Not long ago it was common knowledge that innovations in digital media were killing serious reading. Attention spans were contracting, or so the narrative went, and content providers were sacrificing text for eye candy. But over the last few years that mind-set has started to shift—a change stimulated, ironically, by the success of portable reading devices. The emergence of publishing platforms designed to rescue digital reading from the constraints and distractions of the web browser is not only fostering the kind of immersive experience required for deep reading, but it’s also making viable a new form of writing: works such as long essays, single stories, and short novellas capable of being read in a single sitting that, in the print world, would be lost in the no-man’s-land between magazine article and book.
Not surprisingly, the most prominent player in the field is Amazon, which in January 2011 launched the Kindle Singles program, billed as an outlet for “ideas expressed at their natural length.” About two hundred previously unpublished titles, ranging from five thousand to thirty thousand words in length, are currently listed at prices between $0.99 and $4.99. And the format has taken off: By March of this year Singles had already racked up more than two million downloads, according to Laura Hazard Owen of the technology website GigaOM.
Overseen by former Village Voice editor in chief David Blum, the Kindle Singles program releases an average of three original titles each week, drawing on a submission pool that is fed both by unsolicited manuscripts and material pitched by authors, agents, and publishers. Amazon also commissions works from established writers, thus the current Singles best-seller list includes titles by genre giants (Nelson DeMille and Jodi Picoult) alongside works by literary authors (poet and translator Jane Hirshfield’s The Heart of Haiku), relative unknowns (Brian Haigh’s spoof on the self-help genre, Awaken Your Perfect Self), and even comeback stories (Frank Gilroy, who won a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his play The Subject Was Roses in 1965, has two new titles—a novella and a memoir—charting). Accepted works are released under the terms of the Kindle Direct Publishing program, which offer rights holders a 70 percent royalty.
Similar forums intended to showcase single-sitting works have already been set up by Amazon’s chief competitors. The Quick Reads section of Apple’s iTunes store and the Snaps market for the Barnes & Noble NOOK (which, with funding from Microsoft, was spun off this past spring into a subsidiary company) match Amazon’s price points for titles the three retailers offer in common. But unlike Amazon, which restricts Kindle Singles to previously unpublished material and places certain limits on genre (no children’s books, travel guides, or how-to manuals are considered), neither Apple nor NOOK is directly soliciting original content.
Titles for all three major platforms—iPad, Kindle, and NOOK—are being supplied by a handful of new publishing ventures dedicated to the single-sitting format. San Francisco–based Byliner (byliner.com), which went live a year ago, offers both Byliner Originals (primarily stories by established writers, although the site does accept queries via e-mail) as well as a curated archive of new and classic nonfiction works. The company has grabbed more spots on the Kindle Singles best-seller list than any of its peers, and boasts Margaret Atwood, Jon Krakauer, and Amy Tan among its authors. Byliner pays its authors an initial flat fee, and then shares any profits fifty-fifty.
Where Byliner prefers to stick with unadorned text, the Atavist (atavist.net ), a New York City–based boutique publisher, produces original nonfiction works that include multimedia enhancements, social connectivity, and even the potential to change over time in response to new data or reader feedback. Dubbed “inline content,” the extra features are accessible through the company’s Apple app, where essays and articles retail for $2.99. Kindle and NOOK editions, which contain only text and images, sell for a dollar less. The Atavist compensates its contributors according to a revenue-sharing model similar to Byliner’s, but so far it remains closed to unsolicited submissions.
Providers of original single-sitting content join a multitude of media innovators—such as Longform (longform.org , named for the type of in-depth essay and reportage that often defies the cramped confines of digital venues), Longreads (longreads.com ), and ReadItLater’s new incarnation, Pocket (getpocket.com )—that are already working to curate and stylishly pre-sent digital literature in the service of engaged reading. And the phenomenon seems to be gaining momentum, along with some seriously broad backing. When the founders of MATTER (readmatter.com )—a nascent journalism platform that intends to publish a single 99¢ piece each week—appealed to the crowdfunding site Kickstarter for support, they hit their $50,000 goal in only three days. Overall, the campaign raised over $140,000 from more than twenty-five hundred individual donors. Mass responses like this should go some way toward palliating the worry that consumers have been conditioned to expect digital content for nothing. The success of new publishing formats indicates not just a demand for quality writing on accessible e-platforms, but a willingness on the part of readers to pay for it.
Adrian Versteegh is a journalist and a MacCracken Fellow at New York University. His nonacademic writing has appeared recently in Dissent and Brooklyn Rail.