E-Singles: ‘Journalism’s Extraordinary Challenges In An Entirely New Place’

Byliner recently announced that it has sold 100,000 original e-singles, and other publishers are finding similar success with the format: The Atavist sold over 100,000 copies of ten e-singles combined last year, company CEO Evan Ratliff announced at a Digital Book World Panel this afternoon. Meanwhile, a Penguin e-single by Lisa Gardner is currently at #3 on the New York Times (NYSE: NYT) e-book bestseller list.

Publishers see both opportunities and challenges as they enter the world of e-singles. In general, e-singles are shorter than full-length books, published in relatively short timespans and exclusively in digital formats (at least at first). After that, the similarities end — Random House is publishing four original nonfiction e-singles in partnership with Politico, for instance, while Hachette’s sci-fi/fantasy imprint Orbit is publishing short fiction. The Atavist publishes nonfiction e-singles, and Penguin is releasing a mix of fiction and nonfiction under its three-year-old “e-specials” program.

Random House’s Jon Meacham advocated publishing partnerships, as RH has with Politico: “There’s a reason journalism faces extraordinary financial challenges, and you don’t want to just replicate that,” he said. He explained why a partnership works: It “increases the discoverability and the prominence both of Random House and of Politico” and has a built-in audience, Politico’s readers.

“We’re trying to replicate journalism’s extraordinary challenges in an entirely new place,” Ratliff joked. The Atavist plans to launch a yearly subscription model, “bringing a magazine element into what are essentially books” and letting subscribers receive one original e-single a month.

The panel’s moderator, Jack Perry, asked how publishers should market e-singles. Penguin wants to publish e-singles that “fill a genuine gap in the market,” said Carrie Swetonic, associate director of marketing at Penguin’s Dutton imprint. While Orbit indicates that its e-singles are not full-length books by putting an “Orbit Short Fiction” sticker on the cover, Penguin “doesn’t do much to advertise” the length. The main indicator of shorter length is that the e-singles are priced low, between $2.99 and $5.99. “Length is not the driving factor for people who are buying these,” said Swetonic. So far Penguin’s strategy is working at least for some titles; Swetonic said the company is happy when an e-single sells “tens of thousands of copies.”

“The content has to be really good and the bar’s even higher in these early days,” said Meacham. “We have only so many shots at readers. If [publishers] think this is just a way of getting anything written out there, as opposed to something that’s been edited and watered and fed and cared for, we risk screwing up the genre on the front end.”

“Is this actually a genre at all?” wondered Ratliff. “We’re untethered from the print world.” He doesn’t think e-singles need to be cordoned off as a category of their own. “It’s whatever length that makes sense for whatever kind of story you’re telling.”

One question went unanswered — What kind of returns are traditional publishers expecting from e-singles? Will they contribute to the bottom line any time soon or do publishers see them as a relatively inexpensive way to experiment? It was unclear how the programs at Penguin, Random House and Hachette fit into broader company initiatives and digital revenue goals, and that’s a question I hope to explore soon.

The Digital Book World conference is taking place in New York this week. See all our Digital Book World coverage here.