The recent publication of Stephen King’s 25 page essay ‘Guns’ as an e-single has brought a lot of attention to shorter form digital publishing. But, with a question mark over profitability and publisher enthusiasm for the format, does this form of publishing necessarily have a future?
As the publishing industry looks to experiment and expand into new areas of digital media, we take a look at some of the big names, some old, some new, which have established themselves in the e-singles market over the last few years. We ask what the options are for smaller independent platforms and start-ups, and what role partnerships and acquisitions will play in the coming months.
A store within a store, Amazon’s Kindle Singles is a platform wrapped up in the Amazon behemoth. It offers a curated selection of e-singles from a number of publishers and also acts as a small, in-house publishing brand. The baby of David Blum, the Kindle Singles editor, it picks content from thousands of unsolicited manuscripts, edits, designs cover art and publishes them very quickly. For the author, Amazon pays nothing up front and keeps 30% of all sales; however, it provides a reliable audience with purchasing power, allows authors a share in the profit rather than a flat fee and facilitates quick publishing and global distribution. In an interview with the New York Times Blum said, “The idea that writers would participate in the publishing model is very bold.” In terms of the stores profitability, Amazon has indicated that over five million singles have been sold since its launch in 2011 and as the e-single arena of 2011 was a somewhat less crowded literary market place, met little resistance. The tight editorial control over what gets published is having a positive effect on Kindle Singles literary standing with other industry leaders. Evan Ratliff, chief executive and co-founder of Atavist has said “They actually make a concerted effort to find something great,” adding, “while we might disagree on the specifics of what that is, our overall sensibilities are aligned.”
Launched in 2011, in what many believe to be a response to the Kindle Singles store, Apple’s Quickreads became the go to location for iBook Store users. Featuring much the same types of content as other e-singles platforms, Quickreads leverages the strength of Apple’s online and offline presence, with the ability to deliver content through an already established network of hardware. The flexibility of the iBook Store and the painless transfer of content between iPads and iPhones give Quickreads enviable distribution avenues. But while the Kindle Singles Store behaves more like a traditional publisher of content, Apple Quickreads can feel a little less curated.
Examples of e-single start-ups are plentiful right now, with the likes of Byliner, The Atavist and Read Petit to name a few, going from strength to strength. Byliner, an e-singles startup, recently partnered with the New York Times and Esquire on new e-single ventures for long form journalism and is experimenting with new subscription programs. The Atavist, a multimedia publishing group partnered with Barry Diller and Scott Rudin, are working on the launch of their own e-single focused publisher ‘Brightline’ as well as making inroads with in-app subscriptions. Read Petite has been referred to as ‘the new Spotify for short stories’ and with backing from Waterstones Founder Tim Waterstone, many believe the platform will perform well. Offering a highly curated collection of short stories and longer articles for a monthly fee, Read Petit’s subscription model is drawing comparisons with Spotify’s streaming service, but with an emphasis on quality over quantity, Waterstone told the Guardian “The whole point is to avoid the slush pile of material. What we’ll guarantee is quality writing”.
Most recently, The Atlantic announced that they are launching a new line of ebooks that will include “original long-form pieces between 10,000 and 30,000 words, and curated archival collections that span the magazine’s 155-year history and feature some of the best-loved voices in American letters.” The new focus on e-singles for Atlantic puts them in direct competition with The Atavist, Byliner and Read Petit and it will be interesting to see how the growing number of players in the e-single market effects the area. Up to this point, e-singles have been natively digital; however, with the recent partnership between Byliner and Ingram set to produce e-shorts in print, longform publishing could go full circle. With the main driving point behind the venture being readers wanting physical versions of Byliner stories, the benefits to the format in the long term remains to be seen.
As the demand for easily consumable content looks set to continue to grow, the future of the e-single looks safe. Authors and journalists look to close the gap between themselves and readers as well as move towards more digital forms of distribution. The e-single format provides a short, snappy burst of topical content and a popular form of information digestion in an ever increasingly online world. While they may not drive much in terms of revenue, they are cheap to produce and popular among authors and readers, with some calling them the ‘format of our time’.