While The Atavist is indeed a new kind of publisher, it currently earns less than half of its revenue from publishing. The majority comes from licensing its software platform to clients such as TED Books, The Wall Street Journal, and The Paris Review. It’s this platform that is The Atavist’s strength in the marketplace; it’s also a non-journalistic revenue stream that helps support the company’s core journalistic mission. In that way, The Atavist more closely resembles a Web news startup than it does a traditional publisher.

That business model also insulates The Atavist from what is arguably the most challenging aspect of the e-singles space: the low price point. E-singles typically sell for between $1.99 and $3.99, and you don’t have to be an accountant to realize it would take a lot of sales at that price to sustain even a modest business. “We don’t want the entire future of our business to rest on selling a million copies of something that costs $2,” Ratliff says.

Byliner, meanwhile, is meeting that challenge head-on. An announcement about a big publishing partnership is due any day, and the company claims that it will sell “a million” copies of its Byliner Originals this year alone. While it originally published only nonfiction, Byliner has since expanded into both fiction and serials. From a journalistic perspective, one could almost think of these as Byliner’s version of ancillary revenue streams, but Byliner ceo John Tayman doesn’t see it that way. “Do you need a secondary revenue stream to make a business out of selling stories to readers?” Tayman asks. “No, you do not.”

Both Tayman and Ratliff insist that their decisions to sell their titles directly through Web apps is less about circumventing the 30 percent cut that Apple or Amazon takes of a sale, and more about getting their stories in front of readers as seamlessly as possible—whether those readers want those stories on their desktop, iPad, Kindle, or whatever. Selling directly to consumers is about decreasing the “friction,” as Tayman puts it—the obstacles between a reader and the book he or she wants to read.

Tayman sees Byliner’s forthcoming subscription program as “a logical extension of what we’re currently doing,” thanks to its ability to attract repeat business. “A tremendously high percentage of readers who purchase one Byliner Original go on to purchase multiple titles from us,” Tayman says. “Subscriptions will simply make reading for such people that much more convenient.”

For a large legacy publishing house like Penguin, e-singles are indeed a revenue consideration in their own right—it has published more than 100 “Penguin Specials” thus far, and sold more than half a million copies.

Molly Barton, Penguin’s global digital director, also sees an opportunity for short content to boost the sales of full-length books. “We’ve seen over and over with digital publishing generally that having multiple titles out in the market is helpful,” she says. It turns out that e-singles can be a kind of gateway drug to full-length titles, as well as a way to keep the attention of an author’s fan base between longer works. Barton predicts that for Penguin, at least, “short content will become more tightly coupled with the overall publishing program for an author,” playing an increasing role in how their work is marketed.

E-singles came into being in part because of the dwindling availability of longform work in magazines, newspapers, and online; the success of The Atavist, Byliner, and their ilk in the past two years has shown that there is an enthusiastic audience for the form. And now even Web-news upstart Buzzfeed is jumping in, announcing in October that it is hiring a longform editor.

So even as the evolutionary arc of the e-single is becoming a bit clearer, those on the inside say the market is still in a see-what-sticks phase. As Mark Bryant, Byliner’s cofounder and editor in chief, put it, “We’re all sort of figuring it out as we go along. It makes it challenging, but also quite fun.” 

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Michael Meyer is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter at @mcm_nm.