Why 2012 was the year of the e-single

In January 2012, Evan Ratliff, the CEO of Brooklyn publishing platform Atavist, semi-jokingly described e-singles as “[replicating] journalism’s extraordinary challenges in an entirely new place.” A little under a year later, publishers of all types are looking to e-singles to give them a boost in a digital era.

Snow Fall The Avalanche BylinerThis weekend I sat on my in-laws’ living room couch and read “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek,” a longform story in the New York Times (s NYT), on my iPad. “Snow Fall” marks the launch of a new publishing effort at the Times. The paper is partnering with Byliner, the e-singles startup run by former magazine folk and based in San Francisco, to publish around a dozen e-singles in 2013. (Working definition of e-single: A story somewhere between 5,000 and 30,000 words — shorter than most books, longer than most magazine articles — usually nonfiction, and sold as an inexpensive ebook.) Byliner is selling an expanded version of “Snow Fall,” for $2.99, at digital bookstores.

The Times partnership is the latest in a string of such deals for Byliner. The company also recently launched an experimental subscription program and a partnership with Esquire.

Meanwhile, Atavist is pushing ahead with in-app subscriptions. And Atavist has a bunch of money coming in from Barry Diller and Scott Rudin, who are working with the company to launch their own publisher, Brightline, which will focus on e-singles and other works.

Amazon’s U.S. Kindle Singles store now contains 283 singles. In February, I reported that the company had sold two million Kindle Singles; as of September, that number was up to 3.5 million, and Amazon just expanded the program to the U.K., where it will include new entries by bestselling British authors as well as most of the American Kindle Singles. Many Byliner Originals are available through Kindle Singles, and they’ll be crossing the Atlantic for the first time with the program’s U.K. expansion.

How are e-singles actually selling? Several of them hit the New York Times ebook bestseller list this year. A few of Amazon’s Kindle Singles authors have done quite well. That’s a lot for an individual, but not so much for a company. E-singles are cheap, a couple bucks a pop, so they are not likely to drive major revenue for publishers: With most Kindle Singles priced at $1.99, that’s only $7 million or so — and Amazon only takes 30 percent of it, making the revenue basically a rounding error. Smaller companies have it tougher: How Byliner makes money is something of a mystery. Atavist has a two-pronged business model, and the profitable part is selling its app platform to other publishers. The ebooks themselves could become more profitable with the launch of Brightside, but that hasn’t been the case yet.

Still, I love this format. Here’s why:

byliner e-singles

byliner e-singles

E-singles are a true digital-native format

They don’t cannibalize other formats. It’s nearly impossible to find a magazine that will run a 10,000-word story these days (much less a magazine that will run your 10,000-word story — even if you’re a professional journalist). Many of these stories simply would not have been published in print, and that’s not because they’re not good enough. They just weren’t quite a fit for magazine or book publishers. Now the projects can come to light, and journalists who might once abandoned these stories because they weren’t sure how to pitch them can make a little money off them.

They may not drive a lot of revenue, but they’re also cheap to produce

Newspapers and magazines and individual authors can afford to experiment with these; if they already have the work done, why not try to sell it? That’s what the Minneapolis Star-Tribune did with “In the Footsteps of Little Crow,” which ran in the paper as a six-part series and was also released as an e-single for $2.99. It hit the NYT ebook bestseller list at #13, and the iBookstore’s history list at #8.

They’re the format for our time

Their rise has correlated with the rise of read-it-later services like Pocket and Instapaper, which allow users to save web content to consume later, at their leisure. E-singles fit perfectly with the curl-up-with-your-iPad phenomenon. They’re long enough that you don’t blow through them in ten minutes, but most can be read in under an hour.

What changes in 2013?

The number of gatekeepers

Anyone can publish a short ebook, but if you want it to be a Kindle Single — in a separate section of the Kindle Store, with extra marketing and promotional support from Amazon, and with a 70 percent royalty even on a work priced under $2.99 — you’ll have to submit it to the Kindle Singles editor. Most of the authors seeing success with this format are working either with Kindle Singles, or with a company like Byliner or Atavist. You can go it on your own, but your single may get lost in the shuffle.

That could change next year as other digital bookstores pay more attention to the format. Apple has a separate section of the iBookstore for shorter reads. Barnes & Noble (s BKS) launched Nook Snaps, a so-far unimpressive answer to Kindle Singles. Those efforts can give shorter works a promotional push. We could also see more companies, or individual authors, do a Kickstarter campaign to fund either a line of e-singles or just a single work. That’s what Matter did.

The digital-only part

Byliner just signed a deal with Ingram to distribute its titles in print. “We increasingly hear from our readers and writers that they would like our stories available in print as well as digital form,” Byliner CEO John Tayman said. That’s great as long as the price stays very low — ideally the print price should match the ebook price — and nobody tries to make print a big part of their business model. Otherwise, e-singles really will be replicating journalism’s extraordinary challenges in the same old place (paper), with not much upside.

The cost proposition, maybe

The NYT’s “Snow Fall” feature cost a lot to pull off, and people are already arguing that while the NYT could do it most other outlets won’t be able to afford it. But if you’re a newspaper already paying a journalist to do a story that will run in parts in the paper, there is no reason not to bundle it together and publish it (or publish it with a few extra components) and sell it separately. Of course, lots of outlets can’t afford to pay journalists to carry out that type of research in the first place, no matter where it eventually runs.

That’s been a problem for a long time now, though, and the best part of e-singles is that they’re not tied to any single old media company. They’re not a digital replica of anything so much as they are a format unto themselves.

Photo courtesy of Flickr / B_Zedan