is bundled with the first chapter of his full-length book The Man of Numbers. Jonathan Kroberger, Devlin’s publicist at Bloomsbury, is using the e-single as an extra sales hook for that book. “The e-book will allow me to reach out to a more focused crowd–in this case, Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) fans,” he said.

The project was a first for Weinstein, who wanted to keep his agent/author relationship with Devlin “clean” and was wary of blurring the lines between the roles of agent and publisher. In recent months, some literary agencies–The Waxman Agency and Ed Victor Ltd., for instance–have launched their own publishing arms to sell their clients’ e-books, raising concerns about conflicts of interest. When Dystel & Goderich recently announced its own slate of e-services, it had to answer some of those concerns on its blog, emphasizing that it had no interest in competing with publishers.

Weinstein took on the “nuts and bolts” role of publishing the e-book, carrying out tasks like hiring a copy editor, finding a cover designer and talking to e-book conversion firms, while Devlin is responsible for picking up those actual expenses. A traditional publisher, by contrast, would cover all those costs.

Leonardo & Steve is now available for $2.99 in the Kindle and Nook stores, and will be distributed to other e-bookstores–the iBookstore, Kobo, Diesel, etc.–via Smashwords within the next few days.

Weinstein, who represents nonfiction authors exclusively, thinks e-singles could be a major growth area for his clients. “I’m asking them, ‘While you think about your next big book,'” he says, “‘is there a 15,000 word-er that you could do in the meantime?'”

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