Otsikko

Otsikko

7 August 2013

E-books boost short story business

E-books create opportunities for emergence of short prose and non-fiction that is not sold in collections but one by one. This phenomenon is also one of the tools that helps literature to fight on consumer´s time consumption. The main drivers of this phenomenon are changed consumption habits enabled by new technologies, as well as other changes introduced by digitalisation of book industry's value chain.

Emerging business


The book world is going through the same digital revolution that has already had a strong influence e.g. in music and video business. In both of them, consumer needs, technology enablers and newly formed value chains have led to strong growth in supply and demand of short form works. In digital music stores it became possible to download individual tracks, in parallel with collections. In videos affordability and easy access to creation tools, as well as readily available distribution (such as YouTube) have completely transformed earlier short film scene. A similar type of development is about to swipe across written word.

Short stories usually comprise of 1,000 to 8,000 words and novella of 7500 up to 30,000 words. Size limits are vague, and therefore, we use the term short story very liberally to cover the whole field of short prose. Also non-fiction texts are part of the phenomenon: Texts that are too short to form a whole book but too long for a magazine article. Special types of short form literature are also looming, such as the one visible in fan fiction.


Three major players, particularly active in the United States, are pushing short e-book formats: Amazon has Kindle Singles program, Quick Reads of Apple's iBookstore and Barnes & Noble Snap. Thin Reads site reports that in 2013, by the end of July, a total of 211 new short titles were published, the number of publications increasing quarter by quarter. The business is still modest, although Kindle Singles has sold 5 million copies since beginning of 2011 until April 2013. 28% of titles have sold more than 10,000 copies, and sales prices are typically between 0.99 USD and 2.99 USD. The catalogue available is already quite versatile, but according to Thin Reads, fiction best seller list is led by Debbie Macomber with her newest romance short story, and non-fiction list by a murder case study.

There are a lot of differing opinions on the case of short form E-books: Critics often refer to negligible sales figures or claim that no changes in readers' habits and needs are taking taking place. In the following, we examine key value chain changes, to better understand opportunities and challenges related to short form.

Value chain changes


Short stories and other short texts have been read for a very long time, either being part of a larger collection (a book consisting of multiple short stories) or published as an individual story in a magazine. Traditional masters include such names as Hemingway, Steinbeck, Kerouac, and Vargas Llosa, Stephen King is one of the more recent ones. In Finland, e.g. Veijo Meri, Maria Jotuni and Tove Jansson have created popular short stories.






Digitalisation of media and always accessible personal devices, such as smartphones and tablets, are changing reading context. First of all, reading is competing for consumer's use of time against other media and communications applications available through a personal device, as well as social media and other Internet content and applications. On the other hand, one can carry as much reading as ever needed in her pocket, and especially short form is ideally suited for fragmenting media use, where consumption takes place more rapidly and more frequently.

E-books can be read on dedicated reader devices or on computer, tablet or smartphone having a reading software. In particular, younger readers seem to prefer general-purpose devices: Pew Research Center found in a study in Autumn 2012 that in 16 to 29 year age group, 41% use smart phone, 55% PC, 23% dedicated reading devices and 19% tablet to read e-books.

When short stories are sold in physical form, cost of a one single item is not significantly lower than that of a short story collection. When selling a product in digital format, this kind of constraints do not exist - thus there is no pressure to sell short stories in collections in one package. Short stories can then be sold one by one, in much the same way, as when publishing in literary or other magazines. Due to very low marginal costs, setting price of a digital form short story is much more flexible.

Low manufacturing costs and ease of distribution, enabled by digitalisation and the Internet, have already attracted amateur and other hopeful writers: Short stories provided in electronic form are a great way for writers to convince consumers of their skills at an affordable price, and thus create greater demand for their writings and stimulate interest among publishers. More famous writers can also count on short stories to produce significant returns.

E-books have a special advantage, because various multimedia elements can be layered on top of text. For creation of such experimental media formats, there is also is also some special software available.

On the Internet anybody can sell anything, and this also applies to short stories. In practise, however, consumers' ability and willingness to find offered texts favour large vendors, such as the previously mentioned Amazon, Apple and Barnes & Noble. All of them have their own editorial teams, who closely watch over quality and level of originality of offered texts. For an author, of course, this is an additional barrier, but worth a try for potential big marketing support.

Due to low working capital needs in production, distribution and sales, it can be expected that number of short format sellers is going to increase and the market will begin to follow long tail concept. In this case, the challenge will be, how to improve your chances to be found in a shop that is selling short form e-books.

The Internet and social media offer excellent and affordable tools for short story marketing. An author is no longer at the mercy of publishers and booksellers in increasing her popularity, and even though these are willing to promote her book, an author is able to further increase efficiency of marketing by herself. Single short stories are also used to promote collections of short stories or novels, publishing often taking place before actual works will be launched.


Who benefits 


Short form text market is estimated to be 25 to 40 million USD this year. The same industry expert predicts rapid growth with billion USD market in next five years. Although you would not fully believe in these figures, short form will be an important marketing tool and demand driver, so competition in the area will be strong.

The top three retailers have built their businesses from different starting points, and each have their own distinctive strengths. Amazon revolutionised physical book e-commerce, has since expanded to large number of other product categories and taken a leading role in both normal and short e-books. Apple´s stronghold is in its devices, well-suited also for reading (e.g. iPhone and iPad with reading application) and in successful sales of digital content and applications. Barnes & Noble is in turn a traditional bookseller, which has gradually expanded its range and harnessed also the Internet to their sales efforts. In future, each of these will probably continue to invest in short texts in order to maintain and improve their positions. Google is one of the other major players worth following, with already other activities with books.

Startup publishers are challenging large and well-established ones with their greater willingness and ability to approach the market in a new way. The most notable ones are, among others, Thought Catalog, Atavist, Byliner, Think Piece and New Word City. It is to be expected that more newcomers will enter the market with new combinations of content focus, multimedia use, business models and marketing innovations.

As we have seen, for example in establishment of digital music ecosystem, key players are often very conservative, and this will also significantly affect development of short form text. Many self-confident writers might value novels over shorter forms, and though they would be writing short stories, collections would be preferred to single stories. On the other hand, there are writers like Stephen King, who have been quick to spot new opportunities. Those forerunners have an opportunity to expand demand for their products and gain a larger share of sales revenues by becoming a self-publisher and by effectively marketing their own texts. As regards to short form text publishing and sales, it is interesting to see, how quickly we shall see new operating models that will support supply of a much broader selection, according to long tail concept.

Situation in Finland


In Finland, e-book market is at a very early stage: In 2012, e-books accounted for only 0.36% of total general literature sales. In the US the corresponding figure was 22% and in the UK 13%.

None of the biggest local e-book suppliers is actively driving increase of short form sales. Adlibris, with presence in Nordic countries, as well as Finnish eLibris and Suomalainen Kirjakauppa are offering some collections of short stories, but no single digital texts are available in their shops. On the other hand, Ellibs provides at least investigative journalism texts of Long Play and Elisa Kirja has also some short stories available.

There are, however, numerous sites with varying focus available for short text writers. It is quite easy to get at least some visibility, but getting paid and other promotional and commercial benefits are limited.

Well-established writers have not yet found market of short story singles, nor have used singles to market larger literary entities.

The question is, who will act first, who will reap the benefits?

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