Going to great lengths

After two years as the hot new thing, the e-singles market is getting serious—and crowded
November 1, 2012

From the beginning, The Atavist was a small startup with a lot of big playmates. A pioneer in the e-singles space, the Brooklyn-based company became an instant media darling, and when Amazon launched Kindle Singles in January 2011—widely considered the moment when e-singles emerged as a salable product—The Atavist was behind two of its most-celebrated inaugural titles.

A little more than a year later, The Atavist added Google executive chairman Eric E. Schmidt and Netscape founder Marc Andreessen as investors. And in September, The Atavist announced that it would enter into a strategic partnership with Brightline, a new publishing house created by entertainment moguls Scott Rudin and Barry Diller (who pulled the plug on Newsweek’s print magazine in October).

All this activity from a company that publishes one extralong magazine article a month. (Disclosure: CJR contributing editor Alissa Quart is editor at large for The Atavist.)

Two years ago, when Amazon, The Atavist, and fellow e-singles startup Byliner were being heralded as saviors of narrative journalism, it was unclear exactly how that salvation would be accomplished. The business model (to say nothing of the category itself) was unproven. Curators such as Longreads.com and Longform.org—with the help of read-it-later apps like Instapaper—had already established that an appetite existed for longer articles on the Web, but no one was sure that people would pay for them. Was it really possible that single-copy sales of extralong works of journalism could be a way of supporting such expensive, labor-intensive work for the long haul?

On the eve of the e-single’s second birthday, we are finally getting some answers. With a bit of the hype burned away, and some impressive sales numbers racked up (Elizabeth Kaye’s “Lifeboat No. 8” was the first e-single to hit No. 1 on The New York Times’s ebook best-seller list, beating out full-length books), the e-single is beginning to settle into its place in the market—or, rather, in multiple markets. Both Apple and Barnes & Noble now have their own e-singles stores to feed their respective e-readers. Big publishers like Penguin, which has been doing some form of short digital content since summer 2008, are beginning to learn how to use e-singles to augment their overall sales. And, encouraged by the success of the pioneers, a second wave of players—including a soon-to-launch digital magazine called Matter, which will publish one “unmissable” longform story a week—are getting into the game.

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The Atavist and Byliner, meanwhile, are maturing as businesses. And both are moving in more or less the same direction: partnering with larger publishers, implementing subscription services, and launching Web apps that allow readers to bypass the middlemen, such as Apple or Amazon, and purchase and read singles on the device of their choosing. In other words, the saviors of longform are figuring out how to fit their stories into a larger business model—as magazines and newspapers before them found a way to package journalism with advertising.

“We’re combining aspects of the magazine and book model,” says The Atavist’s CEO and cofounder Evan Ratliff. “It’s a matter of finding how those pieces fit together.” That means The Atavist crew can cobble together revenue ideas from either industry, but at the same time they’re constrained by existing consumer expectations for both industries.

The Atavist got deep into the nuances of these expectations as it readied the launch of its subscription program this fall. Ratliff and his colleagues figured out how to measure readership and apportion subscription revenue to authors without much trouble, but then there was the matter of the back catalog. Atavist titles (like books) are sold individually, and offering subscribers free access to an archive of content they might otherwise pay for posed considerable risk. When I spoke to Ratliff in late September, he had yet to make a final decision on the back-catalog issue, the length of the subscription, or the price, even as he was hoping to launch the program just a few weeks later.

The partnership with Brightline gives The Atavist the opportunity to try full-length books, but in the short term, at least, Ratliff says his plans are to “be better at what we’ve already been doing.” That includes analyzing a large trove of anonymized data on how readers find, purchase, and read Atavist titles. “We’re not going to be rating the authors and saying they have to get a certain amount of traffic or something like that,” Ratliff says. “It’s just that now we know what business we’re in on the publishing side, and it’s time to figure out how we optimize it in some way.”

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.” 

Michael Canyon Meyer is a freelance journalist and former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter at @mcm_nm.