Our Guide To E-Singles

E-singles are one of the hottest new publishing trends–with everyone from David Baldacci and Jodi Picoult to Byliner and Slate testing them out. These bite-sized e-books, priced accordingly, could be a panacea for authors and publishers seeking new revenue streams. E-singles are a much more effective way to tackle newsy topics than full-length books, and are a good way for authors to retain readers’ interest in between their longer books.

But e-singles also could be disruptive for the industry. Because they’re easy to publish quickly, e-singles could become a popular way for authors, magazines and newspapers to bypass traditional publishers. Another potential headache for traditional publishers: So far, Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) is dominating the e-singles space.

Here’s our overview of the business of e-singles, followed by a chart looking at the major players.

How the Business Works Amazon started the trend when it launched its Kindle Singles program in January, publishing original pieces on “compelling ideas expressed at their natural length,” usually around 5,000 to 30,000 words, and priced between $0.99 and $4.99. There are currently 80 Kindle Singles, and spokeswoman Sarah Gelman told us about three more are added each week. “As authors and publishers become more aware of Kindle Singles, we have experienced a steady growth in the number of high-quality submissions,” she said. The guidelines for submitting a Kindle Single are here.

Right now, most e-singles–on Amazon and from publishers like Byliner Originals, The Atavist and n+1–are nonfiction. Some cover newsy topics like Catholic priest scandals and gay marriage; there’s also lots of humor, essays and memoir, shorter than a full-length book but longer than what you’d find in a magazine. But there are also some fiction Kindle Singles, like a 15-page short story by David Baldacci and a collection of three short pieces by Jodi Picoult.

Kindle Singles have their own editor–David Blum, who actually provides editorial feedback on the titles. They are heavily promoted on Amazon’s site, and tend to be the first choice of authors and publishers looking to publish an e-single. They have their own section of the Kindle Store, with a separate bestseller list and categories. Kindle Singles aren’t strictly required to be exclusive to Amazon, but a scan of the list shows that most of them are. “It makes selection by our editor more likely and most authors and publishers have chosen that option,” Gelman said. Richard Tofel, the general manager of ProPublica, which has published four Kindle Singles, told us content has to be “original and unique”–i.e., not previously published–to sell it as a Kindle Single. Two of ProPublica’s Kindle Singles, Aftershock and Hydrofracked?, are free as Kindle Singles because they were simultaneously published on ProPublica’s website.

The Kindle Singles store includes lots of big names. Hachette published Baldacci’s No *Time* Left. And literary agent Laura Gross helped her client, Jodi Picoult, publish Leaving Home as a Kindle Single, without the involvement of Picoult’s publisher, *Simon & Schuster*. “Leaving Home has been very successful,” Gross said. “But we understand that Jodi Picoult has a very large base already, so we can’t be sure that lesser-known authors would sell as well.”

Pricing Trends However, you don’t have to be Jodi Picoult to do well in this format. In fact, lesser-known authors have found success selling e-singles because the works’ low prices move them into impulse-buy territory. If an e-single looks intriguing and is only $0.99, it’s a low-risk purchase. At the moment, the bestselling Kindle Single is Crazy Girls by the relatively unknown comedian Max Lance. (It’s unclear how many copies he has sold — Amazon doesn’t provide sales figures for Kindles or books.) E-singles are “a good way to introduce people to authors they don’t know,” said Hachette Digital SVP Maja Thomas, “or they may have heard the name but for some reason the full-length book hasn’t piqued their curiosity. There’s a low barrier to entry.”

“I think most people look at [the $0.99 price] as a convenience charge for the ability to read these on their e-readers,” said Tofel. “The price seems to work for us.” Arthur Klebanoff, the publisher of RosettaBooks, which has published four Kindle Singles, found that “$2.99 is a good price.” In general, we found few e-singles priced higher than $2.99.

TED Books, which has published six Kindle Singles, is looking to experiment with pricing. “Our plan is to move the series to a subscription model in which a new TED Book comes out every few weeks,” said editor Jim Daly. “We haven’t nailed down a pricing structure yet, but a reader would be able to subscribe to the whole series, as well as purchase individual books.” (TED also plans to release an e-reading app.)

Sales Figures Publishers declined to provide us with concrete sales numbers on their e-singles. n+1’s Ian Epstein said the publication’s four Kindle Singles, combined, have sold “thousands” of copies since the first one, Octomom and the Politics of Babies, was published in January. “With respect to marketing, n+1 has primarily deferred to Amazon’s efforts,” he said. Klebanoff said RosettaBooks’ Kindle Singles are “enormously successful. Site promotion matters, and we are securing a lot of it.”

Beyond Amazon Most of the publishers we spoke with are sticking with Kindle Singles for now, but as e-singles take off, those who either don’t want to sell them exclusively through Amazon or aren’t accepted as Kindle Singles are looking to other sites as well. Shorter pieces can be published in the regular Kindle store–the route Time Inc. (NYSE: TWX) has taken, with the exception of Why They Fought, which was chosen as a Kindle Single–or in any other e-bookstore.

But right now, with the exception of the Kindle Singles store, e-book retailers like Apple (NSDQ: AAPL), Nook and Kobo don’t have special sections for shorter pieces, which may make them less attractive for authors. Separately, since e-book price often doesn’t correspond to length–plenty of full-length e-books are $0.99–shoppers may be confused about what they’re buying, or feel ripped off when a book they believed to be full-length is actually less than 30,000 words long. And it’s not easy to tell how long e-book originals are. Amazon and Apple list e-books’ comparative “print length,” which provides shoppers with some kind of visual for how long the book is. Nook, though, lists e-books’ file size, which isn’t a helpful metric for most users who don’t know how many kilobytes a standard-length book is. Kobo doesn’t include any length or size metric at all.

It’s possible that other e-tailers are waiting to see how Kindle Singles do before they add their own “singles” sections. But since many of the publishers we spoke to are quite happy with Kindle Singles, particularly with the additional marketing provided in that section of the site, stores like Nook may have to start trying harder to woo them.

Challenges Newspapers have just begun experimenting with e-singles, though the New York Times (NYSE: NYT) has yet to get into the game. An NYT spokeswoman told us that “several projects are under consideration” but would not comment further. Up to now, the e-singles we’ve seen from news publications tend toward collections of previously published material. It remains to be seen how interested readers are in what are mostly repurposed news stories–especially since most of the material is already free online. That could be why the NYT is taking its time entering the space.

Trade book publishers, meanwhile, have reasons to be wary of e-singles if authors choose to work around them. As mentioned above, Jodi Picoult published hers with her agent, leaving Simon & Schuster (NYSE: CBS) out. Depending on the case, publishers may be glad for the extra publicity that the e-singles bring to the longer books, or they may be upset not to get cut in on the deal. And when publishers work with Kindle Singles, they’re in the unique–and possibly uncomfortable–position of having Amazon publish them.

Here’s a snapshot of the various publishers offering e-singles so far.