Publishers have been sharing success stories about luring readers to front- and backlist titles with inexpensive, often short-form, digital content. Short stories, essays, brief missives, priced anywhere from $0.99 to $4.99, seem to be working as bait to bring readers to full-priced new books, as well as to older titles. Now, a growing number of corporate houses as well as start-ups are exploring whether short-form original content can become a reliable revenue stream.
Maya Thomas, senior v-p of digital and audio publishing at Hachette Book Group, characterized No Time Left, a short story by David Baldacci that was one of the featured launch titles in the Kindle Singles Store, as something that's been "tremendously successful for us." Although Amazon's policy prevented her from talking numbers, she said the Single proved to be more than just a marketing tool and did in fact "bring in revenue." From a marketing standpoint, No Time Left was released one month before Baldacci's new novel, The Sixth Man. While Thomas acknowledged that "the set of titles is too small to make generalizations," referring to the Singles store, she said Hachette "has been extremely satisfied with the results so far."
Agent Laura Gross, who represents author Jodi Picoult, published Picoult's Kindle Single Leaving Home, a collection of three short stories by the bestseller, and felt the Singles store is an ideal way to monetize something an author has already produced. Thomas echoed the sentiment, saying content could be anything from a short story that might have appeared in an anthology or magazine to something less polished, like a character sketch, which authors often write for themselves or their editors. There are others, though, who see possibilities to make money in crafting new, short content, tailored for e-readers. One of those people is Evan Ratliff.
Ratliff, with his partner Jefferson Rabb, recently launched the Atavist, a startup dedicated to producing, and selling, long-form journalism. The company's platform is somewhat similar to Byliner.com, which published Jon Krakauer's Kindle Single about Greg Mortenson, Three Cups of Deceit. In many ways the Atavist, which has a separate business licensing a content management tool, is simply a virtual magazine, albeit one without a Web site. Ratliff, a freelance journalist who's written for publications like Outside and the New Yorker, functions like an editor at a traditional print magazine—he fields pitches and hires writers to do stories that often take months to report. The writers are given a fee for their pieces, as they would in print, but also get a 50% royalty on the stories, which are sold through a number of platforms including the Singles store, the iBookstore, Google Books, and the Nook store.
While Ratliff admitted the "margins are very small"—the Atavist has published six pieces (excluding one it co-published with Random House), ranging in price from $1.99 to $2.99—he said the stories are "paying for themselves." Ratliff also thinks the market will grow. "It's still very early, but the fact that you can get thousands, and in some cases tens of thousands [of downloads of a story], well I don't see why there would be a ceiling on that."
The big questions with short-form content going forward may not be about whether to do it, but where to do it. Tales of e-originals outside the Singles store, which publishers have been experimenting with to different degrees for a few years now, are certainly more varied. Adam Bellow, recently talking to PW about Voices of the Tea Party, his first e-only series at his new imprint Broadside Books, admitted that sales had been underwhelming.
But there are hits, and Penguin points to Tyler Cowen's The Great Stagnation as proof. Published in January as one of the house's eSpecials, the short essay by the economist was priced as a $4 e-original. The title has been successful enough that Penguin recently released an expanded version of the work—Cowen added a foreword—as a small hardcover with a list price of $12.95.
Such examples are encouraging publishers to keep testing short-form content. HarperCollins, for example, is hoping the short-cheap model can grow author Stephanie Laurens's readership. Over the coming year, on a bi-monthly schedule, the house will release $0.99 e-originals by Laurens—all are novellas never before published as standalones—as well as a higher priced digital collection called The World of Stephanie Laurens. The latter, an HC rep said, will include book covers and "overviews of [Laurens's] entire catalogue," and it will be pushed for free during a one-month promotion.
Wharton Digital Press, a start-up at the University of Pennsylvania business school, also reported encouraging numbers from its launch title. Mike Useem's The Leader's Checklist came out on June 21 and, during a free promotion, drew over 30,000 downloads in a week. Although a WDP rep did not offer information on sales—the book has a digital list price of $6.99—he said the strong giveaway numbers have given the press some confidence. "While it is always difficult to interpret the results of a promotion, especially in the case of a free giveaway, we believe that this effort confirmed the viability of short-form business books."