Creators and lovers of in-depth reportage and short fiction fear not. Yes, long-form investigative journalism and related serious writing may be disappearing from the professional press. But there is digital salvation. E-book singles (EBS)—non-fiction and fiction pieces between 5,000 and 30,000 words—are on the cusp of becoming a significant business and may well propel a renaissance in deep-dive journalism, the short story, and novella.
But it won’t happen overnight.
“Right now the e-book singles market is the Wild Wild West,” says Howard Polskin,  publisher of Thin Reads, a just-launched site that monitors the EBS marketplace. “It’s like the early days of the home-video market where everybody is doing different things to find out what sticks.”
Currently, three major retailers are pushing the form. By far the biggest in the biz, Amazon brands its effort “Kindle Singles.” Apple’s iBookstore dubs them “Quick Reads,” and Barnes & Noble calls them “Snap.”
Eighty-one EBS titles were released during the first quarter of his year, according to Thin Reads. More than 80 percent of them originals, the rest drawn from archives. Amazon generally doesn’t release sales numbers, but The New York Times reported last month that the company has sold 5 million Kindle Singles downloads since the division’s debut in January 2011. One of its bestsellers is an 8,000 word essay on guns by Stephen King.
According to the Times, 28 percent of Kindle Singles titles, which generally sell for between $.99 and $2.99, see 10,000 downloads or more; 8 percent have sold north of 50,000; and a handful of titles, including British suspense writer Ben Childs’ short story “Second Son,” sold more than 250,000 downloads. That title was also released by Apple and Barnes & Noble.
Screen Shot 2013-05-28 at 12.51.54 PMAssuming the usual 70/30 author/publisher revenue split, Mr. Childs has raked in a tidy $250,000 from Amazon alone: a great payday for a single short story. But it’s not only marquee writers who are raking in the bucks. Historian Niall Ferguson’s “Always Right,” a look at Margret Thatcher’s controversial reign, has been a bestseller for weeks, as has humorist Tiffany Peon’s “Drinking My Way Through 14 Dating Websites.”
“Drinking My Way” was published by Thought Catalog, which focuses on the millennials market and represents one of a handful of startup publishers finding its way onto the bestseller list. Other independents gaining traction include Atavist, Byliner, and Think Piece (focusing on advocacy journalism), and New Word City.
Some big gun VCs in the media and technology space are gambling there’s a real business here. Atavist, which offers software to create multimedia EBS offerings, boasts a roster of blue-chip investors, including Barry Diller’s IAC, Founders Fund, and Andreessen Horowitz.
One of the splashiest EBS entries to date is The New York Times‘s Pulitzer-Prize winning “Snow Fall,” a multimedia chronicle of an avalanche at Tunnel Creek, in Washington state, and the skiers and snowboarders who experienced it. The Times declines to releases figures to date, but says “Snow Fall” received 2.9 million visits and 3.5 million page views within the first six days it was published.
Imagine integrating native advertising into that kind of multimedia storytelling. GigaOm’s Om Malik recently wrote that the Times‘s achievement with “Snow Fall” is a template for how to revitalize its brand against the onslaught from such digital news competitors as The Huffington Post and BuzzFeed, calling it “the first truly post-tablet storytelling experience.”
News organizations such as Politico, with EBS releases on the 2012 White House Race, and The Washington Post, with a look back on Watergate, have sold well too. Penguin, The Atlantic, and National Geographic are among a growing list of legacy brands that also see opportunity.
Sensational crimes stories drive sales too. Douglas Preston’s “Trial by Fury … The Amanda Knox Case” has spent two weeks as the No.1 non-fiction bestseller. And Associated Press reporters Josh Hoffner and Brian Skoloff hope their just-released “Killer  Girlfriend: The Jody Arias Trial,” makes it to the charts and supplements limited journo paychecks.
Tying an EBS to an event of cultural significance can work too. Michael Lydon had a bestseller with his epic article about being on tour with the Rolling Stones. Written originally 44 years ago for the long-defunct Ramparts magazine, he timed its EBS re-release to the Stone’s 50th anniversary tour. “Lincoln’s Little Girl,” by Cecelia Holland, released at the same time as Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, spent four months on the bestseller list. With so many EBS titles with historical resonance selling strong, the education market seems a natural audience for the form.
In its infancy, the e-book singles arena, like so many emerging digital businesses, is one where legacy players and creative newbies are grasping for the secret sauce to exploit the way we consume information. According to my back-of-the-envelope estimation, e-book singles are now grossing somewhere between $25 million and $40 million a year. The amount is relatively minuscule, but I believe the market is primed for rapid exponential growth.
What’s necessary for e-book singles to take off is keen editorial judgment, aggressive marketing, and investment. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a billion-dollar business in five years. The technology, and the audience, is ready.
You can follow J. Max Robins on Twitter @jmaxrobins.