How publishers adapt to digital market a work in progress

So our look at new developments in the world of books for the coming year included the wider adoption of e-readers, whether that’s an iPad, Kindle, smart phone or other device.

And what will we read on all those new devices? That, as it turns out, is the billion-dollar question in publishing. Of all books sold, one out of four is an e-book; the other three are print. Print is clearly dominant, with e-books seen as a major growth area. Publishers still are trying to hone in on the right product for digital consumption.

Popular series periodically have spiked e-book sales into the stratosphere, but you can’t count on lightning-strike blockbusters such as “Fifty Shades” and “Hunger Games” every year. There has been undulating e-book sales success within the same scattershot range you see in print: romance, history, memoir, young adult, guidebooks, etc.

One area of e-book sales showing promise is not a genre but a length — an in-between length for print publishing. Somewhere between a magazine article and a full-blown book is a sweet spot of 10,000–30,000 words. We read at a rate of 250 words a minute, so that makes for two hours or less of reading time.

Turns out readers find this an ideal length if they’re commuting to work by train, killing time during a flight or shaded under a beach umbrella. It’s not a bad nighttime reading length, either, with a book a week possible without burning the midnight oil.

Amazon three years ago launched a successful example of this with its Kindle Singles, which are stories 5,000–30,000 words in length. I love the slogan: “Compelling ideas expressed at their natural length.”

Initially, Kindle Singles focused on long-form journalism, the kind of in-depth features previously found more frequently in magazines with a commitment to writing excellence. You’ll find offered now, for instance, “American Hippopotamus” by Jon Mooallem, which tells the true and quirky story of a 1910 effort to import hippopotamuses from Africa and raise them in the swamps of Louisiana as a meat animal.

You’ll also find memoir and fiction, as Singles have expanded beyond narrative journalism. Ranging in price from 99 cents to $2.99, these books are as economical in price as they are in language. Heavy-hitter authors such as Stephen King and Jodi Picoult have Singles, but it’s also a place for new authors to find an audience.

There are subscription options with works of this length, too, such as with Byliner, where for $60 a year subscribers have access to thousands of fiction and nonfiction short works by authors including Margaret Atwood, Daniel Coyle and Jon Krakauer.

Of course, authors don’t make as much money on short-form writing as they do longer-form writing, but many authors prefer that length — dedicating a month or two to a piece instead of a year or more for a traditional-length book of 80,000 words or more.

Pay of course varies, but authors of Kindle Singles, for instance, make 70 percent of the sale price. Publisher Weekly reported that lesser-known author Mishka Shubaly released four Singles over a 16-month period. He sold more than 129,000 copies for a payday for him of nearly $180,000 — enough money to quit his day job.

Next week, I’ll focus on the writer’s side of this burgeoning area of e-book publishing.

Have you published e-books of this length or are you planning to? What has your experience been? I’d like to hear from you. Email me at the address below and let’s talk.

Have news about local authors, bookstores, book clubs or writing groups? Email Laurena Mayne Davis at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Davis is the director of marketing and product development for The Daily Sentinel.


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