Publishers Get Into the E-Singles Scene

Nov 21, 2011

Article ImageIn publishing, small is the new big. An increasing number of publishers are releasing e-singles -- short works published digitally on a variety of platforms -- to generate ancillary revenue, build brand equity, and reach new audiences. Among those joining the e-singles market are Hearst, Rodale, Princeton University Press, and as recently as last week, Penguin.

E-Singles have potentially disruptive potential in digital publishing. Of course disruption has both positive and negative repercussions. For example, there has already been talk that e-singles could provide a way for writers to disintermediate publishers by taking their e-singles directly to market via tools like Amazon Singles. However it is clear that when a publisher such as Hearst -- known for its many consumer magazine titles that include ELLE, Esquire, and O -- joins the e-singles market, that mini ebooks are ripe for experimentation.

Talking E-Single Strategy

David Kang, Hearst Magazines' creative director of content extensions says that his company's experimentation with e-singles is simply an extension of company president David Carey's larger vision. Kang says, "Our overall strategy is about paid content. This will revolve around creating great content and thinking of it as something that we can release in a variety of 'windows.'" He describes these windows as similar to the way in which movie studios develop an "ultimate P&L" that accounts for every potential outlet in which a given piece of content might be monetized such as theaters, international release, DVD, television etc.

One of the first projects Hearst has undertaken in the e-singles market comes from Cosmopolitan. John Searles, books editor for the Cosmopolitan Brand had been working on the Cosmo's Sexiest Stories Ever and decided that a three chapter excerpt of the book was something that could be attractively re-packaged as a 99 cent e-single. The company is also publishing e-singles under the Good Housekeeping brand at a $4.99 price point.

Kang believes that testing new models is key to finding the right mix of content and pricing that will generate revenue. He says, "We are still in the early days, but it is a question of leadership and taking smart risks. Given that we already have successful products, we need to ask: Is there more that we can do?"

The Test Lab: What Works for Your Readers?

Stephen Perrine, Rodale Books' acting publisher also believes that experimentation is an essential part of digital publishing success today. In October, the company debuted its Runner's World Essential Guides, priced at $2.99. As Perrine puts it, "We are in a wild west situation right now. In this instance, the best strategy is to experiment as aggressively as possible."

As such, Rodale is taking a variety of approaches in e-singles content creation, from expanding a magazine article into a more extensive e-single, to breaking out thematic recipes from its Prevention brand and creating focused mini-cookbooks (which it debuted in August), such as Healthy Chicken Meals. Perrine says that the e-singles format not only provides an opportunity to offer readers more in the case of a popular magazine-length article, but also to offer a sample-sized product that will entice them to buy longer works, as with the cookbooks. He believes the model also provides Rodale a way to test out an idea to see if it would be popular as a full length book. "We could do a 15,000 word e-single and test it out in the marketplace," says Perrine. "You often hear the phrase 'that could be a book' and a lot of times, no it couldn't. But now there's a way to really test it out."

Both Rodale and Hearst are working hard to create increased cooperation and synergy across their magazine and book production teams in order to fully leverage the e-singles model. At Hearst, given its "content windowing" approach, the company is looking at future products with an eye to intellectual property that will have a variety of content extensions. Kang says "imagine a wheel that has all of the possible products that can come from IP, rather than having a book, magazine at the center, you have a brand or intellectual property concept at the center. Then you think about how all of the other products come from that."

At Rodale, Perrine credits the company's nimble publishing process with its flexibility in testing a variety of e-singles strategies. He says, "Not a lot of publishers are set up to move as quickly and aggressively as Rodale is. We have a unique situation where we are able to generate a book from one of our magazine products, for example, and can do it with the help of our experienced book publishers already here in the company. We can turn an article into a book in two weeks."

For Princeton University Press, which has a rigorous peer review process as part of its publishing system, creating original e-singles content poses a more daunting challenge. However, with its mission of the dissemination of scholarship both within academia and to society at large, Rob Tempio, executive editor Princeton University Press, believes that e-singles offer a good way to reach another set of readers. When the idea was raised to test out e-singles as a distribution channel, Tempio says that they turned to PUP's "fantastic backlist," which includes the likes of William Blake, Albert Einstein, and Henry David Thoreau.

In fact, Thoreau is one of the first in the new Princeton Shorts series that debuted November 17th. On Reading: From Walden will be a 15 page e-single priced at 99 cents. Another will be The Second Great Contraction: From This Time Is Different by Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff. This four chapter (82 pp.) excerpt of a work that covers "eight centuries of financial folly" focuses on the current financial crisis. According to Tempio, "there had been talk of issuing these chapters as a paperback, but that it was a natural for the Princeton Shorts Program." He says, "often we sell chapters of our books for coursework and we said why not go on that model and sell direct."

The Price is Right: What's Your E-Single Worth?

Princeton Shorts are priced from 99 cents to $4.99. Regarding pricing, Tempio says, "If I can borrow an academic term 'path dependence,' someone had already set the price and we did feel somewhat locked in to that." As Kang from Hearst points out, "People are still hesitant to pay for digital content in general, but with the app world and tablets a new era may be dawning." While Hearst did not specifically consider the 99 cent price point as the iTunes model, he says, "our main thinking around it was a price that's not zero. Candidly, there's a big difference between free products and the price of a dollar. Low enough it doesn't put a big dent in the budget, but brings them into a paid model."

For Rodale's e-singles, Perrine says, "When we looked at which Kindle Singles were selling, it is clearly hard to get into the top 200 without being at $2.99 or less." For specific products he says that price depends on length, marketability, and the purpose of the single. For example, if the purpose is primarily to market a longer book, Rodale will offer it free for a month then price it at 99 cents.

Brian Perrin, Rodale Books digital products manager reports that "while it is still early days, the four cooking titles we did for Prevention did drive sales." Though he does admit that they haven't contributed a lot to the bottom line, he says they have "contributed significantly to promotion." And Perrine believes that "if we have a thousand people get great satisfaction from a little useful product that has the Prevention brand on it, that is a thousand for whom the Prevention brand is going to pop."

Perrin also points out that place many publisher's might not consider the added promotional value of a free or low cost e-single is that purchases of these help promote effectively across brand: "Particularly on Amazon and sites that really promote across brand, any customer who has purchased one of these titles will then see many more of interest. These provide a lot of linkages to the rest of our list."

While each of these publishers is hitting the e-singles scene with its own distinct approach, all believe that quality content from valued brands will continue to resonate with content consumers. Another thing they agree on, in the words of Tempio, is that given the potential for the marketing and sales benefits e-singles offer, "experimentation makes sense."